Choosing the Perfect Rescue Dog

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), nearly 7.6 million animals enter animal shelters each year. Of those 7.6 million pets, 3.9 million are dogs. Approximately 35% of those dogs are adopted, 31% are euthanized, and 26% were strays that were returned to their owners.

Woman at animal shelterIf you decided to adopt a dog from a shelter, kudos to you! Not only will you be saving the life of one dog, you will allow space for another dog to take its place. Not only that, you’ll be helping the overpopulation of shelters.

But, it’s not just as easy as walking into a shelter, picking out the first dog that catches your eye, and living happily ever after. Shelters are full of dogs from all walks of life – from abused, to neglected, to simply surrendered because their owner couldn’t take care of them anymore. You’ll have to do some research to decide what kind of dog you’d like to adopt as well as where to adopt the dog from. There are nearly 15,000 shelters nationwide, which one should you adopt from? What type of dog are looking for?

Here is a guide to help you choose the perfect rescue dog!

Before Your Trip to the Shelter

How to figure out what kind of dog you’d like to adopt

Now that you’ve decided you want to adopt a shelter dog, it’s research time. Doing your homework is important when it comes to adopting a dog from a shelter. For example, are you looking for a particular breed? A certain size? Age? Shelters are full of all types of dogs from all kinds of backgrounds. Knowing certain traits you’d like your new pup to have will ensure you are choosing the perfect shelter dog.

It’s difficult to know exactly what you are getting when it comes to adopting a shelter dog. You’ll never know how they were raised, if they were abused or neglected, or if they had (or have) any serious medical conditions. Though shelters try their best to assess a dog, it can be difficult – especially if they were found on the streets or dropped off as a stray. That’s why it’s super important to know what kind of dog you would like to bring in to your family.


Mixed Breed Dog at the ShelterWhat kind of temperament would you like your new pup to have? Are you looking for a calm, cool, and collected dog? A dog that will join you on your two-hour Sunday hike? Take a look at your lifestyle and write down some “must-haves” for your new dog.

Shelters are extremely stressful for dogs, so it may be difficult to know exactly what kind of temperament the dog has. A dog may be crazy and loud in the kennel but once they get out of the shelter, they may become calmer. On the contrary, a dog that appears calm and quiet in the shelter could become more lively and hyper once out of the shelter.


Are you looking for a large dog? A small one? Shelters have them all. They do tend to have a higher number of medium to large dogs as some people can’t handle them and surrender them to a shelter. Of course, this depends on the shelter and location. Medium to large dogs do better at homes with a large enough yard or they will receive plenty of exercise. Smaller dogs will adapt better to apartment life.


Would you prefer a male or female dog? If you have a male dog in the house already, adopting another male may result in some initial hostility, but that generally stops once they get to know each other. The same may go for females as well. It may take some time and patience, but your dogs are sure to become friends!


What age would you like your new dog to be? Are you looking for a puppy? A middle-aged dog? A senior dog? Not surprisingly, the puppies are usually the first to be adopted from a shelter. Older dogs tend to have a harder time getting adopted. Furthermore, some people surrender their senior dog to a shelter if they have medical issues and the owners cannot afford to take care of them.

Puppies are undoubtedly cute, but they are a lot work! They’ll need training, more veterinary trips for their booster shots, and lots of time! Middle-aged dogs (between around one to five years) can be great for families that aren’t looking to train a puppy yet still want an active dog. Some adolescent dogs require more training than others, depending on their past. Many adolescent dogs are already housetrained, though, and have a foundation of obedience training.


What do you want your new dog to look like? Are you looking for a specific breed? City shelters are mostly filled with mixed-breeds. Mixed-breeds can range anywhere from Pitbull mixes to Labrador Retriever mixes.

There are also rescue groups that are dedicated to specific breeds, such as German Shepherd rescues, Husky rescues, or Yorkshire Terrier rescues. Breed-specific rescues only take in and adopt out purebreds or almost-purebreds.

It’s Shelter Research Time!

Now that you have figured out what kind of dog you’d like to adopt, it’s time to find the shelter.

Private vs. Public Shelters

Animal Shelter Volunteer with dogsThere are certainly no shortage of shelters around the world. There are different kinds of shelters from which you can adopt a dog from. City and municipal shelters are typically “open-intake” shelters. This means that they must accept any dog or cat that was surrendered by their owner or found as a stray, even if they are at max capacity. These shelters tend to have a high intake volume and don’t always get to know each dog very well. This can pose a problem, especially if you are trying to get as much information as you can about a dog.

Private rescue groups are limited intake shelters. This means they don’t accept dogs surrendered by their owners and they pull animals out of the open-intake shelters, often if the dog is set to be euthanized and they want to give them a second chance at getting adoption. Because these groups are smaller, they have a better chance at getting to know a dog and will be able to give you a better idea of their personality.


