Shelter Dog Adoption Process Explained

Within a year of his wife’s death, William Goryl decided he wanted to adopt a dog from his nearby shelter in Hilton Head, S.C. “I was a little worried because I hadn’t had a dog in 15 years,” says Goryl, a retired business executive. He was also afraid that each and every dog at the shelter would tug at his heartstrings. With guidance from the staff, however, he made the rounds of available dogs until he came upon a reddish short-haired dog of Basenji mix, which had been found walking along a nearby road six months earlier.

“Rusty’s face grabbed me,” says Goryl, who was able to walk the year-and-a-half-old dog for a few minutes. The shelter workers encouraged him to take Rusty home for a weekend. Over that fateful weekend, Goryl discovered the dog’s very pleasant, even-tempered personality. “The more I looked at him, the more I thought I was really lucky,” says Goryl. “He just seemed as friendly as could be.”

Goryl adopted Rusty, and the two have been happy companions ever since. For your shelter adoption to be as successful as Goryl’s, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Consider Temperament
“It’s difficult to get a sense of a dog’s temperament in five minutes,” says Mark Hanks, DVM of Kindred Spirits Veterinary Clinic in Orrington, Me. He advises to spend as much time with adoption candidates as the shelter will allow. “If a dog is standoffish or snappy, it might not have been socialized,” says Dr. Hanks, who adds that most dogs get used to being around humans in the first 20 weeks of life. After that, socialization is much more difficult. Obtain as much information from the shelter as possible concerning the dog’s previous owners to find out if there is a history of behavior problems.

“I remember thinking I’d like to take this dog home,” says Carole Lucia, of Fallbrook, Calif., talking about a part border collie named Riley that she discovered at a shelter operated by a rescue group. “He was chewing on a rawhide toy, and I just gently pulled it away from him to see how he’d react. He just looked at me and wasn’t aggressive at all.” This was important to Lucia and her husband because they had one child and were planning to have more. Riley turned out to be a child-friendly but high-energy dog that needed some training. He is now a beloved member of their family. Lucia, who has successfully adopted many shelter pets, says it’s a good idea to ask shelter workers or volunteers about the temperament of any dog you’re interested in.

If possible, bring every member of your family to meet the shelter dog you want to adopt, to ensure the dog reacts well to everyone. Lucia even brought her other dog to meet Riley to see if the two dogs would get along. They did. Keep in mind that a formerly mistreated dog may react with aggression or fear upon meeting people who somehow remind the dog of its previous abusers.

Understand the Commitment
“More and more shelters are filled with animals because people want to help, but they underestimate their ability -- both financially and time-wise -- to take care of a pet,” says Dr. Hanks. Don’t adopt a pet on a whim or sudden impulse. If you’re interested in a young dog, remember that this could be a 15-year commitment. For younger dogs, time spent on training is a must.

Another way to make sure all goes well is to look for a breed that fits your lifestyle. If you have children, for instance, look for a dog with a calm, unflappable nature. “Most shelter dogs are mixed breeds,” says Dr. Hanks, “but you can usually see a dominant breed in the mix.” If you live in a small apartment, don’t get a high-energy dog that will bounce off the walls.

Check for Health Problems
Many shelters will spay or neuter dogs before they’re adopted and will check for any health problems. As the new owner, however, it’s wise to take your dog to a veterinarian for a complete checkup soon after adoption. “Some shelter dogs can get kennel cough, which is a virus passed from dog to dog,” says Kelly Dilday, a technician at the Animal Medical Clinic in Portland, Ore. “They might also have some abdominal parasites.”

Many shelters work with local veterinarians. This can be a benefit to you because first visits of recently-adopted shelter dogs may be free or low-cost, Dilday says. Ask your shelter to see if it has such an arrangement. If it does, take advantage of these visits as a way to become familiar with veterinarians in your area and to find one you like.

Make Your New Dog Comfortable
When you bring your dog to your home, establish a routine of mealtimes and regular walks. When walking, be sensitive to your dog’s pace. “It’s best to go slow,” says Dilday. “Always keep your new dog on a leash for walks and don’t force introductions with other dogs right away,” she advises. “Don’t go to dog parks until you get a better sense of your dog’s personality.”

