Dog shelters are a good-news, bad-news kind of situation. On this page I will present both, followed by a section on how to choose shelter dogs and then links to books on shelter dogs. Some of the “how to choose” information also applies to the variety of informal ways that you might acquire a dog.
The Good News about Dog Shelters
Many of the dogs there would make wonderful companions.
The fact that these shelters exist at all is good news! Countless hours of loving labor, from volunteers or low-paid staff, keep these places going.
Some shelters are able to do a good bit of work with the dogs up for adoption, evaluating them and even training. If you find a shelter like that, the chances for a successful adoption are much better.
In our throw-away society, dog shelters meet a tremendous need.
The Bad News about Dog Shelters
Often understaffed and low on funds, shelters may be challenged to provide a clean, healthy situation for the animals… this means you could end up with a dog with unnoticed health problems. Dogs are sometimes moved from shelter to shelter, as the people who run shelters try to match supply and demand. I have even heard of dogs from Asia ending up in US shelters, which means the dogs could have more serious health problems.
The amount of attention or exercise that a dog receives may be minimal… combine that with the unnatural situation of being confined in pens, and there’s a building full of stressed dogs.
Owners don’t necessarily tell the truth when they turn a dog into a dog shelter. They may say that they are moving when the problem is a dog that isn’t housebroken, barks incessantly, bites people, or does something else that the owners didn’t know how to handle and don’t want to admit.
Some of the dogs would be especially good for people who have some dog training skills and a willingness to try to work things out if the dog they take home turns out to pee on the sofa, bark all night, or both. (See other parts of this website for help with dog training.)
So even though the shelter workers do their best, it’s inevitable that some dogs who are adopted from dog shelters have severe behavior problems that show themselves only when they leave the shelter. Aggressiveness toward humans is the most risky problem to try to overcome. It can’t always be.
How to Choose a Shelter Dog
First… to make a good choice, you need to be able to overcome any upset emotions at seeing the dogs there and use your head along with your heart. It’s important to know yourself before deciding to go to a shelter.
Choose a time to go to the shelter when you are feeling clear minded and not especially rushed. Be in the frame of mind that it’s okay with you if you leave the shelter without a dog. This isn’t a shopping trip. If there is more than one adult in the household, it’s good to go together. If you are getting a dog just for yourself, you might want to take a level-headed friend with you.
Walk slowly around the shelter, observing the way the dogs act toward you and any other people who happen to be there. Rule out any dogs who are aggressive, very timid, or who ignore you entirely.
That leaves the dogs that greet you in a friendly but not desperate manner. They deserve closer attention. You can probably take them, one at a time, to an exercise area, where you can interact with them and see what happens. It’s also useful to spend some time not paying them much attention, to see if they are desperate for your attention or not. Also, see if the dog knows “sit” or “down” or other obedience commands — certainly not essential, but a clue about its background.
Take your time, take some deep breaths, and see what your intuition says (if anything). If you think you have found one that you want, and you are satisfied with the answers to the questions listed below, you might want to go for a walk around the block or out for a meal, and think things over. Unless the dog is scheduled for euthanasia immediately, you might want to sleep on it. The more time you take with the decision, the better the chance of getting a good dog for you. If someone else happens to adopt while you are thinking it over, not to worry — there are plenty of good shelter dogs out there.
Once home with a shelter dog, plan on spending a lot of time at first being available to the dog, keeping an eye on what it does in its new environment. See my page on crate training and its alternatives. Don’t assume the dog is housebroken. If it isn’t or you aren’t sure, see my page on potty training. Those are usually the two most popular pages on this site!
There will be weeks and months of getting to know each other. Many dogs are extremely anxious at first — wouldn’t you be, if you had gone through what they just did? They may show a lot of separation anxiety, for example. Some of these signs of stress are likely to diminish as the dog begins to understand that it now has a new home. A regular schedule is reassuring.
And may you and your new friend work things out together! Even if there are rough spots in the road, and your patience is challenged many times, adopting a shelter dog can be immensely satisfying.
Checklist of Questions to Ask at a Shelter
Once you have located one or more possible shelter dogs, here are some questions to ask. You can print this page out (Control-P) and take it with you, or just select the list and print only it.
- What is known about this dog?
- Was it picked up by Animal Control, turned in by its owner, or what? Was it a stray?
- If it was turned in by the owner, what reason was given? (And take the reason with a grain of salt.)
- Did it show any signs of having been abused when it arrived?
- How long has it been here?
- Has it been adopted and returned, and if so, why?
- Does the dog have any behavior problems that have been noticed at the shelter or reported by the owner?
- Has the dog been tested to see how it is with children, other dogs, or cats? If so, what were the results?
- What kind of health examination has it had, and are any health problems known?
- Is the dog spayed or neutered?
- Is there anything else you can tell me about this dog?
Bear in mind that the shelter staff members hope you will take a dog home. Even if they are busy, they will want to help you decide.
Books on Shelter Dogs
Here is a selection.
Shelter Dogs: Amazing Stories of Adopted StraysShelter DogsFinding Home: Shelter Dogs and Their StoriesShelter Dogs in a Photo BoothThe Dogs Who Found Me: What I’ve Learned From Pets Who Were Left Behind