A Helpful Guide for Adopting Shelter Dogs


October is Adopt a Shelter Dog month. As I can tell you from lifelong experience, having a dog around can greatly increase the quality of your life. The vast majority of dogs are loving and loyal members of families and will give you 8-20 years, depending on breed, of happiness.

But picking out a dog and planning for their care is a huge commitment and not something to be taken lightly. People that pick out a puppy for their children for Christmas only to abandon that puppy later are people who think puppies are little work.

Dogs depend on family interaction. Some breeds are more independent and not stuck to your side at all times, but even the independent dog breeds require a decent amount of attention and interaction daily. (Cats, on the other hand, can take being solitary for hours on end and, depending on cat personality, may be extremely independent and not need your attention for days.) All dogs, no matter the breed, require potty training and etiquette training (every dog should know the basics of no, sit, stay, and come as they are valuable and can save your dog’s life).

There are several things to consider when adopting a shelter dog.

Puppy or Adult?

While puppies are definitely cute, they will often be picked first from shelters, so you may be hard pressed to find one. Puppies will require more work and training, as you’ll have to deal with a teething stage (which means a lot of things may be torn up in your home) and you’ll certainly have potty messes to clean up. Getting a puppy is great for people who are experienced with dog care and want to ensure the way their dog is trained.

Adult dogs are already emotionally mature; if you find one you’re interested in take it for a walk and inquire about a trial period at your home (you can also foster dogs if you’re interested). Most adult dogs will be socialized to an extent and you shouldn’t have to potty train. Inquire about their past and why they were surrendered. A lot of dogs are surrendered because they were in bad situations, so you may have to provide special attention to abused cases to make them feel secure in your family.

Lastly, consider a senior dog if you like a laid-back lifestyle. A senior dog will probably require less activity and generally just want to be around you for companionship.


When you’re thinking of adopting a shelter dog, you’ll probably see a lot of mutts. Mutts are fabulous, but getting a hint of their background and the mix of breeds they are will tell you their activity level and temperament.

If you are looking for a highly trainable dog that’s lovable and eager to please, consider golden retriever or Labrador mixes. If you have a high energy lifestyle and want a good worker, go for Australian shepherd or border collie mixes, both of which are also known as “Velcro” dogs. They will be by your side often, as they look to their guardians as their boss, and will want “jobs.”

More laid-back dogs like bulldogs and bullmastiffs are suited for family life and don’t require a lot of exercise. But they can be stubborn so they require consistent training. Boxers and pitbulls are “nanny” breeds that will look after and care for children with proper raising. Sadly, with pitbulls getting such a bad rap and people breeding them for dog fighting, you will come across a lot of pitbulls in shelters. They are a great breed and, just like German shepherds in the 1990s, they don’t deserve the bad publicity.

No matter what breed you’re interested in, you need to research the temperament and health concerns that come along with that breed. There are plenty of “What Dog is Right for Me?” quizzes around the net. Those may give you a quick idea, but go to a bookstore or library and pick up a few books about the breeds you’re interested in.


Picking out a good vet is necessary, and it make take a few different appointments to find one you feel is suitable. Use the same method you would for finding a doctor for yourself or your child.

Again, keep in mind breed health problems and screen for any on your first few visits. Even people experienced with dog family members can run into problems. Dogs are very much like humans in that they can have social anxiety and odd behaviors. Anxiety in dogs can manifest as aggression if they aren’t socialized properly.

One of the most helpful school of thoughts I’ve found on dog training and behavior is from the dog behavior guide book, Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by animal behaviorist John Bradshaw. You can read and listen to a helpful interview on NPR here.

Finally, putting approximately $200 into an obedience class can really help in having a well-behaved dog.

Happy adopting!

Photo credit Nani Annette/Flickr.


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