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13 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Adopting a Shelter Dog

Updated: Mar. 23, 2023

That cute, cuddly shelter dog might seem perfect for you…but is he? Before you sign those adoption papers, consider this expert advice first.

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Man and his German Shepherd dog
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Ignoring the warnings

Rescue animals often have challenges you’ll be warned of prior to adopting them. Some dogs may not be great with kids or other animals. Some may not do well if left alone for long periods of time. And some may have medical conditions that require regular attention. “When we speak with potential adopters, we are bluntly honest about the issues we have seen or experienced since the animal has been in our care, [as well as] the schedule, structure, or training we have seen the best results with,” says Stephanie Petofi of Wizard of Paws Rescue.

Unfortunately, she adds, two out of five adoptions still result in calls of concern back to the rescue because new owners ignore those initial warnings. The bottom line: Listen to the staff members who have been working with this dog and recognize that the challenges won’t simply go away overnight. If you decide to move forward anyway, make sure you’re willing to put in the work because rehoming a dog is not an easy decision.

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Shepherd mix puppy dog makes funny face lying on shag rug carpet at home
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Failing to consider the logistics

“If you rent, can you even have a pet?” asks Kelly Reeves, president and co-founder of Paw Prints in the Sand Animal Rescue. Reeves says that people often fail to consider that question, as well as these others: If your lease does allow pets, are there weight or breed restrictions? What about your lifestyle? Do you travel a lot? Does work keep you away from home for long hours? Are you going to be able to make time to walk your dog and give it the attention it needs? Remember: A dog is a long-term commitment, and you need to make sure it fits into every aspect of your life before making a decision.

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Pet feeling good. Loving pet wearing uniform feeling good after examination of cute white dog

Underestimating the long-term costs

“We’ve had people adopt a dog from the shelter and come to us asking if they can surrender the dog because they couldn’t afford the care,” Reeves says. Avoid that potential issue by taking an honest look at your budget and the expenses that may come up along the way. This goes far beyond the initial adoption fee. You’ll also need a lifetime supply of dog food (which may include expensive brands if your dog has special dietary needs), training, vaccinations, boarding when you travel, supplies like a crate and a dog bed, and the list goes on. MoneyUnder30 says the first year of dog ownership costs more than $1,000 and then around $700 each year after that. And if your dog gets cancer or requires major surgery down the line, you could be looking at thousands in unexpected vet bills. Are you prepared to take on those expenses?

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Young woman with worker choosing which dog to adopt from a shelter.

Not asking enough questions

Chances are, you’re trying to impress the shelter or rescue organization you’re attempting to adopt from. As a result, you might be going along with everything they’re saying and just hoping they’ll deem you worthy enough to take this new pup home. But dog trainer and behaviorist Danielle Mühlenberg of Paw Leaks says that while shelters will usually have a lot of questions for you, “you should also write down questions that will help you get insight into your potential dog.” There are no dumb questions, and the shelter will appreciate the fact that you’re taking this decision seriously.

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African american father and daughter spending time together with a dog on a bed.

Not thinking about future children

“Not all rescue dogs are suitable for children,” says Mühlenberg. Some dogs are easily excitable or may show signs of stress in the loud, chaotic environments that children often create. And older dogs who haven’t been socialized with children may not be as patient with them. While the dog you’re looking at adopting may be perfect for your home and family today, will it always be? “Young couples should always consider the possibility of future children before getting a dog,” Mühlenberg advises. If parenthood may be in your future, check out the 18 best dog breeds for kids.

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two happy dogs in the car peep out. Jack Russell Terrier. Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

Assuming all dogs get along

“They don’t,” says Reeves. In fact, her rescue gets a lot of dogs who were originally adopted and then thrust in with other animals without any time for adjustment. “People need to give a shelter dog time to decompress before introducing it to other pets in the home,” she explains. “Dogs are territorial creatures. People need to practice responsible introductions and integration.”

So if the shelter says the dog you’re looking at doesn’t do well with other animals, consider another dog if you already have pets at home. And no matter which dog you ultimately choose, allow for slow and safe introductions. That may include letting your dogs meet at a neutral place at first (on leashes in the park, for instance) and keeping them in separate areas of the house for the first week or two at home.

