How To Adopt a Dog

The Ultimate Guide!

Becky - author

Author: Becky Roberts
Last Updated: October 2019​

Whether you’re a first-time pet parent or a veteran pack owner, getting a new dog should always be a major decision.

You have to make sure that you have the time and resources to properly take care of your new furry friend.

If it's your first time adopting a dog, you may find the entire process a bit intimidating. That's why we're here to guide you all the way from choosing a dog to making sure they feel welcome and safe in your home.

The two most responsible options for getting a dog are adopting from a shelter or speaking to a reputable breeder.

If you go with a breeder, you may have to wait for years and pay thousands of dollars. Since you’re reading this article, chances are you’re considering adoption, which is largely considered the best and most ethical way to bring a dog into your home.

Step by Step Process on How to Adopt a Dog

1. Decide What Kind of Dog You Want to Adopt

The first major decision you have to make when considering adoption is finding out what sort of dog you want. Some people are attached to certain breeds, while others don’t mind adopting a pavement special. The main thing you need to focus on is finding a dog that meets your needs and is suitable for your particular lifestyle.

Before you even consider visiting a shelter or looking for a furry friend online, you should compile a list of characteristics you want in a dog. If you live in an apartment, it’s unrealistic to want an energetic dog. If you have children, you need to have a dog that’s calm and tolerant of occasional rough handling. It’s a good idea to divide characteristics into three main categories: needs, wants, and deal-breakers.

Needs are characteristics that your new dog must have to thrive in your home. If you have cats, you need a dog that's good with cats. If you are allergic to dander, you need to get a hypoallergenic dog. If you live in a small home or apartment, you'll need a dog that's low-energy and relaxed.

There are also traits that would be nice to have, but you don’t mind if the dog doesn’t have them. For instance, if you’re not too keen on grooming, you may still be willing to adopt a long-haired dog if they’re perfect in every other way. You may be keeping an eye out for a certain breed, but you would be willing to adopt a dog of a different breed if they’re friendly and calm.

sleeping dog

Deal-breakers are the qualities in a dog that mean that you simply can’t adopt them. These can include aspects like size and temperament. If you have a busy lifestyle, you shouldn’t adopt a nervous or aggressive dog that needs constant work and training. If you rent your apartment, you may have to comply with certain restrictions on size or breed.

By coming in with these requirements explicitly laid out, you make the shelter’s job easier and hopefully ensure that you don’t fall for the first sad face you see!

2. Find Your Pet Online

There are many different types of shelters, including general rescue groups, humane societies, and breed-specific rescues. All reputable shelters have an online presence, and you can use their websites as a way to see what dogs are available for adoption. Be sure to do your research and avoid puppy mills or irresponsible breeders by sticking to known rescue organizations or using a site like petfinder.com or adoptapet.com

When you start looking at shelters, stick to non-profit rescue organizations that promote the ethical adoption of animals. Ideally, you want the shelter to run home-checks to ensure that their dogs are all going to suitable homes. You also want the shelter to neuter and spay any animals, and the facilities should be clean and neat. Any adoption fees should cover medical and shelter expenses without generating additional income.

Avoid shelters that don’t allow you to come to visit their premises or talk to staff, and also avoid shelters that operate for-profit, as they tend to prioritize profit over the animals’ wellbeing and safety. If you suspect an organization doesn’t have the animal’s best interests in mind, move on to one that does.

3. Visit the Shelter

Once you’ve done your research, it’s a good idea to visit multiple shelters to find the dog of your dreams, you can – again – find shelters online, through sites like theshelterpetproject.org. When you visit a shelter, you get a good chance to see the condition of the dogs and whether the shelter legitimately cares for the animals it rescues. It also gives you the ideal chance to get to know a number of dogs that may meet most of your requirements.

dog shelter

Most of the time, people expect that they’ll immediately find the canine companion that they’ll fall in love with, but this isn’t always the case. If there aren’t any dogs that catch your eye, you can either wait a while longer or visit another shelter. Since this is a decision that you’ll have to live with for at least a decade, it’s a good idea to give it time and not rush or try to force things.

