Tips on Choosing a Dog from a Shelter

March 27, 2014

By Langley Cornwell

Yesterday Linda Cole offered advice on how to choose a reputable breeder if you decide to adopt a purebred dog. Today I want to talk about rescue dogs and how to find the right shelter dog if you decide to go that route.

All but one of my dogs was rescued in some form or fashion; most came from shelters. I can remember going there as a kid. We’d walk up and down the aisles, peer into all those hopeful eyes and try to decide which pup would be our next family pet. I think I have a knack for choosing a dog from the shelter. All the dogs that have come home with me have been healthy, loving, life-long companions. Even so, it’s wise to follow basic guidelines for choosing a dog from a shelter.

Before You Go

Remember that sharing your life with a dog is a huge responsibility. Once you’ve determined you’re ready to take on this commitment, you should narrow down your choices. Are you looking for a puppy, an adolescent dog or a senior? Do you want a small dog, a medium sized dog or a big dog (when fully grown)? Are you prepared to walk the dog and feed him a high quality dog food like CANIDAE?

Do you have a specific breed type in mind? Shelters are filled with both mixed breed and pure breed dogs. If your heart is set on a specific type of dog and you can’t find one at a local shelter, you can always contact breed-specific rescue organizations for help. Critically and realistically evaluate your lifestyle to figure out what type of dog will be the best fit.

The Shelter Itself

Be aware of the shelter’s policies and procedures. How much is the adoption fee? Does the shelter offer a trial period? Is there an adoption return policy? Do they spay/neuter the dogs on-site or give you a voucher so a local vet can perform the procedure? Have the dogs received all of their vaccinations?

Ask these questions before you look at the dogs. By doing so, you’re giving yourself time to think clearly by taking emotions out of the equation.

When you enter the area where the dogs are kept, pay attention to your surroundings. The kennels should be clean and the dogs should look reasonably healthy. Talk to the shelter staff; they should be helpful and interactive.

The Dog

I never enter a shelter with the idea that I MUST come home with a dog. If I don’t feel a connection, I’m perfectly willing to show love to the dogs that are there and then go home empty handed. By allowing for that possibility, I’m better able to trust my intuition.

On my initial walk-through, I take my time and linger in front of the dogs that capture my attention. I observe how those dogs interact with the other dogs in their run and how they react to the people that walk by. I notice if their eyes are clear, their ears are alert and their tails are wagging. Understanding that a shelter environment is stressful for animals, I still try and evaluate the dog’s general mental and physical condition.

Staff members are an invaluable resource; I always talk to multiple staff members about the animal(s) I’m considering. They usually know if the dog is good with other people, with other dogs, and with cats. They can confirm whether the dog is affectionate or shy, etc. Good staff members will ask about you, too. They want to make sure you can provide a good home environment for the animal. It’s their job to facilitate a good match-up.

Once you’ve narrowed down your favorites, go into a “get acquainted” room with each dog and see how it feels to interact with them. If you have a dog at home, schedule a time that you can bring your dog to meet the shelter dog. Most shelters will have fenced in areas that dogs can meet and sniff. If you have a cat at home, ask to see how the shelter dog interacts with cats.

When I “met” our dog Al at a shelter, I knew he would be a super pet and I wanted him to live with us. The next day, I took Frosty to meet him and they did well together. The day after, I asked the shelter to let me see how he interacted with a resident cat. They complied and Al was fine with the cat so on day three, he came home with us.

Don’t rush the process. It might take more time than you anticipated, but that’s okay. This is a big decision for you and for the dog, but with time, patience and love, you’ll make a new friend and save a life.

Top photo by Spot Us
Middle photo by Patrick Kwan
Bottom photo by Paul Thrasher

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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  1. That’s a wonderful method, Traveling Cats. It would be great if there were more people like you.

  2. Whenever I adopt an animal from a shelter, I look for the ones that I believe no one else would want to adopt, like old animals or the ones that don’t look very healthy. It’s more work for me, but it’s so worth it.