In a world where designer breeds are all the hoot, a scruffy terrier-mix just doesn’t get the same attention. Abandoned dogs still have a bad reputation, so many people pass up a shelter dog by default. With that said, more and more households seem to be opening their doors to shelter dogs. In the United States, approximately 1.6 million dogs are adopted each year!
Welcoming a dog into your home (and heart) is a big change, but even more so if you decide to adopt. Even when we are without prejudices, we can still have mistaken expectations that can do us (and our new furry addition) more harm than good. Here’s a closer look at seven important things you should be aware of before adopting a shelter dog if you want to give them a joyful and safe life.
1. Adopting is not just an act of grace – it’s an act of responsibility
It’s important to be self-aware enough to understand that we aren’t just saving a life, we are committing to it as well. Yes, adopting a dog is a gracious act, but it’s also an act that comes with a lot of responsibility. You have to ask yourself: “Am I willing to prioritize my time around a dog? Am I willing to take on the responsibility that comes with it?” If your dog gets sick, you will have to face vet bills. If he has a rough past, it may manifest in behavioral problems that will require the help of a professional.
You won’t be able to travel on a whim anymore, you will have to find dog-friendly landlords, and if you get a dog that has panic attacks because of fireworks, your New Year’s Eve and 4th of July celebrations won’t be so carefree. However, when you do take on this responsibility, you soon come to realize that each adjustment or obstacle you face pales in comparison to the unconditional love you receive from your dog every single day!
2. Don’t boycott shelters with a bad reputation – adopt from them first!
While many shelters’ work is admirable, some do have a bad reputation. They might have an incredibly high number of euthanized dogs, don’t provide good living conditions, or have financial scandals associated with them. The first instinct is to stay clear of those shelters, but if we really want to help animals, we have to override this instinct. Adopting a shelter dog doesn’t instantly mean you support that shelter – it means you are saving the dog from it! Please check out the not-so-reputable shelters in your area and see if there is a suitable dog that you can rescue.
Many shelters have euthanasia scheduled in advance, so you can always ask which dogs are scheduled to be put down and save somebody’s life whose time is quite literally running out. This is not a comfortable conversation to have, nor is it an easy experience, but at the end of the day, it’s about dogs who need to be placed in a safer environment and not our personal feelings towards a system that might still take decades to change.
3. Adoption fees exist, and you should feel comfortable paying them
Contrary to popular belief, adopting a shelter dog isn’t free. Shelters cannot operate on gratitude alone – taking care of animals costs money. There are several different ways for shelters to receive the necessary funds and one of them is the adoption fee. Considering what it covers, the amount you pay is a bargain.
You get a dog that has been checked by a vet, sometimes already neutered/spayed, received the mandatory vaccinations, received the necessary treatment in case of an illness, and perhaps even had a behavioral assessment. The adoption fees are a fair price to pay for adopting your new family member!
4. Consider your needs and capabilities, but keep an open mind
A common reason why somebody chooses to buy a dog rather than adopt one is that they “want to know what they’re getting.” Adoption isn’t always a complete lottery, though. If you know what your wishes are for a dog, you can likely find one that’s a good fit. It’s been said so many times that somebody “fell in love with the breed,” which is quite right, but let’s look deeper into this statement. You fell in love with the dog’s looks, and you fell in love with his characteristics. You can take these preferences and discuss them with your local shelter – they’ll be happy to help you find a suitable match!
Purebred dogs can be found in a shelter too, but even if you are looking at a tiny mix-breed whose personality you cannot predict from their scruffy looks alone, know that the shelter should be able to provide you with at least some information about their temperament. It’s important that you know beforehand how much activity you can provide for the dog, how willing are you to learn about their instincts, do you have (or intend to have) children, do you travel a lot, how much time will the dog be spending alone, do you already have other pets, etc. Based on these questions and preferences, the shelter should be able to match you with a dog that will suit you best.
With that said, do keep an open mind and don’t turn a dog down just because they don’t look exactly how you’ve pictured them. You’re adopting a heartbeat on four legs, not swiping on Tinder!
5. Don’t expect your dog to be grateful – expect him to need time
From your perspective, you have just saved someone’s life. From your dog’s perspective, you are a stranger that is taking him into a new environment where he’ll be surrounded by things, people, and animals he’s never seen before. Adoption can be very stressful for some dogs, and to expect gratitude of them would be unjust.
Animals behave in a way that keeps them secure and satisfies their instincts. They have no actual way of showing “gratitude” as we humans know it. Instead of expecting your new dog to show you undying loyalty from the first day, prepare to give him time to adjust to the new environment. Some dogs won’t feel safe with you immediately. Some will have instincts that will challenge you. Some dogs have never been inside a house or have never lived with other dogs before. They’re going to need time to come out of their shell, and you cannot expect them to be the perfect companion from the get-go.
It’s possible that your shelter dog won’t trust you for a while, that he won’t let you pet him in certain areas or he’ll even attempt to run away. Some dogs have changed ownership many times before coming into your hands, and their instincts won’t allow them to relax. Be patient with them and remember that once they feel secure in the new environment, their true temperament will begin to show!
6. The shelter’s behavior assessment is not a guarantee
Some shelters will take the time to assess each animal’s behavior, but due to a large amount of admitted animals, this is not always possible. Before you decide on adopting, you should make your own assessment! For example, by spending some time with the dog, taking him on a walk, learning about his body language. Another great idea is to bring a positive reinforcement dog trainer along to get an opinion from a professional! The shelter will be happy that you’re taking an interest in one of their dogs and will provide you with the necessary time to get to know the dog. If they’ve already done an assessment of their own, please be aware that it was very limited.
A shelter is a very unique environment and doesn’t really resemble real-life situations. You may receive information about how the dog feels in the car, whether he gets along with other dogs, how he is with strangers, but you don’t know if they’re good with cats, what they’re afraid of, how much personal space they need, etc. A big part of adopting a shelter dog is not knowing his full history, so it’s wise that you keep a curious mindset. Learn about the dog’s triggers, behaviors, instincts. It’s a beautiful journey either way, but it’s much easier if you know at least some of the things in advance, so that you can prepare and don’t feel too overwhelmed in your first few weeks together.
7. Your heart will grow two sizes bigger
One thing that isn’t discussed enough is the emotional impact this decision has on you – especially if this is your first time adopting, even more so if you’ve never owned a dog before. Giving somebody a second chance at life is no small thing. If you’re considering adopting a dog that has some health or behavioral issues, the impact you are making with your decision is even greater. The same can be said if you’re adopting an elderly dog who will, thanks to your generosity, get to spend the final months or years of his life in a warm, safe, and loving home.
Dog adoption is one of the most rewarding experiences in life. You gain a companion full of unconditional love, yes, but you also gain a massive learning experience that expands your heart and deepens your outlook on life, more than you ever could have expected. Remember that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes, it’s okay to question your decision and it’s okay to feel sad for all the dogs you couldn’t save. While the road of adoption may not always be the easiest or most convenient one, at the end of the day, it is well worth it. Worth it a thousand times over!
Luna’s passion for learning about canine psychology and behavior began when she adopted a severely reactive puppy from a local shelter. She is now a big advocate for positive reinforcement and compassionate training. As a writer, she strives to spotlight the topics that fly under the radar and be the voice for all who cannot speak for themselves.