By waiting for the perfect (or near-perfect) dog, you’re less likely to find yourself returning the dog because things just didn’t work out. There are so many dogs looking for a loving home that you’re bound to find the right one for you with a little patience.

4. Important Questions to Ask

Once you’ve found what may be your ideal canine companion, you need to take the time to get some information about them. While it’s tempting to just immediately adopt and take your new friend home, by asking these vital questions, you can avoid unpleasant surprises later on.

The first question you should ask is about the history of the animal. This includes both the medical and behavioral history. By getting the medical history, you’ll be able to plan your vaccination schedule and identify whether your new friend has any existing medical conditions. It’s also a good way to determine how well the shelter or rescue takes care of their animals.

Good shelters will always do a behavioral assessment of their animals, which will identify any problems or quirks that the dog may have. It will also give you a good indication of whether the dog will easily fit into your lifestyle. If the dog has been surrendered, it’s vital to know why this happened. You want to find out whether the dog has bitten anyone or has any other behavioral issues. Many of these issues can be addressed, but it takes time and effort on the part of the owner, and you need to be completely certain you’re willing to commit to a dog that may not be easy to train.

You should also find out the shelter’s policy on returning dogs. Sometimes, despite the best research and planning, things just don’t work out, and reputable shelters will always be willing to take dogs back. Some dogs take a while to settle down and reveal their true personalities, so you definitely don’t want a time limit on returning the dog if you don’t fit well together.

Find out if there is a health guarantee that allows you to get treatment from their vet for a certain period after you adopt the dog.

A small but important fact to find out is what the shelter is feeding their dogs. This will help you transition your new pet gently to your preferred food without any upset stomachs.

Finally, you should discuss the adoption process in detail so that you know exactly what to expect. Many shelters will try to get information about you, your lifestyle, and your living conditions before allowing you to adopt a dog. While this may feel invasive, it’s aimed at weeding out unsuitable owners as well as making sure that you get a dog that matches your needs. Many rescues will also conduct a home check to make sure that your house or apartment is suitable for the dog you’re planning to adopt. 

5. Bring Your Dog Home

Once you’ve done all the paperwork and the home check is completed, it’s time to bring your pup home. There are many things that you can do to ensure your new friend has a successful and easy transition into their forever home. Some shelters and rescues will offer a basic kit and guide that gives you advice on how to proceed for the first few days and weeks.

The main thing you should remember is that everything is new to the dog, and there will be many sights, sounds and smells that they're not used to. Allow your dog the time to get accustomed to their new space without placing any extra expectations on them.

Some dogs are confident and will quickly start exploring and bonding with you, while others will need a bit more time. A good rule of thumb is that once your dog starts acting just a little bit naughty, that’s when they’ve truly come home.

Service Dog Adoption

While all dogs are, indeed, good dogs, not all of them can be successful service dogs. The standards for service dogs are incredibly rigorous, and many dogs that begin training just don’t make the cut. This doesn’t mean they’re failures; it just means that they get to have a career change from working dog to pet and live a life of ease.

Dog looking

The good news is that “failed” service dogs are almost always placed for adoption, allowing you to offer them a great home. Service dog organizations tend to adopt out directly in order to minimize the stress on the dog and avoid placing them into the shelter system. This means that you may have to pass more stringent home checks, and you’ll probably have to wait a while before you get the dog you want, but the results are well worth it.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to adopting service dogs, and it’s not a decision you should take lightly.

What You Should Know About Service Dogs

Being a service dog is serious business since these dogs need to function at peak capacity at all times. They have to be able to keep their minds on the job without being distracted by strangers or things to chase. They have to be independent enough to make decisions that can directly impact the health of their owners but gentle and obedient enough to stay out of the way when necessary. Due to these very stringent standards, many of the pups that start service dog training don’t complete it and are adopted out as pets instead.

Golden retrievers, Labradors, German shepherds, and standard poodles are the most common types of service dogs, as these breeds have the right amount of independence, obedience, and intelligence to be good working dogs.  If you're looking for one of these breeds, adopting a service dog is a great option.

However, if you’re looking for a corgi or a Pekinese, you may end up waiting a long time. It’s likely that a breed-specific rescue is a better option for you.

