Adopting a Shelter Dog: A Complete Guide to Your New Best Friend

Shelter dogs are absolutely worth the effort it takes to integrate them into your home. Here’s what you need to know before adopting a shelter dog.


This article was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, with contributions from former animal shelter worker Allison Gray, as well as from Tamar Love Grande, who has fostered and found homes for dozens of dogs over the years. Pets writer Jet Perreault also contributed.

adopting a shelter dog
Adopting a shelter dog could be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made. Photo: Alexas_Fotos

Adopting a Shelter Dog: Your Guide to a Rewarding Experience

Adopting a shelter dog can be one of the most fulfilling decisions you’ll ever make. These dogs are often in need of a loving home and can become loyal, lifelong companions. In this guide, we’ll debunk common myths, address potential challenges, and provide tips on how to successfully integrate a shelter dog into your family. Whether you’re a first-time adopter or looking to add another furry friend to your household, understanding the process of adopting a shelter dog is crucial.

Please consider a trip to your local shelter and adopt a shelter dog. It is so worth it, and we’ll explain why soon — including the ups and the downs.

A dog’s shyness isn’t always the result of past abuse. Photo: Dallas Floer Photography

Adopting a Shelter Dog: Debunking Myths

A social media firestorm lit by actress Lena Dunham in 2017 created some unfortunate press for shelters — and there are some valuable lessons to learn from this.

Lena Dunham’s Experience

Dunham gave up on her rescue pup, Lamby, whom she had adopted from a Brooklyn shelter, BARC. She claimed Lamby became aggressive, urinated all over, destroyed her couch, and attacked her boyfriend, attributing these issues to alleged previous abuse.

Bad Press for Shelters

Dunham’s story suggested shelters might withhold information about a dog’s past, which could dissuade potential adopters. BARC refuted these claims, stating Lamby had shown no aggressive or destructive tendencies during his stay.

Shelters try to fully disclose a pet’s history to benefit everyone involved. Photo: AAS Pups

Shelter Policy

So, do you need to worry that you’ll be lied to when adopting a dog from a shelter? In short, no. Shelters don’t want “returns”, so they give full disclosure about their knowledge of the pet’s previous life. They perform personality and temperament tests and monitor the pets for any behavioral quirks. While it’s impossible to know an animal’s entire backstory, shelters strive to place pets responsibly.

The “previously abused” narrative is often exaggerated. Most shelter dogs have faced neglect, poor training, or abandonment rather than severe abuse. Truly abused dogs need time and training to trust again, but they can become great pets. Shelters aim to prevent the return of a pet who bites someone by being transparent about any known issues. While animal abuse stories occur, shelters work hard to rehabilitate and rehome these pets with full transparency.

If you show your new dog too much affection too quickly, you could stress them out after their shelter experiences. Instead, let them come to you when they’re ready. Photo: Austin Kerr

Understanding Common Behavior Issues in Shelter Dogs

When you’re adopting a shelter dog, you’re doing an amazing thing, but it comes with some risks, especially if the dog hasn’t been in the shelter long enough for a proper assessment. You won’t know their normal behavior right away, and it takes time to see their true personality. Most common behavior issues in shelter dogs can be resolved with proper training and care.

Anxiety and Fearfulness

Shelter dogs may cower due to their past experiences. They’re stressed and need a safe space. Although some cases may require medication, time and patience usually help:

  • Don’t force your pet to come to you.
  • Set up a crate covered with a blanket for safety.
  • Ignore them until they approach you.

Food Aggression

Newly adopted dogs might react aggressively during mealtime. This is easy to solve:

  • Feed your dog in a crate or bathroom, and don’t disturb them.
  • Over time, they’ll learn not to guard their food.

Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is a common behavioral issue in former shelter dogs who had to share everything. If your dog guards food, toys, or people:

  • Remove access to the resource they are guarding.
  • If the behavior persists, consider consulting a dog trainer.
Feed your new dog in a separate area (like a bathroom) until they see there’s no reason to protect their food by snarling and snapping. Photo: mackarus


Male dogs often mark territory. (Don’t confuse this with being not house-trained.) Eliminate this behavior by squirting the dog with water when you catch him marking. Use an enzymatic cleaner like Nature’s Miracle to remove the scent and prevent further marking. Learn more about male dogs marking.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a condition where the dog becomes anxious when left alone, leading to barking, inappropriate elimination, or destruction. For mild cases:

  • Use a regular schedule and crate training.
  • Dogs should have a safe place until you return.

For severe cases, consult a veterinarian, trainer, or behaviorist. Remember, adopting another dog won’t automatically cure separation anxiety. Dogs with this condition want to be with you, not another dog. Be patient and focus on sharing your life with a wonderful companion.

Lauryn says she never imagined learning so much from adopting a shelter dog. Photo: Lauryn Wilder/Petful

Valuable Lessons Learned from Adopting a Shelter Dog

Lauryn Wilder adopted a shelter dog, Jude, one Christmas Eve, thinking she was giving him a home, but she had no idea what he’d teach her in return.

