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dog adoption guide

Guide to Dog Adoption Part 1: What Are You Looking For In a Dog?

Bringing home a new pet is an exciting time in your life. It’s the only time that you truly get to pick who to welcome into your family, and making the leap is thrilling.

That said, the first days or even weeks with a new pet is a big adjustment period (remember your first roommate?). There will be accidents, annoyances, and miscommunication.

I work at an animal shelter and as a trainer. My life revolves around helping animals adjust to new homes, and humans adjust to their new pets. In March 2017, I brought home my own dog - a border collie named Barley.

Determined to make our first few hours, days, and weeks as perfect as possible, I made a timeline and game plan for the first month with my new dog. That’s what I want to share with you - a gameplan on how to find your new forever friend and get off to a great start!

The timelines in this guide are not rigid. Every dog is an individual, and every family and home situation is unique. Be prepared to leap forward and take steps backwards depending on your situation.

Things to Consider Before Deciding on a Dog

Before you start dreaming about the cutest breeds you’d love to see on your lap, it’s important to remember that you need to find a dog that will fit with you - the cookie to your cutter!

You shouldn’t be selecting a dog based on looks, but rather based on your lifestyle.

While it’s certainly possible to have a couch potato border collie or a super-active basset hound, humans created most breeds with specific goals in mind. There’s a lot of soul searching and thought that needs to be put into what type of dog will be the best fit for you (and/or your family).

What to Consider Before Finding Your Fido

Financial Budget

Make sure you’re in a good position for a new dog financially, as it’s important to consider how much your new dog will cost you.

Cost Breakdown

Most dog budgets account for about $100 per month, per dog. This doesn’t usually include things like regular dog walking or doggie daycare, which easily run $100 per week. Expect the costs to be higher for the first month or two of dog ownership as you get your dog up-to-date on vet checkups and buy supplies.

$ 100 - 200 per month

Puppies from breeders will be the most expensive right off the bat (and usually require more up front costs involving vaccines, spay/neutering, etc), but that doesn’t mean that an adult from the shelter will be cheap in the long run! Young and adult dogs alike susceptible to illness or unexpected accidents that can quickly eat up a rainy day fund.

Pro Tip: If your budget can’t swallow a $5,000 surgery down the line, getting pet health insurance is a good idea!

Time Budget: How Much Time Can You Spare?

Remember, dogs require a time investment as well as a monetary one! I wake up 45 minutes earlier than I used to now that Barley is in my life (and forget about hitting the snooze button).

I have to be sure to come right home after work to let him out before I leave again for bar trivia or dance classes. I dropped my gym membership because I spend so much time running with Barley instead of going to the gym for exercise. I also spend 20 minutes every night training Barley - and that doesn’t even include our weekly nosework classes!

Dogs need lots of mental and physical stimulation, so be sure you’ve got time for exercise and training!

It's worth considering what sacrifices you'll need to make for your pooch - flexibility gets lost, as you won't be able to join in on last minute happy hour plans with work or spur-of-the-moment activities. Make sure you think about whether you're ready to give up spontaneity for your pup!

Training Classes: A Necessity of Raising Any Canine

All dogs should go through at least a few training classes. Puppies under 16 weeks must go to a good socialization class - or else you’ll suffer for it the rest of your dog’s life!

Event adult dogs with poor or no manners will benefit from a good basic obedience course with a positive-reinforcement based trainer.

Dogs that already have decent canine manners will likely benefit from something more fun, like Canine Good Citizen courses or a dog sport (like canicross or skijoring).

This is all part of raising a healthy dog with a healthy mind! Training strengthens your bond and gives your dog something to do. Remember, your dog probably spends the whole time that you’re at work asleep, so when you do arrive home, he’ll be desperate for activity.

Keep in Mind Your Home or Apartment Layout

Be sure to keep your living situation in mind as you consider a dog.