Service dogs are sourced from shelters as puppies, and they spend around a year in foster care. During this year, they’re socialized and exposed to basic obedience training. Many of the characteristics of good service dogs tend to emerge later in the year, after which a decision is made to either continue with training or put the dog up for adoption. All service dogs, whether they are successful or not, are highly trained and well-socialized animals, which makes them a joy to be around.

The standards for service dogs are very strict in terms of behavior and health. Many dogs are simply too energetic or too friendly to be good working dogs, but these obviously are great characteristics for a pet. Service dogs also need to be in peak health and can’t have issues like joint problems, cataracts, or allergies. Luckily, none of these conditions affect their ability to lounge around on your couch and receive belly rubs. 

Adoption Process and Costs

If you decide to adopt a failed service dog, otherwise known as a dog that’s “changing careers,” your first step is to get in touch with the organization of your choice. There are many popular service organizations that are well-known, such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, Service Dogs Inc., and Freedom Service Dogs of America. There are also many other less famous organizations that also need to find homes for their unsuccessful service dogs.

Unfortunately, these organizations tend to have long waiting lists, as career change dogs are incredibly popular due to the fact that they’ve already been socialized and trained. You may have to wait months or years before a dog becomes available, so get your application in as early as possible.

Different organizations will have different processes in place and different adoption requirements. You can visit the organization’s website and see what their specific requirements are, as well as what documentation you’ll need to fill out. By doing your research at this early stage, you ensure that when a dog becomes available, you’ll be able to proceed through the rest of the adoption process smoothly. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with the organization directly if you have any questions, as they’ll always be happy to assist serious prospective owners.

When it comes to price, career change service dogs tend to be quite expensive to adopt. Depending on the organization, you can expect to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to adopt a service dog. The main reason for this high cost is the fact that even failed service dogs have received a great deal of specialized attention. They’ve usually spent around a year in a foster home, where they’ve had all their medical needs taken care of. They’ve also received significant amounts of socialization and training, and their foster parents have invested a lot of time into their development.

A good thing about the high adoption fee is that it forces you to seriously consider whether or not a career change dog is a right option for you. It’s a great way to help out service dog organizations as well as ensure that you get a great house-pet that’s already trained and socialized. However, if you’re not too keen on Labradors, German shepherds, or golden retrievers, and you’re not willing to wait or pay expensive adoption fees, it may be a good idea to explore other options as well.

Retired Police or Military Dog Adoption

We’ve all seen the image of tough police officers with K9s, working tirelessly to find missing people, search for evidence, and protect the community, but not many of us have ever considered the possibility of adopting these dogs once they retire.

Police and military dogs need to be in peak health to do their jobs correctly, and many of them are retired from duty by the time they’re nine years old. Obviously, for many dogs, this isn’t anywhere near the end of their lifespan, so they need to be placed somewhere for their retirement.

military dog

Until relatively recently, retired military and police dogs were euthanized once their service ended. Luckily, this practice ended in 2000, and these dogs now have the option to be adopted instead. In many cases, their handlers or partners will be the ones adopting them, which is ideal because dog and human already have a strong existing bond. However, if that’s not an option, some of these dogs are available to be adopted out to the general public.

There are many reasons to consider adopting a retired police or military dog. Firstly, you’ll be doing them a kindness by ensuring that their final years are spent relaxing and just being a dog without the stress that comes along with work. Secondly, you’ll be getting a well-trained companion who will understand what you’re doing for them and love you for it.

Adopting a retired police dog isn’t an easy process, however, and there are many moving parts that have to fall into place in order for it to happen. Also, the dogs themselves may not be the most relaxed pets in the world and may exhibit negative behaviors that you’ll need to work through. You need to have the time and resources to invest in working with the dog and bringing these issues under control.

What You Should Know About Former Police or Military Dogs

Police and military dogs start their training from a very early age and spend a number of years in training before beginning active service. During this time they’re taught basic obedience as well as many advanced commands that depend on the service the dog is entering. Once they’ve completed their training, they’re enrolled into active duty. They then serve for a number of years until they reach an age where they’re not able to do their job properly, after which they retire to enjoy their last days as family pets.