Both an open-intake and a limited-intake shelter are great places to visit if you are looking for a shelter dog. Prices at a private rescue group are often higher than those at the city shelter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the dogs are better! There are wonderful dogs just waiting to be found at both private and public shelters! Most private rescue groups survive off donations and private funding. They rely on their adoption fees to cover the costs of spaying/neutering an animal and providing them with the proper medical attention.

City shelters are funded by the state. Adoption fees will be lower but there will be more dogs to choose from.

Something to consider is that some shelters often “deals” at certain times of the year. For example, some shelters have $5-$25 adoption days. While that is a very small price to pay, you should never adopt a dog just because they are “cheap”. A dog is lifetime commitment! Furthermore, during adoption specials, the shelters are exceptionally crowded. Staff may be limited and you may not get to spend enough time with your potential new family member as should.

Do some research on nearby shelters. Even stopping by for a visit without the intention of adopting (yet) can help you choose the best one. There are websites like that will show you dogs from different rescues within a certain radius based on your specifications (age, size, sex, etc).

To the Shelter We Go

Now that you’ve decided on the shelter (or shelters) you’d like to visit, it’s time to take a trip! Some shelters or rescue groups will allow you or even require you to make an appointment. This will ensure that you get the proper amount time with your potential pup! Other shelters don’t require an appointment. Either way, you should definitely plan to spend at least an hour to two at the shelter. Choosing your new forever friend is no small feat! You’ll want to make sure you get enough time with the dog(s) as well as have enough time to ask questions.

Visiting a shelter during the week can mean a more personal, quieter visit. Shelters are typically busier on the weekends and may not provide an ideal environment for meeting a potential family member!

Depending on the shelter and depending on what kind of dog you are looking for, you may be directed to a certain area. For example, most shelters have a dedicated area for puppies and a separate area for adolescent/senior dogs. Of course, this depends on the size of shelter. Some rescues even separate their pups based on size.

Kennel Cards

Typically, the kennels will have cards with the dogs information them. This can be information like their name (some city shelters don’t name the dogs and only feature animal ID numbers), their approximate age, their sex, and their breed. Shelters don’t always know the breed of a dog when they arrive, especially if they weren’t an owner surrender and are a mix of a few different breeds. They try their best, but it’s not always best to go by the breed information on the kennel card. Some kennel cards will also feature their medical history. This isn’t always their full medical history (unless they are a puppy), but what they have been treated for since their arrival at the shelter. They are typically given their shots (rabies, canine distemper, etc) and are spayed or neutered. Depending on when they arrived, they could be scheduled for surgery and not yet be spayed or neutered. It’s not uncommon for dogs to come down with kennel cough while at the shelter. It is treatable, though, with antibiotics, so don’t count out a dog with a cold!

Depending on where you live, you may see quite a few dogs with heartworms. Heartworms are more prevalent in the south as it is transmitted through mosquitos. Some people may get turned off by a dog with heartworms but don’t count them out either! Heartworms is treatable and many shelters offer free treatment for heartworm-positive dogs. It takes about three months for the complete heartworm treatment. They offer a couple different treatment options. The most popular option is a set of immiticide injections. The dog will receive one injection and then a month later, receive two more injections. They will have to remain inactive (usually crated) throughout the treatment, except for bathroom breaks. Though it sounds scary, it’s not! Numerous amazing dogs are overlooked due to their completely treatable disease!

Watch for Behavior Cues

Walking through the shelter, pay attention to the behavior of the dogs. Are they jumping and up down with excitement? Hiding in the back? Sitting all prim and proper tilting their head?

As mentioned, the shelter is an extremely stressful place for some dogs. Some pups get so overwhelmed with the commotion of the shelter and become reclusive. If you see a dog refusing to come to the front of the kennel, it doesn’t always mean that they are shy or fearful. It could mean they are just stressed out and overwhelmed. Try taking them out of their kennel into the play areas and see how they act. Most dogs tend to come out of their shell once out of their kennels. If they don’t, they could be suffering from a cold or even recovering from their spay or neuter surgery.

If a dog is very reactive when you approach the kennel – think jumping up and down, barking and acting crazy – it’s a pretty safe bet that are an active dog. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are super hyper or too crazy, it just means they enjoy people and love to play. A dog with this personality would be great for a family with an active lifestyle and who enjoys a playful pup. If a dog like this caught your eye, take them to the designated human-pup play spot and see how they act. Most dogs will calm down after a little bit, once the initial excitement of getting out of their kennel is gone! If the dog continues to act too hyper and crazy, they may just take some extra time to calm down. This can also be due to how long they have been at the shelter. Dogs who have been at the shelter for quite some time can become restless and need some extra time to learn how to act outside of the kennel!

