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How to Adopt a Dog From an Animal Shelter or Rescue Organization

Taking the plunge into dog adoption is a big decision – one that’s likely to both reward and challenge you for years to come. However, before you head to the local shelter to pick up your new pup, there are a few things you should know about the adoption process. Procedures vary based on the shelter or rescue group you choose, so investigating your local chapter’s rules and guidelines is important, but regardless of where you end up adopting your dog there are certain fundamentals to the process that you should familiarize yourself with.

Shelter Animals

According to The Humane Society of the United States, between six- and eight million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year, and approximately 2.7 million of them end up euthanized. When you consider the fact that only 20% of companion animals owned by Americans come from shelters, it becomes evident that adopting a dog from a shelter is a kind and loving – and important – thing to do.

While some people choose not to adopt from a shelter because they want a puppy or a specific dog breed, they fail to realize that 25% of dogs in shelters are full-bred, and many of them are in fact puppies. Plus, many rescue organizations are dedicated to adopting out specific breeds of dogs, so there’s no reason why shelters and rescues can’t be the first option when looking to add an animal to your family.

Spend Time With Shelter Dogs

Adopting a shelter or rescue animal is a little different from adopting a puppy from a breeder or private owner. Many, if not most, of the dogs in rescues and shelters were strays prior to landing there.

While shelter workers can make educated guesses about prior training and care, very little is known about an animal’s background unless an owner has relinquished it to the shelter. In this case, you can often learn why the animal was given up, what its medical history and training are, and if it’s comfortable with other animals or children.

This doesn’t mean shelter dogs are bad or high-risk – it just means you need to be especially conscious of the information you don’t have, and take advantage of opportunities to get to know the animal better. Before adopting any dog from a shelter, you should spend time doing the following:

  • Meeting the dog in a private room or space
  • Walking or playing with the dog outside
  • Introducing your children or other pets to the dog at the shelter to see how the interaction goes

Consider Foster Animals

If the lack of background information you have about a dog worries you, look into rescues and shelters that foster animals out to homes. A foster family takes on the responsibility of caring for a dog in a home environment, while also noting habits and training.

Depending on how long a dog is fostered prior to adoption, many foster families even take on the responsibility of further training and socializing it. Adopting a pet from a rescue organization of this type ends up providing you more information about the dog, much like you would receive when adopting from a private owner.

Ages and Breeds

While 25% of adoptable shelter dogs are full-bred animals, that means 75% are mixed. And though many people are set on a specific dog breed, mixed breeds are every bit as loving, trainable, and companionable as full breeds, and they tend to have fewer health problems than their full-bred counterparts. Plus, they’re in much greater need of loving homes.

Similarly, there are fewer puppies in shelters than there are full-grown dogs. This is in part because puppies are snapped up so quickly when they land in a shelter. However, it’s the grown dogs, mixed breeds, and “undesirable” breeds (such as pit bulls and rottweilers) that most benefit from adoption. These categories are more likely to be euthanized than younger, full-bred animals. In fact, only 7% of pit bulls in shelters escape euthanasia.

That’s not to say everyone needs to run out and immediately adopt a full-grown pit mix, but if you’re choosing to adopt as a way to give a needy dog a forever home, then keep an open mind about the breed and age of the animal you adopt. Any dog of any breed and any age can be a wonderful family pet when given the opportunity, training, and proper care.

The Myth of Undesirable Breeds

I’m proud to say that I’m the owner of a pit bull mix that I adopted from a shelter. She was a stray before we adopted her, so we had very little knowledge of her background or history, but never in my life have I owned such a loving, cuddly dog. She’s now 60 pounds but thinks she’s a 10-pound lap dog.

The truth is, many breeds get a bad rap. “Bully” breeds, such as American pit bull terriers, American bulldogs, and American Staffordshire terriers, are often considered aggressive and dangerous. Other large, strong dog breeds, such as chow chows, huskies, German shepherds, rottweilers, Alaskan malamutes, and doberman pinschers are also subject to fear and misunderstanding.