At home, use a crate for your dog, no matter how old the dog may be. “The crate should be big enough so that the dog can sit, lay down and turn around in it. Put down bedding in the crate, along with food and water,” says Dilday. The idea is to give your new dog a cozy place in which to feel safe and comfortable, especially if you have to leave the house to do an errand.

Adopting a dog from a shelter can be hugely rewarding, resulting in a lasting relationship, as it has with Riley and Rusty and their owners. You’ll give yourself the best chance of a happy match by avoiding an impulse adoption, and by taking the time to get to know your potential pet. With a willingness to be a patient, responsible owner, you and your dog will enjoy each other’s company for many years to come.

What to Do with a Found Dog

An old hound dropped off at the Hopalong Animal Shelter, a foster-care based shelter in Oakland, Calif., left a lasting impression. The dog had no tags but was clearly someone's beloved pet that had gotten lost and couldn't find its way back home. The shelter staff scoured the lost-and-found ads in the local newspapers and on websites. They also reviewed posters for lost dogs collected by area shelters -- all to no avail. After staying at the shelter for a few months unclaimed, the dog was facing possible euthanasia.

"One of my board members just loved that hound," recounts Sarah Cohen, Hopalong's executive director. The board member searched the lost-and-founds one last time. The effort paid off: the dog's picture was found on an old "lost dog" poster from a nearby community. Dog and owner were reunited. "The message for people is to never give up looking," Cohen says.

Not all lost-dog stories have such a happy ending. A study published in January 2007 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) found that only 71 percent of lost dogs were recovered during a four-month period in Montgomery County, Ohio. In other communities, the reunification rate is even lower. So what should you do if you find a lost dog? According to experts, there are steps you can take to improve the odds of bringing a family back in touch with a pooch who went astray, or to help it find a new home.

Contact a shelter or animal control agency While your first impulse may be to catch that stray dog you find wandering into your yard or in a parking lot, experts caution to first call local animal control authorities. If you're not sure there is one in your community, call the city or county clerk, or even the police, and ask what to do. "Getting bitten is a major concern," says Kimberley Intino, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States. "I know people want to help, but they should always contact the animal control professionals first." The study reported in JAVMA, conducted by researchers from the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, found that the chances of reuniting a lost dog with its owners was vastly improved if the found dog was taken to -- or even just reported to -- a local shelter. Shelters act as clearinghouses for information about lost pets and their main purpose is to reunite lost pets with people. In fact, 35 percent of lost dogs in the study were reunited with owners through calls/visits to a shelter.

Try to help find the owner Another effective means to reunification is to post "found dog" posters in the neighborhood where you picked the pup up. The study found these signs helped recover dogs in 15 percent of the cases. Information on a dog tag or license also proved helpful to reunite dogs and owners. Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a veterinary medicine professor at Texas A&M University, agrees that professionals are best able to handle strays. Under some conditions -- if you know the dog, it seems overtly friendly, or if the dog approaches you with tail wagging -- it may be safe to catch the dog and look at its tags. "Don't frighten the animal," Dr. Beaver says. "The dog may already be scared if it's out and running." Some tags include the owner's phone number. If the dog has a license but no contact information, call the town or city in which the license is registered. If there are no tags, bring the pup to an animal shelter. Most shelters now have the ability to scan dogs for another set of identifying information -- tiny microchips that are increasingly implanted under the skin of beloved pets. A unique serial number on the chip can be read at the shelter to find the dog's owner. It's also a good idea to drop posters with local veterinarians who might know the dog's owner, or may be contacted about a missing pet.

Adopt the pup -- or help it find a home If you're willing to take time and help a found dog, it probably means that you're a dog lover. As such, you probably want to take additional steps to help your newfound furry friend. Many shelters simply don't have room for all the unwanted dogs in a community and often resort to euthanasia after anywhere from a few days to a few weeks -- ask about their policies on this in advance. You can help by scouring the classified ads for lost dogs, both in print and in cyberspace, at such sites as Craig's List, which has localized listings, or sites such as Petfinder, Lostdog or Missingpet. And the power of word-of-mouth -- letting everyone you know about a situation, who will let everyone they know about a situation -- can't be underestimated.

