Adopting a Shelter Dog: Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid

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.

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

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.

In this article on adopting a shelter dog, we’ll cover:

  • Why the “previously abused” shelter dog is an overblown myth
  • Why you shouldn’t worry about being lied to by the shelter
  • The 5 most common shelter dog behavior problems — and how to fix them
  • Life lessons that adopting a shelter dog can teach you
  • An honest answer to the question “Is it better to adopt or buy my next dog?”
  • How to find the perfect shelter dog for your family
  • Crucial differences between an animal shelter and animal control
  • And then, our final thoughts — and a super-easy, 3-point checklist to use when you’re adopting a shelter dog

Ready? Let’s get started!

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

Part 1: The Myth of the “Previously Abused” Shelter Dog

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 had plastered Lamby all over social media — even creating his own Instagram account — for the several years without categorizing him as a massive behavior problem.

But then Lamby suddenly dropped offline — only to be replaced by 2 poodle puppies.

According to Dunham, Lamby had become aggressive, urinated all over, destroyed her couch and attacked her boyfriend.

Dunham claimed that, because of the rescue dog’s alleged previous abuse, his behavior problems had become unmanageable, and she had to rehome him in Los Angeles.

Bad Press for Shelters

Dunham’s story kicked up serious issues that were not helpful to animal shelters or anyone who may be considering adopting a dog from a shelter.

Her claim that the dog was terribly abused before his adoption and the idea that the shelter withheld this information from her could dissuade potential adopters.

BARC refuted Dunham’s claims of the dog’s previous abuse, stating that Lamby had shown no aggressive or destructive tendencies during his month in the shelter and had no history of abuse.

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,” and so they give full disclosure about their knowledge of the pet’s previous life.

After performing personality and temperament tests, they often keep a pet for a while to see if they have any behavioral quirks or problems.

Of course, it’s impossible to know an animal’s entire backstory or what may happen in their future homes. But shelters don’t want to be liable for placing a pet who bites someone, and they don’t want the pet returned to the shelter due to poor placement.

Shyness in a Shelter Dog Isn’t Always Related to Abuse

This “previously abused” backstory is something that adopters love to bandy about when they get a dog from a shelter.

But most shelter dogs have not suffered terrible abuse. They may have suffered the abuse of neglect, poor training or abandonment, or they lacked supervision and ran away.

But beaten, starved, kicked, maimed? These animal abuse stories occur, but, if known, they’re revealed by shelters to potential adopters.

And truly abused dogs? They require time and training to trust you, but once they do, they usually make great and grateful pets.

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

Part 2: Common Shelter Dog Behavior Problems

When you’re adopting a shelter dog, you’re doing an amazing thing.

But you’re also taking a bit of a risk — especially if the dog hasn’t been in the shelter long enough for the staff and volunteers to assess the dog.

You won’t know what kind of behavior is normal for the dog. And you won’t know what you’re getting until you’ve had them for at least a few days.

Not all dogs are perfect, especially shelter dogs who have been turned in by their families for a variety of relatively minor behavioral problems — almost all of which can be fixed with proper training and care.

Fortunately, most of the following common shelter dog problems are simple to clear up:

Anxiety and Fearfulness

You would think your pup would be so happy to be out of the shelter that they’d be dancing around the room, so why are they cowering under a chair?

They’re scared. Their world has been turned upside down because of their shelter experience — and whatever may have come before it — and they don’t know if their new home is good or bad.

They’re stressed out, and they need a place of safety.

Although it’s possible this anxiety won’t clear up without medication, in most cases time and patience are the cures:

  • Don’t force your pet to come to you.
  • Set up a crate covered with a blanket and leave it in the area where the dog is hiding. The dog may crawl inside, where it’s safe.
  • Ignore them for a while. You’re probably itching to cuddle with your new pooch, but if you move too quickly, you could stress them out more. Instead, let them come to you, even if it takes a couple of days.

Food Aggression

Once in your home, your newly adopted dog may not understand that their food is their own. They might react with snarling, barking, lunging or even biting when you or another dog gets too close to them during mealtime.

This is easy to solve:

  • Feed your dog in a crate or bathroom, and don’t disturb them until they’re done.
  • In time, they’ll come to realize that they have no need to guard their food.

Resource Guarding

Like food aggression, resource guarding — a dog acting protective about “their” things, including food, toys and people — is common for former shelter dogs.

In the shelter, they had to share everything, sometimes having nothing of their own until they got out, including the love of a good person.