Police and military dogs work in high-stress, dangerous conditions, and unfortunately, this does leave mental and physical scars. Many of these dogs have behavioral issues that can include aggression, depression and anxiety, and even a form of canine PTSD. They can also easily develop separation anxiety, as they may become frightened that their new owners will abandon them. They can also struggle with socialization, and you may have to re-socialize them and help them adapt to non-working life.

Adoption Process and Costs

Working dogs form very strong bonds with their handlers, which is why these handlers are always the first choice for adoption when the dog retires. In this happy event, the dog goes home and still lives with their best friend while enjoying all the benefits of pet life. If the handler is unable to adopt the dog, either due to injury, lack of resources, or unsuitability of their living situation, other police or military officers are next in line.

It's only when there are no possible military or police personnel who are willing to take the dog that they becomes available to the general public. There are no official organizations dedicated to helping the public adopt retired military or police dogs, which means that you'll need to do a lot of research to find out when these dogs come up for adoption.

Your best bet is to get in touch with the variety of organizations dedicated to supporting retired service dogs. Mission K9 occasionally helps organize civilian adoptions in addition to helping handlers with medical care and training for their retired pooches. They have a strict adoption process that includes a home check, calls to your vet, and ensuring sure that you have the time and will to work with a former working dog. There is no adoption fee for adopting a dog from Mission K9, but you do have to cover all the transportation and vet costs yourself. You are also welcome to make a donation to the service to ensure they continue to home working dogs to civilian homes.

You can also get in touch with your local police department and K9 training facilities and make inquiries into whether there are any dogs available for adoption. Chances are you’ll be placed on a waiting list, and you may have to wait a long time before a suitable dog becomes available. Keep in mind that you probably won’t get the first dog that’s available, either, as these organizations take their dogs’ placement very seriously and will make sure that your home and lifestyle is suitable.

There are, admittedly, many hurdles to adopting a retired working dog. Not only do you have to deal with a long wait time, but you also run the risk of adopting a dog with behavioral issues that you need to be willing to address. However, if you’re the type of person who thrives on bringing out the best in dogs, then a retired police or military dog is an excellent choice. You’ll be adopting a highly loyal, intelligent companion and making sure that they spend the rest of their lives catching up on all the lazy times they missed when they were working.

Pros and Cons of Adopting a Puppy, Adult, or Senior Dog

When it comes to choosing a dog to adopt, many people are instantly attracted to puppies. They’re amazingly cute, with giant eyes, potato bodies, and the amazing smell of puppy breath. But are puppies really the best choice when adopting? What about adult or even senior dogs?

Dog

A dog’s personality and energy levels change as they age, and each life stage comes with its own advantages and challenges. Some life stages are more suitable for certain lifestyles than others. If you’re an avid runner, you may want to avoid adopting a senior dog. Conversely, if you’re a couch potato, an older dog will be the perfect choice. Ultimately, it all depends on what you’re looking for from your pet.

Puppies

Puppies are adorable. They’re small, helpless, and so clumsy that it almost hurts to watch them play. Many people get puppies simply based on their cuteness, but puppies also have a couple of extra advantages over adults and seniors.

The main one is that you’re starting off with a blank slate, and if you’re diligent about socialization and training, you’ll have no behavioral issues to deal with later on. You’ll be able to develop a strong bond that will last for the entirety of your dog’s life.

However, this is offset by the fact that puppies require an incredible amount of work.

They may not be as tough as new-born babies, but you can still expect to have a few sleepless nights while you housetrain them, and you'll need to spend a lot of time on socialization.

Puppies are also inherently destructive, especially when they start teething, and you need to be diligent in curbing this behavior before it becomes ingrained.

Another drawback of puppies is that you’ll be spending a lot of time – and money – at the vet. You’ll have to pay for puppy vaccines, which occur much more frequently than adult booster shots. You’ll also have to pay for spaying or neutering. You’ll need to keep a close eye on your dog’s health, as many of the most fatal canine diseases are especially dangerous to puppies.

Adolescents

Dogs are considered to be adolescents between the ages of one and three. As with human teenagers, dogs at this age can be a pain to handle. They’re rebellious and will constantly push boundaries. They still retain much of their puppy energy, but they’re now big enough that they can do serious damage if they’re still destructive. Unsurprisingly, most animals in shelters are surrendered at this age as their owners struggle to cope with unwanted behaviors.