Check your lease to make sure that pets are allowed, and be sure to budget for additional fees and pet rent. Your lease might also limit the weight, number, or breed of dogs that are allowed.

Active and lazy dogs alike can thrive in homes with yards or in apartments. You will have to take your dog outside to grassy open spaces several times a day, every day. Rain or shine, health or illness, you’ll need to lace up your shoes, grab your keys, and take your dog outside. That said, a yard isn’t a free pass from exercising your dog. All dog should go on a good walk once or twice a day!

Once you’ve gotten a general sense of what your new dog will need and what sacrifices you will have to make for the benefit of your new four-legged buddy, you’re ready to start looking for a dog.

As this process starts, some common questions include:

Is There a Best Time of Year to Adopt a Dog?

Maybe. Puppies adopted in late spring are more likely to be exposed to fireworks, thunder, water, and the outside world. This socialization is imperative before the age of 16 weeks, so I recommend getting a puppy around May.

It’s also smart to get a puppy when you are able to spend more time at home or take a couple weeks off to get your pup adjusted. For teachers, this might mean the beginning of the summer is ideal!

The timeline benefits for adopting an older dog are less clear. I planned on adopting around March because it was after a big trip and I don’t usually have big expenses in March. If you always spend a ton of money and time on your garden every April, it might be best to wait until after that to get a dog.

Getting a new dog right before a big trip or holiday can be really overwhelming for the dog as well, so avoiding Christmas time adoptions is a good idea. Thinking about what goes on in your life is probably the most important thing!

How Much Does it Cost to Adopt a Dog From A Shelter?

Rescue dogs are generally much less expensive than purchasing a puppy from a breeder. A good rescue will only adopt out neutered or spayed dogs (that saves you a few hundred bucks) that are up to date on vaccines (there’s another couple hundred dollars).

That said, the expenses for any dog can still add up for just the first month! Even with all the supplies that I had leftover from fostering dogs, Barley cost me about $500 for his first month. I’m expecting him to cost me about $150 per month for the rest of the year.

Adoption Fee

$100 - $500

Vet Checkup (Includes Heartworm / Flea & Tick Meds /  Vaccines, etc)

$150 - $400

Dog Bed

$30 - $50

Dog Toys

$30 - $50

Leash

$10 - $30

Collar / Harness

$10 - $30

Training / Obedience Classes

$150 - $300

Crate

$30 - $150

Pet Health Insurance

$25 - $100 per month

Food

$50 - $100

Treats​​​​

$10 - $30

Food and Water Bowls

$10 - $50

Grooming

$0 - $150

Stain / Odor Removers

$10 - $50

Pet Rent / Pet Deposit Fees

$0 - $500

What Are You Looking For In a Dog?

Do you want a loyal, steadfast companion like a chow? Do you want a trail-running buddy or a happy-go-lucky suburban dog? Is it important that they like fetch, other dogs, or cats? Draw up your dream dog.

Make sure you think through what you want your dog’s life to look like, then pick a dog that will enjoy that life. This will also help you think through why you want a dog.

If you just want the occasional snuggle buddy but are daunted by the amount of time, energy, and money a dog needs, consider becoming a dogsitter or dogwalker to get your furry fix!

Setting Up the Rules of the House: What’s Allowed and What’s Not?

Even if you live alone, it’s good to have a clear idea of what is ok and not ok with your dog (and it’s even more important to establish these rules when you’re in a family).

Setting up behavioral expectations from day one will help your new dog adjust right away - plus these household rules can also help you find the right dog. These are different from your dream dog ideas from above. Instead, these are practical, everyday expectations.

Some things to consider:

  • What will the dog do while you’re at work? Will he be roaming the house or crated or at daycare?
  • What do you want your dog to do while you’re eating?
  • Where will your dog sleep?
  • Who exercises the dog, and when?
  • Who helps with the dog’s training?
  • Is the dog allowed on the furniture?
  • How should the dog respond to guests?

