Have you been dreaming of getting a dog? Or adding another one to your brood? October is "Adopt-A-Dog" month, and with millions of animals being surrendered each year, shelters and rescue groups are filled with dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds in need of loving homes. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 25 percent of dogs in shelters are purebreds.
"It’s become sort of chic to have an adopted dog, which is great for shelter dogs," says Kim Saunders, vice president of shelter outreach at Petfinder.com and author of The Adopted Dog Bible: Your One-Stop Resource for Choosing, Training, and Caring for Your Sheltered or Rescued Dog. Since 1995, Petfinder.com has helped place more than 13 million dogs in their "forever" homes.
"Adopting a shelter dog is not just the right thing to do, there's something about the bond that's created between the dog that was once unwanted and you," says veteran dog trainer Sue Sternberg. "There is something that you as a human feel grateful for, and the dog somehow, I think, feels grateful too."
The key, says Sternberg — who runs her own shelter in upstate New York and has written the popular Successful Dog Adoption, a step-by-step guide — is "picking the dog that’s going to fit with you and your lifestyle the best, and whatever dog that is, they’re out there and available for adoption."
So how do you do it? Here are their Top 10 tips for adopting a dog succesfully:
1. Consider your lifestyle. This is the single most important factor in determining what kind of dog will match you or your family the best, says Saunders. How much time do you have to spend with a dog – are you a busy, single person with an active social life, or are you a homebody with tons of time to give to your dog? a"All kinds of lifestyles can accommodate a dog, but there’s a huge difference between adopting a puppy who’s not housetrained and needs lots of exercise versus a more senior pet who’s more willing to hang out and sleep while you’re out," she says. Consider energy levels, size and, of course, expense. Food, grooming and routine veterinary care, as well as emergencies, all add up. Also important to note: Some dogs are easier to train than others. "Terriers are known for being tenacious and stubborn," says Saunders. "For a brand-new pet parent with no dog experience, that can be a challenge. They might want to stick to a dog that doesn’t have as challenging a temperament."
2. Consider your children. For families with kids under 7 Sternberg strongly recommends having a professional trainer accompany you to help pick out a dog "with the right temperament" at a shelter or rescue group . She notes that children between the ages of 2 and 7 are the largest population to suffer dog bites.
3. Choose a shelter wisely. Ideally, you'll want time and space to interact with a dog you're considering taking home, says Sternberg. Visit your local shelters or animal rescue group, and try not to judge a facility from its exterior or discriminate between a "no-kill" shelter that doesn't euthanize any dogs and a city shelter with a euthanasia policy. "One shelter's euthanasia number is everyone's euthanasia number," says Sternberg. Be sure to walk around and look in every kennel. "Even if you think you've fallen in love with a dog in cage number four, walk all the way to the back to cage number 40," says Sternberg.
4. Assess a dog's temperament and sociability. A dog who looks back at you with "soft, blinking eyes, low, wagging tail, a relaxed forehead, ears back and a spine that is not rigid" is a friendly dog, says Sternberg. Another test: Closing your hand into a loose fist, offer the back of your knuckles to the dog at the height of his head and move your fist in a little square, about 4 inches in each direction. Hold your fist about two seconds at each point. "The most friendliest dogs will nuzzle or lick your knuckles at three out of the four corners of the square," says Sternberg. "The most likely to be problematic are dogs that don’t come to your fist at all or come to your fist and sniff and jump away." Still, be sure to ask about the dog's history and behavior.
5. Pet proof your home. Look at your space from a dog’s vantage point and remove wires, electrical cords, shoes and kids’ toys. "Puppies will grab, chew and try to destroy anything it comes across," says Saunders. Remember that big dogs can get onto countertops, and if you plan to let your dogs into a yard, make sure it's fully enclosed and that your dog can't dig his way out.
6. Stock up on basic supplies. Make sure to have food and water bowls, leash and collar, and a carrier if you are bringing home a small dog. "It's also very important to have an ID tag on your new pet’s collar with your information," advises Saunders. "Even if you haven’t decided your pet’s name yet, have your name and phone number on the tag." Find out what your dog was fed at the shelter or rescue home. "You’ll want to start with that food and transition to another food slowly, if that’s your plan, to avoid any stomach upset," says Saunders. Have toys, such as a Kong, and treats on hand, as well as cleaning supplies. Nature's Miracle is an odor-neutralizing cleanser that will remove the smell from any accidents the dog has in the house.
7. Adopt your dog at the beginning of a weekend or take some time off work. Spend time with your new pal when you first bring him home. If you’re going to be a working pet parent, try to take a day off, says Saunders. During those first few days, put your dog in the part of the house where he will stay while you are at work and, as a test, practice leaving for a short period and returning. This will help get your dog get accustomed to seeing you go and knowing that you will always come back.
8. Schedule a visit to a veterinarian. Shelters and rescue groups often have documentation about the veterinary care your dog has already received, including vaccinations, says Saunders. Still, it’s important for your dog to establish a relationship with a vet and get a basic assessment.
9. Bond with your dog. "It makes for a much more enjoyable relationship with your dog," says Saunders. Playing with your dog and doing training exercises at home using treats is a great way to get to know your pup. As for where your new pal should sleep, dogs are pack animals, she says, so snoozing near a family member, either in a crate or dog bed, is ideal. "It’s also okay to allow a dog to sleep on your bed," she says.
10. Train your dog and don't dwell on the past. You want a good dog citizen, one who has been trained to have basic manners. If your dog should start to misbehave, resist the urge to tell everyone around you that he's a rescue and was probably abused. "It’s not an excuse," says Sternberg. "Once the dog is in your home, he’s not dwelling on his background. If your dog is aggressive or barking or frightened, it is not a reason to feel sorry for the dog — that's not helpful to anyone. It is our job to confidently, and in the best way we know how, try to modify their behavior and train them to do the things we would like them to do." The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a great resource for locating a professional dog trainer if you need one.
Finally, have patience. You may not find the right companion at the first shelter you visit, and the process of applying to adopt a dog from a rescue group may be a slow one. But take heart: As many dog owners who have adopted their pets will tell you, they ended up with the perfect dog for them, as if dog and human were meant to be. (This writer included.) "How can you describe it?" says Sternberg. "There's no other relationship like it. You just look at 'em on the couch and you're moved to tears about how much you love them."