The good news is that despite being occasional pains in the butt, adolescent dogs are actually very receptive to proper training, as they start to form the connection between a reward and the desired behavior. This makes training a challenging but ultimately satisfying experience.

If you’re an active person, you’ll finally be able to go out and do activities with your “teenager” that you wouldn’t be able to do with your puppy. Adolescent dogs love going for hours-long hikes or runs, and it’s a great way to get you fit and expend some of their boundless energy at the same time. If you are interested in dog sports like agility or flyball, now’s the perfect time to get started.

If you’re considering adopting an adolescent dog, be sure you know what you’re getting into. They are less work than a puppy, but they can be infinitely more frustrating. However, if you’re up for the challenge and are consistent with your training, you’ll be rewarded with the best adult dog you’ve ever owned.

Mature Adults

Mature adult dogs are generally easy to adopt. They’ve settled into themselves and aren’t too concerned with pushing boundaries anymore. They’ve also lost a lot of their puppy-like energy, which means they’re a bit more stable. That doesn’t mean that they don’t love to play, though; they will still love to spend time with you, especially when you throw the ball for them. Since they’re fully grown, they’ll have few physical limitations on what they can do, and they’ll be able to keep you company no matter what you do.

Adult dogs come with a number of benefits that make them a great choice, especially for first-time adopters. Many are already trained with basic commands, so you don't have to teach them.

They’re also generally house-trained, and with a bit of guidance, they’ll quickly pick up on where they’re allowed or not allowed to do their business in and around your home.

Adult dogs have settled into their personalities, which means that behavioral assessments are much more reliable. This allows shelters to pair dogs to owners reliably and with few potential issues. Adult rescue dogs also seem to appreciate being placed in a good home and will display their gratitude with tons of love for their new owners.

The main drawback of adopting an adult dog is that some of them come with a lot of baggage, which usually only becomes apparent a few weeks in. Some dogs will come in with bad habits, such as counter-surfing or garbage eating, which you’ll have to train out of them. Others come with behavioral issues that you’ll need to address, such as, aggression, anxiety, or a lack of socialization. Ideally a shelter will let you know about these problems before you adopt and won’t match these dogs with inexperienced owners.

Senior Dogs

Any dog that’s around nine years or older can be considered a senior dog. Senior dogs that find their way into shelters or rescues are notoriously difficult to adopt out since most people are wary of adopting a dog that may die within a year or two. Some people are also put off by the higher chance of vet bills as the dog ages and their health deteriorates.

While it’s true that you may not have as much time with a senior dog as you do with a younger one, you may find that the years you have together are better. Senior dogs are already trained and housebroken and have had their personalities extensively evaluated, so you’re less likely to get any surprises. They also tend to be sweet-tempered, without the drama that comes with younger dogs. They’re more than content to just amble along for a walk and then spend the rest of the day on the sofa.

In short, they’re the perfect companion for older humans. It’s true that your time together may be short, but there are no guarantees in life for younger dogs, either. Many adopters of senior dogs find it satisfying to give their canine companions a wonderful home for their twilight years.

What to Do After Adopting a Dog

You’ve bitten the bullet, signed the papers, and prepared to fetch your dog. The transition between shelter and forever home is always going to be stressful and unnerving for your pooch, but there are certain things that you can do to make the change as easy as possible.

Dog-Proof Your Home

Before you fetch your dog from the shelter, set up their own personal area that they can retreat to in case they feel overwhelmed. View your home with the eyes of a dog, and dog-proof anything you can. This includes getting a pet-proof trash can and removing any small choking hazards from within reach. If you’re uncertain whether the dog is housetrained, you can also remove any rugs and pillows that you value in case of accidents. 

dog in bed

If your new dog has any special items from the shelter, such as a toy or blanket, ask if you can take them with you. An item that’s familiar to the dog will give them a bit of comfort and reassurance. You should also set up the crate before the dog arrives if you’re planning on crate-training.

Basic Dog Needs

Dogs don’t need a lot of fancy toys or accessories, especially when they first arrive at a new home. It’s really tempting to compile an exhaustive list of things you think the dog will need, but you’ll often find that you can get away with a few essentials and leave the rest for later. Your nerves and wallet will be much better off if you just stick to the basics.

