How to successfully adopt a dog from a shelter

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So you’re going to your local shelter to look at adding a new dog to your life. Great, so how where do you start?

First, ask questions but remain objective. Read the info sheets on the dog’s kennel and ask the staff about the dog but learn to read between the lines. Remember that a dog is a complex, living, emotional animal, no one trait or behavior trial can define them. You will not be able to learn everything you want to know from reading a sheet of paper or having a short conversation with a shelter employee or representative. If you have someone knowledgable available on the staff or in your life conduct a short interview. If you don’t, hire an experienced trainer to go to a shelter with you and pay them for their time. Ask about the dogs activity level, favorite things to do, how quickly did the dog warm up to the staff, has this dog been around other dogs (if yes, in what capacity). Gather some info but don’t get overwhelmed.

Things you should consider: Age, if the dog is a puppy or adolescent you have more work to do proofing your home environment for a dog but you also have less history to re-write. If you are adopting a dog that is between 7 month- 15 months of age you are taking on a teenager. This means the dog is changing rapidly both physically and mentally. If you are looking at an adult dog, there is less risk of dramatic change. A dog over 3 years of age is more emotionally mature and stable as a learning animal.

Breed, if you are looking at a pure bred dog, do your homework. Know what sort of behaviors that dog was created to perform. If you are looking at a mixed breed, forget what is listed. Visual breed identification is almost impossible but most shelters require staff to do it. In the 1960’s we learned from the Genetics and the Social Behavior of Dogs (Scott and Fuller) that most dog experts would fail at visually identifying mixed breeds. There is an example of a pure bred Basenji mixed with a pure bred Springer Spaniel which comes out resembling the American Pit Bull Terrier*. People hand on physical features and say things like, “he looks like a golden retriever mix”. If you are adopting a dog because of it’s breed you could be setting up the dog to fail based on your preconceived idea of that dog type. Look at a mixed breed dog and say that is a breed of one. He is unique and really interesting. When you mix breeds you change the shape of the head, the length of legs, the width of the dogs chest, his gait, his default tail position and his behavioral confirmation. There really isn’t a point to trying to identify his breed, for a laugh, watch this.

Day one, get home and get situated. After you adopt your new dog, go home. It seems basic but don’t go to the store, visit other people, take your dog to socialize or anything too stimulating. Go home, keep your dog on leash and head outside. Walk around in the yard or outside where you live until your dog urinates. This is key. It might not happen right away but set them up for success. Go inside and stay on leash, walk your dog around, show them your environment. If they are worried or cautious with things in the house (light changes, flooring, stairs, floating objects) just be calm and move on, try not to drag them around by the leash or make them investigate anything or greet anyone they don’t readily approach. Time and patience in the beginning will actually speed things up down the road.

It is crucial to establish real life routines right away. So many people take time off or get a puppy when they have time away from work, this is problematic because the dog thinks this is your schedule and what they can expect moving forward. You would do best to emulate your real life schedule and routines right off the bat. You might need to employ a dog walker, crates or gates to help them be successful in the beginning. If so don’t forget to make that crate great first. Crates are a wonderful tool if introduces slowly with positive associations. If your dog only goes in the crate when you leave he might learn a negative association. Crate up to eat valuable treats, chew on bones or take naps. Crates can be the place where the greatest rewards come out.


Educate slowly, feeding, playing and walking are your best ways to teach your dog verbal language and visual cues. Dogs do not come understanding people and our language. We are very verbal creatures. Dogs have language but it is non-verbal. Merge visual cues with spoken words and your dog will catch on quick. Get in a training class with a certified professional dog trainer for help go to or to find a qualified professional in your area.

Big goals are great, but… slow down. Don’t take your dog off leash, to a dog park, open spaces or anywhere too over-stimulating until you know each other a bit more. Dogs need to get acclimated to their surroundings. Show your newly adopted dog the “new normal”. If you adopt a dog who grew up roaming the country side on a Native American Reservation and you happen to live on Capital Hill downtown, that is a big shock. Don’t be surprised if your dog turns into a neurotic neophobic animal for the first two weeks or longer. Introduce your dog to the world you live in. Hand feed when you go out to new places. This gives you ways to reinforce behaviors you love and help your dog build a positive association to new things, people, places and activities.

Success, now you go out and post all over social media that you found a great dog and get your grammatically incorrect WHO RESCUED WHO sticker for your car (should say who rescued whom?) #nerdylanguage #adoptdon’tshop #shelterdog #rescueismyfavoritebreed #don’tshopadopt #caninecommunity.

If you have other animals at home, be a crazy micromanager for a few days. If you have two dogs, put down three water bowls, timed supervised feedings in separate areas, pick up bones, rawhides and other valuable resources. Introduce multiple toys and objects while you supervise and watch for resource guarding, stiffening, tension, hair standing up, ridged body posture and try to avoid conflict. Walk and play in neutral territories. Build trust and put some time in before you leave them unsupervised. Kennels and crates can prevent problems when you are away and can help secure long term bonding.


  • Scott JP & JL Fuller 1965 Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog.  Univ of Chicago Press.