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20 Things to Consider Before Adopting a Dog from a Shelter

Make safety a priority for yourself, your family, and your new rescue dog with these simple tips.

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First: Are you ready for an adopted dog?

Adopting a dog means adding a lovable new member to your family, but it’s also a big responsibility. Everyone in your household needs to be on board with the decision to adopt a dog and understand the commitments of time, money, and care that owning a pet entails. If you’re not sure your family is ready, consider fostering a dog first. “Becoming a temporary foster home is an excellent way for your family to learn more about pet ownership, gain first-hand experience on what works for your home environment, and see if you’re ready for a new permanent member of the family. You can think of it like a test-drive,” says Joan Harris, director of canine training and behavior at PAWS Chicago. “Some families love fostering so much that they choose to be a resource to help the shelter save more lives by continuing to foster, rather than adopting themselves.” If you are ready to bring a new dog into your lives, congratulations! These are the things you need to keep in mind as your new pet adjusts to their new family.

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Don’t believe the misconceptions about shelter dogs

According to the ASPCA, 3.2 million people adopt a rescue pet every year. However, a common misconception is that all shelter dogs are broken, abused, or problematic. While some have been through traumatic situations or need extra medical or behavioral care, shelter dogs are placed in a shelter for a variety of reasons. “We have happy and healthy puppies from ‘oops’ litters where people didn’t spay or neuter their pets,” says Michael Morefield, director of marketing and communications for the Arizona Animal Welfare League. “We (also) have adults that are playful, active, and love other dogs, but their family couldn’t care for them for one reason or another.” There is no feeling like the one you get as you lock eyes with a dog and know it’s “the one,” regardless of age or breed. The day you bring home a new dog is one of the most memorable days ever.

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Your dog is scared

Your new pup is most likely freaking out, and that’s ok. He’s been through an ordeal, either surrendered by his previous owner, picked up as a stray, and/or separated from its mom and litter mates for the first time. Rescue facilities, while important and necessary, aren’t exactly calm, quiet places. Your new dog was probably in a run or cage, maybe with one or two other dogs in the same run with him, surrounded by even more dogs in other cages, all of them barking and howling. Then, a stranger (you) put him in a car (which may or may not be frightening in itself) and took him to another completely new place. It is an adjustment, so be sure to give your pet time to get used to the new digs. And also, look out for these 15 signs that your pup is mad at you.

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You know nothing about your dog’s personality

Obviously, your new dog did something to charm you or she wouldn’t be your new dog. But rescue dogs, especially older ones, can be unpredictable and even if they pass a temperament test with flying colors, it pays to be safe. Never leave your children alone with a new dog, even if you think it’s the sweetest dog in the world. Take your time getting to know your dog. Better to err on the side of caution until she’s comfortable in her new home. Not all dogs at the shelter are abused dogs and not every  one has been mistreated, but they’ve still been through trauma and can be unpredictable.

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Your home should be pet-proofed

Just as homes need to be child-proofed for newborns and toddlers, your house should also be free of items that could potentially harm your new pet. Common culprits to look out for are small items or toys that are easy to swallow; loose wires; medicines and cleaning solutions; and houseplants that are poisonous to animals, like lilies, sago palms, and tulips. You should also keep your new pet away from these 12 common foods that could be toxic to dogs.

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He will need training

Even if your new rescue had a previous owner, he probably picked up some bad habits while he was up for adoption. Improper urination, chewing, jumping, and pulling on the leash are all super common behavior problems in rescue dogs (especially pups who may never have had obedience—or potty—training) but they are also correctable. Consistent training is important in establishing new habits and teaching your new rescue his boundaries and the rules of his new “pack.” Your pup also might be acting out because they aren’t getting what they want; read the 19 things your dog actually wants from you (hint: a lot of attention).

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She doesn’t know you “saved” her

We like to anthropomorphize animals and imagine our pets have human thoughts and feelings. But animals, even your rescue dog, aren’t capable of the broad range of emotions that we often give them credit for. Your new fur baby knows she was somewhere unpleasant and she knows that now she’s not. She doesn’t know you saved her from being euthanized. She likes you, yes, but she’s not able to feel grateful or appreciative. And she doesn’t know you won’t mistreat her if she’s been mistreated before. She may not trust you at first and just because you adopted her doesn’t mean she’s going to be your BFF right away.

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He needs enough time to adjust

No one should expect a new dog to see his new home and immediately feel at ease, but according to Liz Claflin, director of operations of Zoom Room dog training gyms, there’s actually a timeline you can expect your pet to follow. It’s called the 3-3-3 Adjustment Period. “It takes roughly three days for a new dog to simply get over the shock of moving homes. It takes about three weeks for a new dog to get used to his new home, all of the people in his life, and his new routine, rules, and boundaries.  Finally, it takes somewhere around three months for a dog to fully and truly settle into his new life,” Claflin explains. “At this point, he will have fully settled into the household, have a set schedule he follows and be a true member of the family.” These are the 18 best dog breeds for kids.