Another way to help is to search for a "no kill" animal shelter; several organizations maintain directories of such shelters, including Hearts United for Animals, Save Our Strays and Nokillnetwork. Another way that Cohen recommends helping is by offering to provide temporary foster care for the dog while the shelter helps search for the dog's owners. Most animal shelters are already at capacity. It just may be, however, that you fall in love with your found dog friend and decide to adopt if the pet remains unclaimed. Be aware that most states have laws specifying a time period that a pet owner has to find a missing dog before it becomes the property of a shelter or can be adopted out. "The big thing is to never assume the animal is just abandoned," Cohen says. "You need to go through steps, taking it to a shelter, posting a notice at a shelter and asking what the legal time limit is."

Adopting an Adult Dog

Is there room in your house for a new dog? If so, new doesn't necessarily mean young. For many of us, an adult dog is often a better choice for a new canine companion than a puppy would be. Adult dogs are usually housetrained and they often know a few commands. Puppies, on the other hand, require training from scratch, and that means more work for you. While it's natural to be drawn to the cuteness of a puppy, the truth is that puppy cuteness only lasts for a few months. Here's the truth behind adult dog adoption.

Myths About Older Dog Adoption
It's a myth that adult dogs cannot bond well with new owners. All dogs -- even adults -- are social animals with a pack mentality. Your planned pack may only consist of you and your new pooch, but when your furry housemate learns to view you as the pack leader, you will be that canine's beloved top dog. Humans have enhanced this natural loyalty by breeding domestic dogs to stay in a kind of permanent adolescence known as neoteny. This trait further enables a dog to bond with different people over its lifetime.

In addition to the bonding myth, other falsehoods about adopting older dogs continue to persist. "There is a myth that says you must bring a puppy home at seven weeks," says Sheila Webster Boneham, PhD, author of Breed Rescue: How to Start and Run a Successful Program, and founder of the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Indiana. "Nonsense! That idea comes from a misinterpretation of research that showed that puppies must have human contact beginning no later than the seventh week or they won't bond to people. But that means people in general."

Boneham has personally placed 50 adult dogs. She also supervised the placement of more than 200 dogs in rescue and has counseled more than 100 owners who adopted dogs from shelters. Based on her experience, adult dogs bond as well as puppies do. "Some dogs take a little more TLC, but I have found adult dogs to be extremely resilient, and most are driven to be connected to a person or family," she says.

Perhaps the most prevalent myth about homeless older dogs is that they wound up in their predicament because they were problem pooches. According to the Senior Dogs Project, a group dedicated to educating others about adopting older dogs, it's the owners and not the dogs that usually had the problem or, more than likely, a lifestyle change. For example, people often surrender a dog when they move, experience a change in their work schedule, take in a relative who is allergic to pets or even because a new spouse or partner simply didn't want Rover around to steal away attention. You could be the lifesaver for such an abandoned canine.

Match Made In Heaven
The benefits of adopting an adult dog are many. A grown dog is as predisposed to bond with you as a puppy would be. And it's far less likely to chew up your couch or to ruin your rug. Who knows? Maybe your canine soul mate is an older dog that is waiting for someone like you to shower it with head rubs and care in return for its doggie love and loyalty.

Westminster: Where the Dogs Are

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is kind of like the Oscars: plenty of glamour, lots of talk about who is going to win, celebrities galore in the audience, tension, tears, really nice trophies and endless debate about who won and why. Sure there are many other dog shows--just like there are many other awards shows -- but Westminster is the one everybody watches on TV.

If you're lucky enough to go, Westminster is also a great place to learn about dog breeds, especially if you're thinking about getting a dog. That's because it's one of the few benched shows left in the United States. (In benched shows, dogs and their owners must sit all day in designated benching areas near the show rings, so the public can see and ask about their dogs.) So you can see dogs of more than 150 breeds and ask the people who show them all about the breed. And at Westminster all the dogs must already be champions, so you see some great representatives of each breed.