Time for a meet and greet

Meeting a new dog at the shelterAfter you picked out a few dogs you’d like to meet, walk them through the shelter on a leash. Don’t be surprised if the dog pulls on the leash – no matter what temperament they appeared to have! They’re likely just so excited to get out of that kennel. What you need to look for, though, is how they react to other dogs – either in their kennels or outside of them. If they lunge, bark, growl, or cower, that may be a sign that they will not be good with other dogs and may have reactive issues. If you don’t have any other dogs and you don’t plan on getting any more in the future, this may not be an issue. However, some dogs are also reactive to strangers or other stimulus that may take a lot of work to rehabilitate.

If you have children or have frequent young visitors, it is imperative that your new dog is good with children. The best way to test this is to bring your children or your niece/nephew/grandchild with you. Good family dogs will be ecstatic to play with children. In fact, they should be more interested in playing with them than with you! Children should never be left unsupervised with dogs, even at home, but they should be able to get along without any worry.

Test their temperament

A good way to find out if a dog is obsessively crazy is to rile them up then settle them down. Run around with them or play with a toy or ball to get them excited. Then, abruptly stop. Notice if they switch gears quickly or if they continue to play and jump. If they have trouble calming down, they may have a very active personality and may have trouble calming down.

Some dogs suffer from separation anxiety. A good way to test this is to do an “ignore test” with the dog. After petting them for a while, turn around and ignore them. If they follow you around for a minute then go on to do their own thing, it’s a good sign that they won’t suffer from separation anxiety. However, if they won’t leave you alone and become whiney or attention-demanding, that could mean some separation issues in the future. While this certainly isn’t a deal breaker, it could take some work to break the separation anxiety.

If the dog seems stressed, it could be due to a number of things. It could be the environment, they could be sick, or they feel uncomfortable. A good test for this is watching their reaction to food. Grab some treats and hand one to them. If they come over and eat it, they probably have low stress levels. If they refuse the treat, they could be stressed or anxious. If the dog frantically lunges at the treat, they are also probably stressed or anxious – or if they are very skinny, they could just be very hungry! Testing if they food-guard is a good idea. Drop some of the treats on the ground. If they stiffen up or freeze when you try to go near them, they could have food guarding issues. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it is something to consider.

Some dogs are very receptive of their surroundings. A dog could act one way inside and completely differently outside. They could act calm in a quiet area and hyper in a busier area. Some dogs can act differently around different people. It’s a good thing to know these things. If there are different areas to interact with the dog, do it. Hang out inside for a bit, then move outside. Go to a busy area then to a quieter one. See how the dog reacts. This will help determine how the pup is in different situations – think holidays with the family, a busy sidewalk, an office building, etc.

Double date: Meet more than one pup

Try to meet one than more dog while at the shelter. Even if you think you hit the jackpot on the first try, keep an open mind and hang out with a few other dogs. Not only will it help you decide if the first dog was “the one”, you’ll also get to experience other types of personalities and behaviors. Even if you’re stuck on a big dog, consider checking out a smaller one. You never know!

The “Bring Back” test

Once you feel like you’ve had sufficient time with your potential adoptee, it’s time to bring them back to their kennel. This will allow you to see how he reacts to being put in a cage – this will be especially helpful if you plan on using a crate – and how he reacts to other people walking by.

If possible, try coming back in a few hours or even the following day. This will be easier at some shelters than others. Most city shelters allow you to bring the dog home the same day if you are approved. However, if you are allowed to put the dog on hold, you should. This will allow you to really make sure this dog is the one.

Furthermore, the dog’s attitude could change. For example, they could’ve just woken up from a nap and been tried while meeting you. On the other hand, they could’ve been super hyper that day and act calm the next day. It’ll help minimize the chance of you being surprised once you bring your new furry friend home!

Ask A LOT of questions & then some more

The best thing you can do while at the shelter is ask A LOT of questions. No question is too small or too large when it comes to adopting a new dog! You want to make sure you and your new pup are a great match. Of course, it is impossible to know everything there is to know about a dog – that doesn’t just apply to shelters, it applies to breeders, pet stores, etc. – but you can find out as much as you can! Staff at larger, city shelters may not be as informed as those at a private rescue but they are still very helpful. They’ll know the dogs general temperament and whether there are any major issues with them.

Some good questions to ask are how long the dog has been there, if they were surrendered or found as a stray, if they have any medical issues, if they are good with other dogs/cats, and if they have any major behavioral issues. Sometimes the kennel card will have this information, but the staff may have information not on the kennel card.

Bring a trainer

If you can, you can bring a trainer with you to the shelter. They will have the best sense of a dog’s personality and behaviors. They can tell you if the dog exhibits any red flag behaviors and if they will ultimately be a good fit for your family.

Bringing a new dog home is an exciting time! They bring so much joy and zest to life. Adopting a dog from a shelter is a beautiful thing. You are saving a dog’s life and providing them a new lease on life – something they may not have gotten if they remained at the shelter. While it’s nearly impossible to know each and every trait of a dog, it’s helpful to gather as much information as you can to ensure you and your pup live happily ever after. Use this guide to help you pick the perfect rescue dog for you and your family!