While it’s true that each of these breeds can be linked to human fatalities, it’s important to recognize the role that training and situational circumstances play into the deaths. For instance, dobermans and German shepherds are bred to be guard dogs. They’re fiercely protective and loyal to their owners, and if their owners are physically threatened, they are likely to leap into action. This is one of the reasons German shepherds are used by police forces as K-9 cops.

The case of pit bulls is particularly sad. Historically, pit bulls were the preeminent family dog. Great with kids, friendly, and loving, they were bred to be watch dogs, but not guard dogs. Unfortunately, their size and strength made them popular with dog fighters. Illegal activity, irresponsible breeding, and irresponsible ownership have cultivated a society where this naturally sweet breed of animal has become misunderstood and maligned. There’s no denying that an out-of-control pit bull can cause serious injury or death during an attack, but the vast majority of pit bulls, when trained and owned by responsible owners, never hurt a fly, and can make excellent family pets.

If you are open to adopting an “undesirable breed,” commit to being a responsible owner. Understand that other people are likely to fear your animal, so go above and beyond to train your pet to be a good canine citizen. Keep it on a leash when out and about, make it sit when meeting new folks, and always respect other people’s boundaries. The more you can do to quell other people’s fears about your pet, the more you can do to support the breed.

Undesirable Breed Myths

Shelter Adoptions

Most shelters want the process of adopting a dog to be relatively simple and straightforward. That said, they do want to make sure that animals don’t end up back in the shelter shortly after they’re adopted out. As such, they require potential families to fill out paperwork detailing personal information, pet ownership history, living situation, and more. Government-run shelters tend to adopt out their dogs faster than rescue organizations, simply because more animals land in their shelters and they want to expedite the process.

General Process

Shelters typically have a first-come, first-served policy for adoptions. This means that when you find the animal you want to adopt, you need to be ready to act – but this doesn’t mean you should jump into a dog adoption unprepared. Do your research in advance by investigating shelters and adoption fees, and getting a feel for the animals available. Most shelters post their adoption application online, so review these to familiarize yourself with the information you’re going to need to provide.

After deciding where you want to adopt, gather your wallet, ID, contact information for your veterinarian, and contact information for your landlord – as well as a few personal references – before heading out to the shelter. If you have a spouse, kids, or other pets, it’s a good idea to take them with you or have them on-call in case you find the dog you want to adopt.

Most shelters suggest that everyone in the family, including other pets, meet the new dog at the shelter prior to it being handed over. This ensures that everyone gets along and feels good about the new addition.

Steps to Take at the Shelter

When you arrive at the shelter, you want to do the following:

  1. Tour the Facility and Meet the Animals. Most animals have information sheets pinned to their cages. Read the information available, noting age, training, breed, medical conditions, and restrictions. For instance, sometimes shelters know that a particular animal isn’t good with other dogs or young children, and they note this information on the sheet.
  2. Narrow It Down to One or Two Dogs. After touring the facility, one or two dogs will probably stick out to you. Tell the shelter workers you’d like to get to know these animals better.
  3. Take Time to Interact With the Dogs Privately. Shelter workers encourage this type of interaction between potential owners and dogs. Usually there’s a room where you can pet and play with the dog away from the rest of the shelter, giving you a somewhat normal environment to get to know one another.
  4. Introduce Your Family. If you decide that one of the dogs is clearly “the one,” go ahead and call in your family and other pets, but be prepared to walk away from the animal if it clearly doesn’t get along with someone in your household.

The Shelter Application Process

If everything goes well, it’s time to fill out the paperwork and pay for your adoption. While this step varies a bit from shelter to shelter, you can expect to fill out the following in most cases:

  • Name, address, and contact information
  • Ages and relations of everyone in your household
  • Where you live, and whether you rent or own
  • Proof that animals are allowed in your home (typically provided by landlords)
  • Whether anyone in the household has a known pet allergy
  • How many, and what types, of pets you already own, as well as their ages and medical histories
  • Previous pet experience
  • Amount you can afford to pay in vet bills
  • Plans for pet lifestyle and interaction, such as how much time the pet is going to spend outside, how much time you can dedicate to playing with it, and how many hours each day you’re going to be away from home
  • Your views on returning a pet to a shelter, and whether you’ve returned a pet previously

In some cases, applications are reviewed and approved onsite, and you’re allowed to immediately take the dog home with you. However, in other cases, the shelter must take a day or a weekend to finalize the adoption, after which you are notified that the animal is ready to be taken home.