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She may chase your cat or fight with your other dog

She may hate your other pets. Or your other pets may hate her. She may have never been around a cat and she might be aggressive. Or, if she was a stray, she may have only been around other dogs who were competing for resources and she, therefore, sees them as a threat. It may take time for everyone to settle in. Let them take it at their own pace and don’t just toss your new dog into the same room with your old dog and think it will be fine. Dogs are intelligent (actually, more intelligent than their feline companions)––check out the 16 ways that dogs are smarter than you think.

Home portrait of cute child kissing puppy of Chinese Shar Pei dog on the sofa against black wallAlena Ozerova/Shutterstock

She won’t want to meet everyone at once

You will be tempted to invite family and friends over to meet your new dog as soon as she comes home—and with good reason; she’s just so darn cute!—but don’t give into temptation. You’ll only frighten her. “It’s important that your dog or puppy has a few quiet days just getting to know you and the people who live in your house,” Claflin says. Also, make sure that children living with the dog know the proper way to approach her: No poking, prodding, picking up, or hugging until she’s more comfortable with her new family.

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He will be entirely different from your other dogs

Even if he’s the same breed and looks exactly the same, he will be completely different from your other dogs. He may have bad habits or weird tendencies that your old dogs never had. He may not like to have his belly rubbed or he may be afraid of loud noises. No two dogs are the same, regardless of breed, and you should not expect your new dog to be anything like your previous dogs.

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You may not know what breed your pup is

Some rescue dogs have so many different breeds in their family trees, even the vet won’t be able to tell what she is. And while knowing the breed can be helpful in knowing what kind of behaviors to expect (herding dogs versus guarding dogs, for example) or how large your tiny pup will grow up to be (even 70-pound dogs start out as tiny 5-pound puppies), lots of mixed breeds are so mixed that breed-specific tendencies have been watered down. It is vital, however, that if you are looking for specific breeds, that you do your research. Some breeds are not appropriate for families with small children, or other small animals, or even other dogs. If you have your heart set on a particular breed, try reaching out to a rescue group that focuses on that breed (for example, adoptaboxerrescue.com).

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She may have health problems

Rescue organizations do their best to have every dog in their care checked by a veterinarian, but those vet checks don’t include blood work or allergy tests or anything beyond a routine physical exam. Usually, if a severe health problem is discovered, the rescue organization will take the dog back, but if you keep your pet, treatment will likely be at your own expense. Regardless of how healthy your new pet may seem, a visit to your vet in the first week is a must to make sure your new furry friend, especially a puppy, is current on shots.

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It may be up to you to have your dog spayed or neutered

Many rescue groups and animal shelters routinely spay or neuter all dogs in their care. Others don’t have the resources or, if you’re adopting a puppy, it may be too young to have the surgery. If that’s the case, ask your vet if there are low-cost spay and neuter programs in the area. Find out the 50 things your vet won’t tell you.

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Your new dog may need a license

Many cities and municipalities require all dogs to have a license. Check with your town hall or hometown website shortly after bringing your pup home.

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Microchip and register your new dog

According to the American Humane Association, an estimated 10 million pets are lost every year. To prevent your own new dog from getting lost and potentially ending up back in a shelter, make sure he is microchipped and that the microchip is registered with your current contact information. Plus, you can get that peace of mind without a huge price tag. Pet WebMD recommends getting your dog microchipped at the vet, which costs around $50 or less, and the Michelson Found Animals Foundation’s free microchip registry lets you register without a yearly fee or additional payments when you update contact info.

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Make your new dog comfortable at home…

Even though you know your home will be much more comfortable than a shelter, your pup only knows it as an unfamiliar environment. She may have a hard time relaxing. To help her feel more at ease, give her a space to call her own, whether that’s a crate or an entire room, that’s close enough to the action of the household without being too overwhelming.

Dog With Sticking Out Tongue Sitting In A Car SeatAndrey_Popov/Shutterstock

… And on-the-go

It’s also important to get your new dog acquainted with your car, to prepare him for rides to the vet and longer trips. Pet expert Dana Humphrey, aka The Pet Lady, suggests investing in a comfortable carrier like the Carry-Me Sleeper, a light, durable travel carrier that also folds out into a bed. “Allowing your new dog to explore the bed in your home before using it in the car is a great way to get him comfortable with his resting and traveling space,” Humphrey tells Reader’s Digest. “Having the ability to easily convert the carrier into a bed also gives you the opportunity to take your canine more places.”

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Yes, you should give her treats

You don’t want your new pup’s diet to consist solely of treats, but they can help her learn important social skills with other humans and other dogs. “Proper socialization means creating ‘positive’ associations with new people, places, and things,” says Harris. “Carry treats when introducing your new dog to new experiences and situations. Never force interactions. If your dog resists or is fearful, it’s always best to disengage.”

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Your new dog will love you

After the transition period is over and everyone is used to each other and rules and boundaries have been established, your rescue has the potential to be the most loyal and loving pet you’ve ever had. Need proof? Check out these 19 dog adoption before-and-after photos that will melt your heart.

Kristi Pahr
Kristi is a freelance writer out of South Carolina, USA. She was a graduate veterinary technician with 10+ years in veterinary medicine before deciding to stay home and raise her children. Since becoming a freelancer, she's been published at several national outlets, including but not limited to Paste Magazine, Bustle, and Romper. She specializes in health and wellness, parenting, mental health, and animal care.