Patience is a virtue.

The bond with Jude developed slowly, requiring patience. Lauryn learned to go slow on walks since Jude was uncomfortable being on a leash.

First impressions are not always accurate.

Initially, Jude was shy and cautious. Over time, he became affectionate and wanted to be glued to her.

You can either let go or be dragged.

For larger breeds, this lesson is literal. Lauryn realized she needed to adjust routines and seek professional help for Jude’s issues.

Jude was shy at first but now prefers to be near Lauryn all the time. Photo: Lauryn Wilder/Petful

Love has healing powers.

Jude arrived heartbroken, but love transformed him. His progress showed the impact of a loving home.

If you fail, try, try again.

Lauryn committed to Jude despite challenges. She learned resilience and determination, understanding the importance of returning rights.

This journey has not only provided Jude with a home but also taught Lauryn valuable life lessons.

To buy a dog or not to buy? Photo: zibrantsen

Adopt vs. Buy: Making the Right Choice

The choice to buy a purebred dog over adopting a dog who needs a home can be a contentious issue. As stated in “Yes, I Bought a Puppy — And No, I Don’t Feel Bad About It,” many purebred dog caretakers come under attack from the “rescue dog” camp for prioritizing breed over animal welfare. Both camps share a common goal: to find loving homes for all pets.

The Purebred Camp

Purebred pet parents aren’t all seeking status symbols, but some reasons for buying a puppy are less sound. For example, people might buy a dog because they “saw this dog in a movie,” need one “small enough” to travel, or want to recreate a childhood pet experience. These are not strong reasons to buy a dog.

Valid Reasons to Buy a Puppy

  • Breed Attributes and Characteristics: You can expect certain traits and strengths from a breed with proper research, though there’s no guarantee.
  • Emotional Attachment: If you’ve always had poodles and are emotionally attached to the breed, it might make sense to stick with them.
  • Improving the Breed: Many are dedicated to breeding and improving the breed, which benefits health and temperament.

Reasons to Adopt a Shelter Dog (Rather Than Buying a Dog)

  • Unnecessary Euthanasia: Shelters have more pets than homes, and adopting a pet helps save lives.
  • Fabulous Shelter Dogs Available: Shelters are full of wonderful dogs waiting for homes. Are you really saying you couldn’t love a mutt face as much as a purebred?
  • Mutts Come in All Flavors: Homeless dogs and puppies come in all shapes and sizes. Even if you have a breed in mind, there are lots of “almosts” in foster homes. Breed rescue groups often include these dogs, so you can find a great companion without supporting unnecessary euthanasia.
How to find the perfect shelter dog for your family.
Learn how to find the perfect shelter dog for your family. Photo: Dave Parker

How to Choose the Perfect Shelter Dog for Your Family

Before adding a dog to your family, ask yourself a few important questions. Be honest about the time you and your family can afford to give to the pet. A dog is a living, breathing being who depends on you for all their needs.

If one or more family members have allergies or reservations about a 4-legged addition to the household, you may want to reconsider getting a pet. Children, in particular, may abuse a pet if they don’t like it.

Daily schedules of each family member are a factor as well. Ideally, someone will be at home with the dog most of the time. If that isn’t possible, consider what kind of dog could be happy being alone for hours at a time.

Size of the Dog

Once you know you will get a rescue dog, decide what size dog fits into your life. If you have young children or elderly family members living with you, you don’t want a hyperactive dog. A large dog can still fit the family dynamics if they are well trained, quiet, and sedate.

Just because a dog is small doesn’t mean they present less danger of knocking people over. Small dogs can run between legs and, before you know it, someone has a fractured hip or leg.

Age of the Dog

Whether you get a puppy or an older dog is an important item up for discussion. Puppies are lovable but need lots of time and patience. An older rescue dog is most likely already well trained, including being house-trained.

Longer-haired breeds should get regular brushings. Photo: Richard Taylor

Long Hair or Short Hair

The way a dog looks should be the subject of discussion. Some people cannot abide hairy dogs; others don’t like shorthaired dogs. Perhaps you can reach a compromise. Keep in mind the climate you live in, as well as the grooming demands for different breeds.

Some dogs, like Poodles, need grooming every 4–6 weeks. Longhaired breeds need a daily brushing. Dogs with floppy ears are prone to ear infections.

Breed and Temperament

Opinions vary wildly on which dog breed is the best. Some people like cute (or even funny-looking). Others want protection or companionship. To accommodate everyone, ask the shelter person which dog would make a great family dog who is cute, protective, and keeps good company.

Staff members of animal shelters generally have a good idea of what kind of dog would be a wonderful addition to your family. They will match the temperament of the dog to your family. A laid-back dog is better for children in the house than a natural watchdog.