Crafting Your Doggy Wish List: Deal Breakers & Brownie Points

I really recommend making a scoresheet for your dog selection process. Shelters can be majorly overwhelming places with so many dogs, so having a concrete idea of what you want can help a ton.

I made my own dog adoption checklist, which is a combination of my lofty goals for my dog and my household expectations. I then scored dogs that I was interested in, and eventually adopted Barley - 93 out of 100! It might feel weird to “score” a dog - if the idea makes you feel a bit weird, you could just make a checklist instead.

We've created a free downloadable PDF scorecard you can use to evaluate potential adoption candidates - some common scoring traits are already included, but make sure to add your own or adjust our recommendations if they don't match you needs.

Below we explain a bit more about how this dog adoption scorecard works.

Deal Breaker

Some things on my list are “deal breakers.” For example, a dog that ate my parrot would not be a good fit for me, period.

I knew that there were some things I needed in my dog. I knew I wanted a dog as a hiking buddy for multi-day trips, so a 3-legged dog that I fell in love with didn’t really pass this test.

+1 - 10 POINTS

Other things are “necessary” but they’re not just yes or no questions. These I rated dogs on from a scale of 1- 10 points.

+5 POINTS

“Desired” traits were things that I liked, but weren’t weighted as heavily - these qualities would earn a dog up to 5 points.

+1 POINTS

“Superficial” traits were really just bonus points. I like dogs with white toenails because they’re easier to clip. My boyfriend likes fluffy dogs with pointy ears and a curly tail, so we added those things to the list.

TIP #1: Research Your Chosen Breed Group

Once you have a good idea of what you want out of your canine companion, begin narrowing down your choices by size and breed group. Even if you want a mutt, it’s usually possible to discern between a herding dog and a working dog.

 Spending a lot of time on the AKC website isn’t a bad idea here - find out what your final selection dogs are like. Look at their energy level, long-term health, grooming, friendliness, and any other traits that matter to you.

    Breeds & Personalities. Yes, training can do a to help your dog become friendlier or more confident. But dogs have underlying personalities, which are often dictated by breed. If you want a dog that loves all of your kid’s friends and wants to join you at breweries, an aloof Akita shouldn’t be your first choice. 

Meet with several adult dogs of your chosen breed and make sure you like their personality, not just their looks!

Decide on Age. Puppies are oh-so-cute, but they take up a ton of time. I decided not to take a puppy home because I work 10-hour days and can’t afford a daily dogwalker. Instead, I opted for a 3-year old. If you’ve got really specific goals for your pup, like a service dog or high-level competitor in a dog sport, a well-bred puppy is hard to beat. But puppies are extremely expensive and time-consuming!

There are tons of perks to bringing home an adult dog. Senior dogs can be mellow, pre-trained, and easier from day one. Don’t let anyone tell you that an old dog can’t learn new tricks! They definitely can - the real question is, are you using desirable treats?

  • Where will your dog come from? You can find just about any type of dog you want at a rescue - but it might take a bit of looking and patience. If you really want something specific in a dog, then a breeder might be the way to go.
  • Yes, shelters have puppies too! Shelters generally do tend to puppies at any given time, but they tend to go fast and you probably won’t find a purebred pup.
  • Shelters have older purebreds. Shelters and breed rescues will often have older purebred dogs as well as unique mutts.
  • Not all shelters are equal. Look for shelters that have clean websites, testimonials, and are open to questions. There are a ton of amazing rescues out there. If a “rescue” gives you an icky feeling, listen to your gut - some rescues are known to actually buy dogs off Craigslist or puppy mills and then “flip” them for a profit!
  • Avoid Craigslist or pet stores for dogs - you don’t know who you’re giving your money to, and the dog could be coming from a very bad place. Buying from pet stores fuels the abusive and heartbreaking puppy mill industry.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a puppy from a good breeder. Adopting a dog from a shelter is great, but good breeders are also a fine, viable option.

If You Go With a Breeder...