Adoption Shelter Steps

Rescue Adoptions

While the process of adopting a dog from a rescue organization is very similar to that of a shelter, it may be more involved. Many rescue organizations have taken dogs out of shelters, and are paying for their care as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. These are almost always no-kill situations, which means the care of the animals can end up being quite expensive, so the rescue organizations want to make sure they’re placing animals in homes that will last a lifetime.

The Rescue Organization Adoption Process

Choose which rescue organization you’re most interested in adopting from, then start the process:

  1. Contact the Organization. If you want to adopt from a rescue organization, you generally have to make contact by phone or email. Very few rescue organizations have facilities where you can tour and meet all the animals, as they attempt to place them with foster families as often as possible.
  2. Fill Out the Application. Many rescue organizations require potential adopters to fill out an application before ever meeting or committing to a particular dog. They do this to help weed out animals that might not fit in with your family environment. The application itself is very similar to the kind you would fill out at a shelter, but it may ask more open-ended questions that require deeper explanation, such as your opinions on certain animal behaviors, or how your pet ownership might be affected by life events, such as having a baby or moving. Because rescue organizations typically focus on a specific breed, and they frequently foster animals for a period of time before adoption, they usually have a good feel for the behavior and tendencies of animals in their care. This means they’re better at matching specific pets to adoptive families.
  3. Begin the Interview Process. After filling out the initial application, the adoption process begins. This varies from organization to organization, but may include a phone interview and home visit before your application is approved. For instance, the Lone Star Boxer Rescue in Houston, Texas requires a $25 nonrefundable fee when you fill out your application, then a follow-up phone interview by a rescue volunteer. If that call goes well, a volunteer conducts a home visit to see where you live and meet with you and your family. Finally, you are invited to start meeting potential rescue dogs. When the appropriate dog is found, you pay the remaining adoption fee, ranging from $125 to $275, depending on the animal.

This is not a quick process, and can take weeks or months depending on the circumstances. While not all rescue groups require this kind of in-depth application process, it’s not unusual, so do your research before diving in.

Cost of Adopting vs. Buying

Generally speaking, it’s less expensive to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue than to purchase a dog from a breeder. Depending on the type of dog, you could pay a breeder hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a full-bred puppy, not including the cost of vaccinations, micro-chipping, training, and dog supplies.

Furthermore, many pure-bred animals also have known hereditary ailments that make them subject to higher vet bills. For instance, the sloping back of a German shepherd increases its chances of hip dysplasia.

  • Shelter Dogs. While adoption fees vary greatly from facility to facility, most shelters price their dogs between $75 and $225. These fees usually include the cost of spaying or neutering, vaccinations, and micro-chipping. Many shelters also offer lower rates for adult dogs, and may even run specials where adoption fees are steeply discounted. In my area, a shelter recently started waiving the adoption fee for all dogs due to an influx of abandoned animals following severe flooding.
  • Rescue Dogs. Rescue organizations typically charge a higher adoption fee, ranging from $150 to $500, depending on the organization and the breed of animal they’re focused on. For instance, bulldog rescues tend to charge more because of the high veterinary bills associated with the breed and the high cost of keeping the rescue organization running. However, like shelters, rescue organization fees typically include basic veterinary care, spaying or neutering, and micro-chipping. In many cases your adoption fee is also considered a tax-deductible donation that can be written off at the end of the year.

Adopting Cost Versus Buying

Final Word

I’ve adopted three shelter dogs over the past 10 years. All of them were adult dogs, one was a pit bull mix, and none of them have been without problem or concern. However, my four-legged children are the biggest blessings I have in my life. Through four cross-country moves, job changes, depression, and hardship, my dogs have been a constant and incredible source of love and joy. One passed away from cancer three years ago, and another has gone through two ACL surgeries, but there’s not a second I regret my decision to adopt – and one day soon, I hope to do it again.

Have you adopted a dog from a shelter or rescue? What has your experience been?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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