Here are some of those basics:

  • Food and water bowls
  • Dog food
  • Somewhere comfortable to sleep, either a dog bed or crate
  • Collar, ID tag, and leash
  • Vet records
  • A toy or two

Remember, you can build up your toy collection over time instead of buying them all at once. Find out what your new dog prefers before stocking up on one kind of toy.

Dog Food Transition

If you’re planning on feeding your dog high-quality, premium-grade dog food, you will need to gradually transition off of the food the shelter has been using. By transitioning the food gradually, you reduce the risk of spontaneous vomiting and diarrhea and give your dog’s stomach time to adjust.

Stick to the food the shelter was giving for a week or so while the dog acclimates to their new home. Then gradually transition by mixing the food over the course of a few days, slowly increasing the percentage of new food and reducing the percentage of old food. The slower you do this, the better the transition will be. A good period to aim for is between 7 and 14 days.

Schedule a Vet Visit

Even if your dog isn’t sick, it’s a good idea to introduce yourself to your dog’s new vet. You can bring along any existing health records that you got from the shelter in order to help your vet build up a picture of your dog’s overall condition. By establishing a relationship with your vet early on, you give the vet a chance to familiarize themselves with your dog and their medical history, which is essential if there is a medical emergency. You can also point out any special needs that your dog has.

Some (or most) dogs really dislike going to the vet, so you need to carefully monitor your dog before scheduling a visit. If the dog is still stressed by the move to their forever home, give them time to adjust before putting on the pressure of a vet visit. If you’ve got a confident dog who’s adjusted to home life quickly, you can schedule the visit earlier.

Start Dog Training

When your dog first arrives at your home, they won’t know the ground rules. They don’t know where to pee, where to eat, or where to relax, and that can really stress them out. That’s why it’s vital to start teaching your dog as soon as they arrive.

The first step should be to housetrain your dog. If they’ve done it before, they’ll quickly pick up on where they’re expected to do their business. If they haven’t been housetrained before, you should stick to a strict schedule until they get the idea. Take them outside or to the appropriate spot regularly, as often as every 30 minutes, and provide lots of praise when they use it.

Regardless of whether your dog has been previously housetrained, you should expect some accidents early on. Never punish your dog for peeing in the home. Especially if you find the puddle long after the dog left it there, they won’t make the connection between peeing indoors and your punishment. Just clean it up with some enzymatic cleaner and move on.

During the first week, you should focus on teaching your dog the rules of your home. This includes where they sleep, where they eat, and what they’re allowed or not allowed to do. If possible, set up a routine for feeding, walking, and exercising.

After that, you can start focusing on teaching or reinforcing basic commands such as “sit,” “stay,” “come,” and “leave it.” It’s also a good time to start teaching your dog how to walk on a leash and, finally, move on to more complex tricks. Many pet stores offer basic training classes if you need somewhere to start. Remember that, when it comes to training, consistency is the key.

training a dog

It’s essential that, no matter what you’re trying to teach the dog, you keep training sessions short and stress-free. Make sure to use plenty of encouragement and positive reinforcement, and if you notice that the dog is getting bored or stressed, end the session immediately. Training sessions should be fun for both you and your new pooch.

Let Your Dog Adjust

A big mistake that many new owners make is to put too much pressure on the dog in the first weeks after adoption. They may place unreasonable expectations on the dog, such as demanding obedience and love immediately. These bonds take time to develop, and you shouldn’t push them. The vast majority of dogs just want to please their owners, but it can take some time to hash out communication and trust before a dog and a human sync up.

You may also find that your dog acts differently than they did in the shelter. Some dogs are almost unbelievably well-behaved in the first few weeks of arrival. Some of this is due to stress, and some dogs can take months before they relax enough to show their true personality. Once your dog starts occasionally being naughty instead of angelic, you know that they’ve finally relaxed enough for you to start your life-long journey together in earnest.

And that’s about it! If you made it this far, congratulations, this is probably one of the biggest guides on the site… but now you should be armed with enough knowledge on how to adopt a dog! Hope this guide helped you in some way 🙂

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