Look for breeders that only have 1 litter at a time, raise the puppies inside, and do Early Canine Neurostimulation. Make sure they do testing for common genetic disorders for your breed and don’t breed their dogs too young.

The puppies will likely cost you over $800 and have a waiting list if they’re from a worthwhile breeder. If your needs mean that a well-bred puppy is ideal, then go for it!

Get in contact with a breeder and tell them what you’re looking for. A good breeder will screen you and help you pick out the perfect puppy. If they pick up the phone and tell you to come on by tomorrow to grab a pup, I’d be worried about the quality of their puppy raising.

Puppies from “backyard breeders” usually totally lack the genetics, temperament, and early-life development that would make a purebred puppy worth the cost.

Making The Doggy Decision

So you have your checklist. You know what to ask and you’ve got an idea of what you want. You pull up Petfinder, and you immediately fall in love with 273 new dogs. Using your checklist, you narrow it down to 129. Now you have two options.

Pick one or two rescues to work with

If you have options, just make a relationship with a rescue that suits your needs. I’d recommend going with a large municipal shelter or a small breed-based rescue, depending on your priorities.

Get in contact with them and see what you need to do to move forward. I call this the “personal pet shopper” approach when it goes well. If you’re lucky, the shelter will get to know you. They might even put you on a list and call you if and when a dog they think you’ll like shows up!

Just start going to adoption events and shelters

If you’d rather just get the ball rolling, then go for it. Bring your checklist and just start shopping around.

Petfinder can be overwhelming when it comes to all the new furry pals you could potentially have! However, it helps to narrow down by area. Some shelters will advertise dogs that they have at partner shelters across the country. While there are plenty of success stories about owners picking a pooch and not meeting them until they arrive on the giant puppy bus, it’s certainly not ideal.

Instead, it’s advisable to always meet your dog in person (and ideally, multiple times) before committing. Narrowing down your search to dogs that are within a few hours drive is a smart step.

There’s a lot to keep in mind at this step! You’ve already put a lot of work into creating your canine checklist and planning ahead, so take your time meeting your potential pooches and do it right.

Don’t rush it

If you’re totally dog-deprived, it might be really hard to walk away from the first few dogs. I cried when I returned my first foster dog, but it got easier. I’m so glad that I waited - Barley is the perfect dog for me. I almost adopted so many dogs before him that wouldn’t have worked out quite as well as he has.

If it doesn’t feel right, wait

There will be more dogs. If something feels off about the dog or the rescue, walk away. If you’re feeling rushed or pressured, ask if you can sleep on it. Most rescues and shelters want what’s best for their dogs, so they will happily comply.

Talk it through

This is a big decision for your whole family, so make sure everyone is on board. Checking in throughout the process is important. If you live alone, it still might be helpful to bring a trusted friend or family member. Ask that person to try to talk you out of the dog and play devil’s advocate. Addressing those concerns from day one as an exercise will help you in the long run!

Spend as much time with the dog as possible

Ask if you can play with the dog outside or take the dog for a little walk. Seeing the dog in different situations might help you make the decision.

Remember how stressful this probably is for the dog. He’s in a strange place with strange people. You might not be the first family to meet with him today. The food might be strange and his stomach might hurt. It’s probably loud and chaotic compared to his last home - even if his last home was a puppy mill. He might not really relax with you right away, and that’s ok.

Ask about foster to adopt or trial adoptions

Some rescues are all about fostering to adopt. This is a great way to bring a dog home for a week or two and see how things go. Trial adoptions are a little different. You might officially adopt the dog, but you have a grace period to make your final decision. If you decide that this dog isn’t right for you in that time period, you can bring the dog back.

Some shelters don’t offer these options, but it’s still good to ask! We did a trial adoption with one dog that didn’t work out due to separation anxiety. We also fostered 8 dogs before finally adopting Barley. This was a great learning process for us as we decided what we needed in a dog.