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Young Boy Holding His New Terrier Mix Puppy
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Forgetting that a puppy won’t stay a puppy forever

We get it—puppies are adorable. But just like kids, puppies grow up. And puppies adopted from shelters often have unknown genetic backgrounds, which means no one really knows how big they’ll grow to be. Even with known breed backgrounds, puppies often surprise their owners by exceeding size expectations.

And no matter what size they become, they all get older. “It’s the worst thing,” Reeves says. “People adopt a puppy, and then when the puppy turns into a senior, they dump the dog back in the shelter and turn around and adopt another puppy.” Before you bring a puppy home, ask yourself if you’re willing to make a 12- to 17-year commitment to the grown-up dog it’s going to become.

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two volunteers of animals shelter playing with labrador dog
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Ignoring the rescue staff

If you tell a rescue organization about your lifestyle and they say the dog you have in mind probably isn’t the right fit but they know of a dog that is…listen. “It may not be the picture-perfect animal you had in your head, but they’re setting you and the animal up for success,” Petofi says. “I have never had those that listen come back and regret having listened.” Meanwhile, she says, it’s not uncommon for families who ignored rescue-staff advice to eventually return the dog they adopted. To avoid that situation, you should also consider these 13 signs you should think twice before adopting a shelter dog.

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hand and paw of a big dog, a handshake with a pet. sports bracelets on hand, walk with a dog

Mistaking a dog’s grief for long-term behavior issues

When you rescue a dog from the shelter, you never really know what its past was like. But just because a dog seems sad or shy, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a red flag in terms of behavior. “The dog may be grieving the loss of its previous owner and may be sad,” Regis explains. Dogs also grieve the absence of other animals they were bonded to. “This can be manifested by lack of appetite, lack of energy, lack of interest in surroundings, or house-training issues.” Regis says that grief will pass with time, but that dogs in mourning especially need a safe, loving environment and time to adjust.

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Dog in a bathtub wrapped in a towel. Giving a bath to home pets concept: funny dog covered in towel in white minimalistic bathroom
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Not realizing there’s a lot of work ahead

Even if you’ve done everything right before you sign those adoption papers, you’ll still need to navigate a number of issues at home. New dogs require continued education, socialization, and training, a fact that is often especially true of rescue animals. One mistake that new owners of shelter pets often make? Not dealing with unwanted behavior, like being possessive of food or toys, from the start. “Many pups in the shelter or rescue environment develop guarding issues because it’s the only thing they have control over,” says Petofi. “If you do not socialize them repeatedly, or train them for more positive behaviors, they will only continue to escalate.” When in doubt, ask your local rescue about trainers who specialize in dealing with the issues you’re experiencing.

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woman and her dog admire together the scenery
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Trying to do it all on your own

“You and your new dog need to be educated to set yourself up for success,” says Russell Hartstein, a certified dog-behavior consultant at Fun Paw Care. “Call a force- and fear-free trainer and behaviorist sooner rather than later.” This is particularly important if you already have other animals at home, but it’s a good idea for all dog adoptions. Unless you have years of experience raising and training dogs, both you and your dog will likely benefit from training. And don’t miss these tips from dog trainers on how to stop a puppy from biting.

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dog looking out of window

Not knowing your new pet is a flight risk

This is another issue that you might face during your first few days together. Your home may seem scary to your new pup, and you are a stranger—potentially one of many he’s encountered in his search for a new home. “So [he’s] at risk for running away or simply getting out of the yard and getting lost,” Regis explains. Close supervision and leashed walks will be necessary for several weeks. As wonderful as your home may be, a nervous pup might be searching for an escape route.

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Happy Dog at the Dog Park
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Expecting an easy adjustment

It’s important to recognize that all dogs have different personalities, just like us, says Heather Pagan, lead volunteer with No More Puppies Georgia. They all have different likes, dislikes, needs, and fears that you’ll have to get to know over time. “Every dog a human chooses to bring home needs to feel at home, but we can’t expect this to happen in three seconds,” she explains. “We need to focus on slow introductions, being patient, learning to read body language, developing trust, and accepting that this is a big change that the dog has had no say in.” But if you’re patient and take the time to try to understand your new pup and work through the challenges, you will reap the rewards for years to come. Here are 10 incredible benefits of owning a pet.