After adopting your shelter dog and coming home, your new pet may try to guard you from another dog, family member or guest. You belong to this dog now, and they’re not going to let anyone near you or sometimes a favorite toy.

This behavioral issue is also relatively easy to fix:

  • Whenever your new dog shows signs of resource guarding, remove their access to the resource.
  • This includes food, toys, beds, blanket and people.
  • For example, if your new dog is cuddled on your lap but then turns into a raptor when your spouse approaches, place the dog on the floor.
  • Once your pup realizes that acting like a jerk isn’t going to work, they should stop. If not, 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


When your newly adopted shelter dog gets home, they’ll want to sniff every corner of your home and yard.

There’s a good chance that a male dog will also mark everywhere, especially if he smells another dog around. (Don’t confuse this behavior with being not house-trained. Dogs with perfect potty manners can still mark.)

Eliminate this behavior by squirting the dog in the face with water when you catch him marking. It won’t hurt him, but he sure won’t like it. He’ll stop in the act and probably sprint away. When this happens enough times, he’ll hopefully catch on that he should knock it off.

Be sure to use Nature’s Miracle or some other enzymatic cleaner made for cleaning up pet stains. When you remove the scent, your dog won’t need to mark over it.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety in a shelter dog is a behavioral condition in which the dog is so traumatized by being left alone that they bark, eliminate inappropriately or destroy the house when left alone.

Unfortunately, this is not easy to fix, and you may need to ask a veterinarian, trainer or behaviorist for help:

  • Mild cases of anxiety are usually resolved with a regular schedule and crate training. When dogs know they have a safe place to go until you come back, they’re less likely to act out. Once they truly trust and believe you’re coming back, they should calm down and be more comfortable spending time alone.
  • The important thing to remember about separation anxiety is that it isn’t automatically cured by adopting another dog to keep your anxious pup company. Dogs with separation anxiety want to be with you, not another dog.
  • For severe cases, consult a professional and follow every bit of advice he or she gives you. Try not to get too frustrated — your pup may not have had this fear of abandonment even before their animal shelter stay.

We don’t want to put you off the idea of adopting from a shelter. Just be patient and focus on what’s important: sharing your life with a wonderful companion.

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

Part 3: Life Lessons a Shelter Dog Can Teach You

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

Here are 5 lessons she says Jude taught her:

1. Patience is a virtue.

My bond with Jude came about differently than it did with my other 2 dogs.

The others and I bonded almost instantly. Jude, on the other hand, was distant and uncertain.

I took it personally at first, certain he’d never come near me.

However, giving him the space he needed rewarded me with more affection than I could have anticipated. I get so much of it from him now that I almost can’t do anything else.

He’s taught me patience in a variety of other ways, too. I have to go slow on walks with him because he’s uncomfortable being on a leash, and I can’t get upset at him if he has an accident because it only makes it worse.

2. First impressions are not always accurate.

When we first met, he looked terrified. He sat on the couch and watched me carefully, as if he was studying the enemy.

But in a matter of weeks, he went from mute little shelter dog to mischievous rascal.

He’s chewed through his crate, torn up a corner of the linoleum, intercepts treats like a quarterback and shown a fanatical love for pepperoni pizza. He also spins when he’s excited, loves to be hugged and pees when he gets too excited or too nervous.

He has a weird obsession with chewing up toilet paper, which I still don’t entirely understand. He’s also incredibly affectionate and wants to be glued to me every second I am home.

3. You can either let go or be dragged.

This would be literal for a larger breed, but it was more of an abstract lesson in my case. His submissive urination was a foreign concept to me, because neither of my other 2 pets went through it.

I got so frustrated in the beginning, especially because I knew that if I expressed the frustration it would only make it worse.

He taught me that with some problems, you have to think outside the box to find a positive, happy outcome for both of us. In this case, it meant changing up the routine when I get home, and recruiting professional help.

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

4. Love has healing powers.

He is happy when he’s got food, water and something to chew on.

However, the look of serenity that comes across his face when I’m cuddling with him is unparalleled.

The shelter I rescued him from described him as “heartbroken” when he arrived, and you could see it in his profile photo. His bright, coppery eyes were forlorn, and his ears were back in fear.

Now when I look at him — usually when he’s cradled in one arm like a baby — all I see is love.

5. If you fail, try, try again.

I refuse to give up on him.

The adoption counselors mentioned that there are lifetime returning rights with an adoption, but I’m in it for the long haul.