If you do foster or do a trial adoption, don’t pressure yourself. If the dog isn’t the right fit for you, that’s ok. The perfect family is out there for that dog.

Being picky is the best way to reduce the number of returns

Don’t feel bad if it seems like you’re walking away from hundreds of dogs (I literally did walk away from hundreds before finding Barley).

Finding the perfect dog for you and your family is the best way to reduce the total number of dogs that are returned to shelters. Walking away when a dog isn’t “the one” is usually the best thing for you, the dog, and the shelter! Being picky reduces the likelihood that you’ll return the dog later.

Questions to Ask When Adopting a Rescue Dog

If you’re going to be shopping around for your new pup, be sure you know what you want to ask about. This ties into your goals and expectations for your dog. The rescue or shelter may not have the answer to all of these questions, and that’s ok, but don’t hesitate to ask if you have a question on your mind.

  • How is the dog with kids? What age of kids has he been exposed to?
  • If you have a child but the dog has no known history with kids, I’d skip over that dog for safety reasons!
  • How is he with other dogs? What age and sex has he met?
  • How is he with cats?
  • How does he respond to men? Women?
  • How does he do with strangers?
  • Does he have a history of escaping? What were the circumstances if so?
  • Does he have any history of destruction? Under what circumstances?
  • What medical work has been done on the dog? Ask to see the medical and vaccine records.
  • Does he have a history of barking, growling, lunging, snapping, or biting? Under what circumstances?
  • Has the dog shown any concerning behaviors from its history or while under the care of the rescue?
  • Where was this dog kept? Where was he from? This is very important. Knowing that your dog was rescued from a puppy mill or hoarding situation will help adjust your expectations as far as training and socialization. Some rescues or shelters might not know - my own border collie was left in an overnight kennel at the shelter with very little information.

A dog with a “bite record” doesn’t need to be passed over if he’s otherwise lovely. It is important to gather as much info as possible on the circumstances of the incident. A dog that broke skin when he missed the tug toy, or bit when he was in severe pain, is very different from a dog that lunged and bit a stranger in the middle of a walk.

The Night Before Poochmas: Final Prep Work Before Your Pup Arrives!

You’ve chosen your canine pal and can’t wait for his arrival! Just don’t let that excitement get in the way of your final preparations before you bring Fido home.

Before you bring your dog home, make sure you’ve got all the necessities lined up. Right on that first day of arrival, you’ll need:

  • Food
  • Bowls
  • A bed
  • A crate
  • A collar and leash
  • Toys
  • Treats

And that’s just the minimum you need!

In addition to must-have doggie gear, you’ll also want to do a few other things to prep your space for your pooch:

  • Get Your Dog’s Sleeping Space Ready. Set up a quiet space for the dog where you want him to eventually sleep. If you want your dog to sleep in your bedroom, create a space in the bedroom just for him.
  • Prepare Comfort Items. Also add in an old sweater that smells like you to your dog’s safe space. This will help him associate with your scent and can aid in the bonding process. Make sure it’s old - your dog might chew it or have an accident on it! Then stuff your Kongs (two or three of them) with peanut butter, cream cheese, or wet dog food and chuck them in the freezer. These are like pacifiers for your new dog. I use them religiously.
  • Don’t Take Your Dog Out On The Town Quite Yet. Don’t take your new dog to PetCo on day one. If you don’t have this stuff yet, take your dog home and get help with errands from a friend or family member, but leave the dog at home. She’s probably incredibly stressed and will need some time to relax. Some dogs show stress by being hyperactive, but you still need to take those first 48 hours very easy.

See our next installment of this series for more on the first 48 hours with your new shelter dog - starting at the ride home!

About the Author Kayla Fratt

Kayla is the owner of JourneyDogTraining.com and works full time as an animal behavior technician at an animal shelter. She’s a certified associate Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC.

She lives in Denver with her parrot, border collie, boyfriend, and various foster kittens. She loves hiking, cross-country skiing, and ice cream.

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