Observe and Interact

Watch how the dogs react when you see them in the cage in the shelter. Friendly dogs usually cannot wait for someone to come near them. They wiggle their tail and lick your hand. Spend some time with that dog in an enclosed area to see how they would fit into your life. Let all your family members meet them.

By the end of your visit, you will be sure to have found a loving pet who fills an important niche in your home and heart.

For more tips on finding the perfect shelter dog to adopt for your family, check out this quick video:

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Animal Shelters vs. Animal Control: Where to Adopt?

Want to adopt a shelter dog? Great — you have a lot of options. From animal shelters to rescues and animal control, your new best friend might be waiting just down the road.

If you’ve ever spent time looking into all the options, and browsing on sites like Petfinder, you’ve probably noticed that each adoption organization runs a little differently. If you’re interested in visiting the kenneling facilities, you’ll probably want to choose between an animal shelter or an animal control facility.

The Differences

Animal control generally refers to a government-run agency that includes an animal sheltering facility (commonly referred to as a “pound”). The facility is operated via municipal funds and employs government workers. Animal control facilities primarily keep stray pets collected by animal control officers and hold them for a predetermined length of time while they wait for their families to claim them. Most facilities have limited space and do not accept pets being signed over by their families.

After their “stray hold” period has ended, pets at the pound will:

  • Become available for adoption if the facility is open to the public
  • Be transferred to a shelter where they will be assessed for adoption
  • Be humanely euthanized

Animal shelters, on the other hand, may be private organizations funded through donations. They may or may not take stray animals, depending on each shelter’s policies. They primarily accept pets from families that can no longer care for their animals. Compared to animal control facilities, animal shelters usually have larger kenneling capacity, which allows them to keep more pets for a longer time while looking for adopters.

Animal control facilities generally don’t screen for health or temperament problems. Photo: paradisecoastie

What About the Adoption Fee?

Generally speaking, animal control has lower adoption fees than what shelters ask. Adoption fees can vary greatly depending on the adoption facility, its level of funding, care provided, and expenses. Even two shelters in the same neighborhood can have different adoption fees, so keep this in mind when choosing where you adopt.

Health and Temperament Screening

If you’ve ever adopted a pet from a rescue or shelter, you’ve probably received health records and maybe even a temperament evaluation. It’s routine for animal shelters to give their pets vaccinations, assess their behaviors, and spay or neuter them. That’s part of a typical screening and preparation process. Since animal control facilities generally manage the stray pet population, they aren’t always equipped with the resources to provide their animals with the same health and behavior screenings.

If your local animal control facility is open to the public and adopts out its animals, PetRescue reminds adopters, “Be aware that they usually haven’t been screened for health or temperament issues.”

This may not be the case in your town. The first step is to ask. It’s better to be informed before making the decision to adopt.

Just try not tearing up over this video of a special shelter dog adoption:

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If the Adoption Doesn’t Work Out

Not every adoption ends happily ever after. Whatever the reason, it’s important, as an adopter, to be prepared if you’re returning your new pet. No new adopter wants to sound wishy-washy when they’re signing the contract and making a mental list of supplies to pick up at the pet store, but it’s not irresponsible to ask the adoption counselor what the policies are on returned adoptions.

That goes especially if you’re adopting from a facility that accepts large numbers of strays and rarely has an open cage for incoming pets, or if you’re adopting from a place that doesn’t accept pets signed over by their families.

If you adopt a dog from animal control, find out what you should do if the adoption isn’t a success. Will they take the pet back, or will you be signing the dog over to the local shelter instead? A failed adoption isn’t something anyone should anticipate, but it’s better to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Adopting a shelter dog is a big decision. Don’t take it lightly. Photo: lutz44

Final Thoughts on Adopting a Shelter Dog

In conclusion, please think about adopting a shelter dog. Wherever you choose to adopt a shelter dog, keep in mind that you’re making a wonderful decision that will positively affect the homeless pet population in your area. That’s what matters the most.

Here’s your quick checklist:

  • Ask a lot of questions.
  • Visit your potential new pet multiple times with your whole family.
  • Talk to shelter workers and volunteers who know the pup.

Adopting a shelter dog is a big decision — but it’s also a wonderful, life-changing one. Ready to start looking for a pup now? Try Petful’s pet adoption page. (You can filter your results by dog breed and ZIP code.)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What to know before adopting a dog from a shelter?

Before adopting a dog from a shelter, understand the dog’s history, temperament, and any special needs.

What to look for when adopting a dog from a shelter?

Look for a dog that matches your lifestyle, energy level, and compatibility with other pets and family members.

Questions to ask shelter when adopting a dog?

Ask about the dog’s health, behavior, history, and any known training or socialization issues.

What to do when adopting a dog from a shelter?

Prepare your home, gather necessary supplies, and be patient while the dog adjusts.

What to say when criticized for purchasing a dog from a breeder instead of adopting from a shelter?

Explain that both adopting and purchasing can provide loving homes, and your choice was based on personal needs and preferences.