When you're learning about a breed to decide if it's right for you, of course you want to know the good and the bad. But when you talk to the owner of a show dog, remember that they have made a huge commitment to the breed and are very proud of their dog. So start by asking about the good stuff. Later, when you've shown that you're really interested, you can ask about the negatives.

In my Westminster research, I started by asking a number of breeders, "What's the most wonderful thing about your breed?"

"They're clowns; they smile all the time," said Kathy Brosnan of her Miniature Bull Terrier, Ch. Hellion's Midsummer's Cobweb. "The more you laugh, the more outrageous they will be. They have to have an audience."

"Pugs are bred to be a companion, and they want to please you," said Candy Schlieper, who was at the show with Ch. Candyland's Baby Ruth and Ch. Candyland's Bustre Bar. "They want to be with people constantly. Plus, they're a nice size and have a wonderful temperament."

"They're tough as nails in the field but a couch potato at home," said Ron Sebastiani of his Border Terrier, Ch. Ruron's Flash Bobik. "They work hard and look pretty."

Roxanne Roach, who was busy plopping the very accommodating Ch. Romar-Englelong Chili Pepper MW into the arms of all who craved to hold the Miniature Dachshund, said, "Their personality is playful, mischievous and honorable. And they're a multipurpose dog."

"They like to bond with the whole family and they do like to snuggle," said Connie Steffens of Border Collie Ch. Brakenhill Star of Bonclyde (below). "But they are very intelligent, and that can make them a handful. Even when they're sleeping, they're thinking. And a bored dog can be destructive."

Which brings us to the drawbacks. It's not that some breeds are better and some worse, but rather that every breed has characteristics that make it right for some people and not right for others. So I asked the breeders, "What kind of person makes a good owner for this breed, and what kind of person doesn't?"

"The best person has a happy-go-lucky attitude about life and likes the unexpected," said Roach with the Dachshund. Said Brosnan with the Miniature Bull Terrier, "The worst are people who want 100 percent predictability from their dog." Good potential Border Terrier owners are people who understand what kind of work terriers were bred to do, while bad possible Pug owners are people who don't like a dog who sheds, snores and sneezes.

"This is a breed that's OK for someone with their first dog," said Roach -- another important question to ask. That's not true for the Border Collie or the Border Terrier, but is for the Pug.

Finally, I asked the breeders what kinds of questions they think are important when you're researching a breed. Here's what they told me:
  • Activity level. You need a dog whose desire for exercise (how much and what kind) matches your own.

  • Health issues, both within the breed and within that person's kennel lines. "If someone says there are no health problems in a breed, talk to someone else," said Schlieper. Every breed has some. It doesn't mean every dog is unhealthy, but it does mean every breeder should be working hard to breed dogs that are free of the problems that lurk in a breed's gene pool.

  • Temperament. That includes how good the dog is with families, kids, and other dogs. Will they tolerate some teasing or the clumsiness of a child? Will they let people in your home? Are they cuddly or more standoffish? Your circumstances will dictate how important each of these things is to you. You should also ask about temperament within a particular breeder's kennel: Are they breeding with temperament in mind?

  • How much maintenance does the dog need? That includes grooming, special food, and the time involved in daily care.

  • How much time will it take to train and socialize the dog? Do they have special training requirements?

  • Are they easy to housebreak?

  • What is the life expectancy of the breed?
"Go around and talk to many different breeders of the same breed to confirm what you've been told," Roach advised. "And this is not the time to talk business." Breeders do not sell dogs at dog shows. So if you meet someone from whom you might like to buy a dog, just take their card and find out when you can call them.

Any dog show, even one that isn't benched, is a great place to learn about the breeds you're interested in. Shows always have grooming areas where the exhibitors set up their equipment and get their dogs ready for the show ring. If you wander over there, you'll always find some dogs and breeders who are happy to talk about them. Just wait until after the breed has been shown in the ring, because before that they're busy getting their dogs ready for their big moment.

For complete results  of the Dog Show visit the Westminster Kennel Club website.

Photographs © copyright 2004 by Carol Lea Benjamin