Your Guide to Your First Shelter Dog

Updated on April 12, 2018
Jana Louise Smit profile image

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.

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What to Expect When Adopting a Dog

  • Noise
  • A yard inspection
  • Paperwork
  • An adoption fee
  • Sterilization
  • Household adjustments

Think Before You Visit a Shelter

What are you looking for in a dog? Rescue dogs should not be viewed as a product that must meet some standard, and things are not as simple as showing up at the local kennels and taking your new, fluffy dog home. What if Fluffy eats cats and you have several kitties? Criteria to consider beforehand doesn't mean things like coat colour or gender. Such things are obsolete when it comes to a good match, and there's the magic word: match. When you visit a shelter, things can get emotional (read impulsive) real quick. If you take a cat-eater home accidentally, obviously the journey together will be short, and Fluffy will go back to the shelter (which defeats the purpose of an adoptive family). Adoption aims to have an animal stay and prosper.

If you know what suits your family and lifestyle, then the staff can create a short list of the animals that meet those requirements. Every household is unique, but consider the following basics:

  • Do you want a puppy, adult or senior dog?
  • How much exercise can you give it? Some dogs inherit strong traits from purebred ancestors. Just ask anyone who has ever owned a Border Collie mix; they still need a lot of physical activity.
  • Do you have kids or other pets? If so, a dog from a similar background is best.

Expect Your Insides to Hurt

When you go to a shelter for the first time, chances are good that the experience may be upsetting. During my time in animal welfare, I saw many first-timers moved to tears when they saw the rows of cages filled with eager dogs and cats. Others were so heartbroken, they refused to enter the premises and waited outside while a family member or friend picked a dog.

Perhaps the hardest-hitting is the noise that goes up whenever somebody walks through the kennels. Every dog begins to bark, paw at the gate or squish against the fencing just for a scratch. Like I said, a lot of people leave red-eyed. I've been told that visitors experience an immense sense of guilt when they visit. I'll tell you what I told them: You'll change a living creature's life and for him or her, that's like offering heaven. Don't let this fear of "leaving the others behind" stop you.

Meet the Boys and Girls

Take your time and say hello to each dog.
Take your time and say hello to each dog. | Source

How to Pick a Dog

After you've informed the staff about what you're looking for, consider each dog they suggest. Ask the following questions about the candidates:

  • What is the dog's background (find out as much as you can)?
  • What is the dog's health status?
  • Does the dog have any behavioral issues?
  • What are the dog's likes and dislikes (any normal dog has a few)?

Then, go meet the pooches. Sometimes, there will be an immediate connection between you and Fido. This is good, but keep in mind that some rescues have been mistreated and don't trust strangers; this is not a smudge on their character. Some of the happiest owners worked to regain the trust of an abused dog. This is perhaps what makes adoptive families return for another pet in the future—knowing that they corrected a big wrong in a pet's past. After meeting each dog the personnel suggested, you need to make a choice. Take your time until you are certain.

The Technicalities of Adopting a Dog

Gone is the time when a dog settled into its new home an hour after getting picked. As the years progressed, animal organizations identified several issues with this approach and found that dogs went to loving families but unsuitable environments and worse, they had litters. When you adopt, expect at least some of the following rules:

  • You must fill out a formal application
  • There must be a yard inspection
  • The animal must be sterilized
  • You must pay an adoption fee

Why Must You Undergo a Yard Inspection?

As previously mentioned, an adoptive family could be the best animal lovers on the planet, however, what if they own a pool, no fence and live near a busy street? The dog can get run over or drown. Or, it might get lost and live the miserable life of a stray.

When an inspector arrives, these are the basic things they will consider:

  • Is this yard fully walled/fenced in and safe?
  • The height of the wall/fence.
  • Will the dog be chained (automatic disqualification)?
  • Is fresh water available inside and outside of the house?
  • If there is a pool (which is not always viewed favorably), is it fenced in or covered with a stable safety net that won't injure the dog should it try to walk on the netting or sheet?
  • The breeds, ages and number of any other pets.
  • Are there any danger points? These could include rusty fencing, pipes, rubbish or building material strewn haphazardly.

Sterilization and Adoption Costs

These two go hand in hand but sometimes, the first-time adoptive owner struggles to understand why a fee must be paid at all. Shelters advertise dogs desperately in need of homes. Then, when you offer a home, you get slapped with a fee that doesn't seem to fit a needy mutt of questionable ancestry.

Here's why: You're not actually buying the dog, but paying for a discounted sterilization. This is the hallmark of a responsible rescue center. Sterilization is key to breaking the cycle of unwanted litters growing up to breed more dogs or end up in shelters themselves. Even purebreds are neutered and spayed before going to their new homes. If you pick a puppy that is too young, then you'll sign a contract to have the dog sterilized, usually when they are four to six months old.

A shelter's adoption fee is tied to an agreement with a local vet who will perform sterilizations for the said price. You can usually find out about a rescue center's fee on their website.

No More Puppies

Females face the bigger operation and need care not to tear the stitches in their tummy.
Females face the bigger operation and need care not to tear the stitches in their tummy. | Source

The Process of Adapting After Adoption

After the dust settles, the happy moment arrives and you collect your new pet. If Butch is a puppy, then he will go through the normal puppy pains. The first night is always a bit difficult, but youngsters adapt more seamlessly into a caring environment.

Adult dogs' personalities dictate how they deal with change. If Princess is mellow, she'll soon take over your favorite couch. If she's a more fearful creature, she needs patience and gentle understanding until she realizes this new world is a safe one. If she wants to hide under the bed, place some food, water and a toy nearby and then let her be. Owners also face new responsibilities that are both time-consuming (care and attention) and financial (food, equipment and vet visits).

Why It's Worth It to Adopt a Dog

I'll spare you the cry that it's "the right thing to do" because adoption is not the best move in every situation. When a new owner and dog match, a very special journey begins. I've seen people take their rescues all the way to top agility meets held at Crufts, turn them into therapy dogs or their kid's constant companion. Rescue dogs land up with the right people for the right reasons—not to be bred, beaten or abandoned—but to enrich a household and even the community.

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit

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