I used to be one to run from a challenge or any time things just didn’t go my way, and he’s certainly presented me with a unique set of them. But I’ve come to learn that it’s in the face of the things that make you frustrated or uncomfortable that you learn your true grit.

I may be giving this boy a home, but he has given valuable insight into myself and helped me grow as a human being.

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

Part 4: Is It Better to Adopt or Buy a Dog? (Honest Answer? It Depends.)

The choice to buy a purebred dog over adopting a dog who needs a home reaches tragic proportions for some people.

As eloquently 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 not having animal welfare concerns trump their own desire to purchase a particular breed.

The bleeding-heart rescue people contend that buying a dog is a spoiled act and that adopting a dog is altruistic. These rescuers want to make a purebred pet parent feel crappy about buying a dog when so many dogs are looking for  homes.

The truth? Both camps have a common bond: to find all pets the best loving homes possible.

The Purebred Camp

Purebred pet parents are not all looking for a handbag puppy or a status symbol.

But unfortunately, there are people who buy a purebred dog for empty-headed reasons.

Perhaps you’ve heard some of these reasons someone has given for buying a puppy:

These are not good reasons to buy a dog.

Everyone should delve into the reasonable, responsible part of their brains when considering adding a pet to their home.

Get rid of the notions of Hollywood fads, Paris Hiltonism, and re-creating your childhood, which probably was not all that great when you really think about it.

Valid Reasons to Buy a Puppy

1. Breed Attributes and Characteristics

Clearly, you have a fair to good chance of  your new dog exhibiting certain traits and strengths when you do your research and purchase a particular breed.

But buyer beware, of course: No amount of research can guarantee that your lap dog will not turn out to be a land shark, or that your hunting dog would rather watch soap operas all day.

2. Emotional Attachment

If you’ve always had poodles, have your heart set on a beautiful poodle and don’t mind spending half your life (or paycheck) on dog grooming, you probably can’t be talked into getting a shepherd cross.

Some people grieve so deeply when they lose a certain dog it just makes sense that, when they are ready, they buy the same breed that filled their heart with joy and love.

3. Improving the Breed

Many people are dedicated to breeding, raising or showing a particular breed and improving the health, temperament and welfare of that breed.

This is why we should respect purebred dogs and honor and reward the people who do a great and dedicated job breeding and helping veterinarians with genetic research and testing.

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

1. Unnecessary Euthanasia

Shelters and rescue groups always have more pets than homes.

Adopting a pet helps save a life. Of course it’s a wonderful thing to do!

Shelter workers and veterinarians experience depression and compassion burnout when faced with having to euthanize healthy pets just for the lack of available homes. This is why some adoption advocates can be nasty to purebred dog caretakers.

2. Fabulous Shelter Dogs Available

Walk into any shelter and try to turn your back on those soulful eyes staring at you through bars.

Each face is saying, “Make this my last day in this cage.”

Ears perk up because your voice is the best thing they’ve ever heard. A paw pokes through the bars and says, “Set me free to run in your backyard.”

Are you actually saying you couldn’t love this mutt-face as much as a purebred mug?

3. 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 wannabes out there.

Breed rescue groups often include “almosts” in their foster homes:

  • Looking for an Old English Sheepdog? How about this adorable muffin-head with a bunch of fur over her eyes and a fantastic sloppy disposition?
  • Just try to say no to Goldiflocks, even if she doesn’t have papers!

In our mind, there is no “off-price” brand of dog in the world. They all deserve a wonderful home.

How to find the perfect shelter dog for your family.
Learn how to find the perfect shelter dog for your family. Photo: Dave Parker

Part 5: How to Find the Perfect Shelter Dog for Your Family

Before adding a dog to your family, ask yourself a few important questions.

Be honest about the amount of 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.

Photo: Robert Nunnally

Here are a few items to decide before getting a dog:

  • Size
  • Age
  • Temperament
  • Long hair or short hair
  • Breed

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 frail, older 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.

Whatever dog you choose, well-behaved and sedate are the key criteria for very young and elderly family members.

Age of the Dog

Whether you get a puppy or an older dog is an important item up for discussion.

  • Puppies are lovable. They need lots of time and even more 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, too.

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. Others still just look for 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 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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Part 6: Adopting From Animal Shelters vs. Animal Control

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 of the options, 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 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 that are collected by animal control officers and are being held 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 that are 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 2 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.)

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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 many dozens of dogs over the years. Pets writer Jet Perreault also contributed.