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Adopting a Rescue Dog: The Ins and Outs and What to Expect

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In honor of Adopt a Shelter Dog Month this October, we reached out to our friends at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) for more on the ins and outs of bringing home a rescue dog. Rena Lafaille who is Director of Administration at the ASPCA Adoption Center was kind enough to offer her expert advice on these key questions.

1. Why should I adopt a rescue dog?

The benefits of adopting a pet from a shelter are endless. When you adopt a dog from an animal shelter, you are saving a life. By adopting, you are not only providing a loving home for a deserving animal, but you are freeing up space and resources for another animal in need. If you are looking to bring a new pet into your family, the ASPCA encourages you to consider one of the thousands of animals waiting to be adopted from shelters and rescues across the United States. For those families who wish to buy a pet, we encourage them to work with a responsible breeder over a pet store or online store front.

The internet can be a useful source to locate adoptable animals and responsible breeders. However, a puppy bought online could be sourced from a cruel puppy mill, suffer from health and behavioral problems, or could not exist at all. It’s easy to create a website and find photos of cute puppies, so people should be skeptical of what they see online. Anyone considering purchasing a dog from a breeder should plan on visiting the breeder in person to see where the puppies were born, how they’re being raised and how their parents are being treated.

man walking dog wearing a coat

2. Where can I adopt a rescue dog?

You can find a shelter in your area by checking out the ASPCA’s national database of animal shelters or by searching Petfinder. The process for adopting a dog can vary by shelter, but you’ll most likely have to complete an adoption survey and include your contact information and history of pet ownership.

You might also be asked to pay an adoption fee, but it typically costs significantly less than it would cost to purchase a dog from a breeder or pet store. When you adopt a pet from a shelter, the animal has been examined by a veterinarian, vaccinated, spayed or neutered and may be microchipped, which also saves on costs for the new owner. When you adopt, a shelter’s or rescue’s adoption fee, when there is one, goes right back to funding its efforts to save, treat and rehome at-risk animals.

3. What kind of dog should I adopt?

Your personality and lifestyle, along with factors such as amount of time spent at home and the amount of time you have to spend training your dog, are things to consider before getting a dog. Shelters and rescue organizations across the country work hard to match owners with animals that best fit their lifestyle, considering the lifestyle and the personality of both the dog and potential adopter.

At the ASPCA Adoption Center, pets are assessed by qualified shelter staff and then introduced to potential adopters based on the likelihood of compatibility.

If you are considering adopting a puppy, you’ll want to consider your lifestyle. Raising puppies properly takes a lot of time, hard work and patience, while many adult dogs have more established personalities and a more manageable energy level. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that just like people, every dog is an individual – even those within a specific species or breed – and shelter staff are experts at making matches that work.

teenage girl in a yellow hat cuddling a cavalier king Charles spaniel

4. Do rescue dogs have special health or other needs?

Shelter animals make wonderful pets and deserve a chance at a loving home. A huge benefit of adopting animals from a shelter is that the shelter staff knows the animals well and can provide detailed information about an animal’s history, medical needs, behavior, and temperament. Shelter dogs can be extremely healthy and affectionate dogs, often becoming homeless through unfortunate circumstances rather than any fault of their own.

In contrast, most pet store puppies come from commercial breeding facilities where they are kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions without adequate veterinary care, opportunity for exercise, toys, play or positive interaction with people. The filthy conditions found in puppy mills encourage the spread of diseases, especially among puppies with immature immune systems. Sometimes these illnesses can be life-threatening, painful and expensive to treat. Puppies can also suffer from fear, anxiety and other lasting behavioral problems. Sometimes these issues don’t show up until people bring the puppy home, only to be confronted with unpredictable, expensive and oftentimes chronic medical issues.

Responsible breeders do not sell to pet stores. They plan each litter and are devoted to the health and wellbeing of their dogs. Different breeds are predisposed to certain inherited disorders and diseases, and a good breeding program should aim to minimize these risks and improve the overall health of the breed.

Adopting from an animal shelter gives you the opportunity to speak with shelter staff directly about an animal’s health and behavioral needs. Similarly, a good breeder should be transparent, inviting and asking questions, and they should be able to provide references and serve as a resource for you as your puppy grows.

5. Is there any way to know if the dog will have behavioral problems?

While protocols vary at each animal shelter, animals who are surrendered to the ASPCA Adoption Center will often have a history form filled out by the previous owners. These forms are extremely helpful in providing information about the dog’s behavior in a home and will typically help determine what the best home environment for that particular dog may be.

Most shelters also perform behavior assessments, which can help inform potential adopters about behavioral concerns that each individual dog may have. Behavior staff continually assess a dog’s behavior during the animal’s stay at the shelter, updating recommendations for the dog’s ideal home as new information becomes available. In addition, many shelter employees and volunteers spend time with the animals every day – sometimes including time in a foster home – and can inform potential adopters of behavioral quirks that may help influence a decision to adopt an animal. It is important to note that a dog’s behavior is not always fully indicative of how the dog will behave in a new home and animal shelters are often able to offer various forms of post-adoption support to help with any questions that come up along the way.

6. How can I get ready to bring the dog home?

One of the first things you will need to do is purchase basic items such as a collar, leash, dog bed, treats, and a food and water bowl.

Before bringing a new dog into your home, you’ll also want to take steps to help make sure your house is safe for them. This includes keeping dangerous decorations or toxic food and plants out of reach. You can refer to this list of 101 Things You Didn’t Know Could Harm Your Pet as a helpful guide. Make sure that anything valuable that you’d prefer your dog not to chew, including shows, clothing and phone chargers are placed out of reach.

You’ll also want to use dog crates and gates to confine your new dog when left home alone until they’re housetrained and comfortable using a chew toy. And providing appropriate toys for your dog to play with will help keep them stimulated and prevent them from chewing on items like shoes and furniture, and becoming anxious when left alone.

In addition, you should know what not to feed your dog. For instance, chocolate, gum, candy, xylitol, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, avocados, onions, garlic, salt, tea leaves, raw yeast dough, spoiled or fatty foods, coffee, and alcohol are all harmful to dogs.

If your dog does ingest something poisonous, call your veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) at 888-426-4435 right away. The APCC is available 24/7. A $75 consultation may apply.

You’ll also want to purchase some of the basic starter kit items when bringing home a dog, including a leash, collar, food and water bowls, a comfortable bed, waste disposal bags and treats. You may also want to research to get a sense of annual routine wellness costs in your area and estimate how much money will be necessary to budget for veterinary care. Reaching out to certified, rewards-based trainers in your area is also a must for bringing home a newly adopted dog. Trainers can help your new pet settle in comfortably, and if any behavior concerns arise, can help to address these issues quickly when they are easier to modify.

Wondering what to look for when adopting a dog? It’s helpful to first ask yourself the questions: ‘Am I ready for a dog?’ and ‘What kind of dog should I get?’ Taking a dog breed selector quiz online can help you discover what type of dog is most compatible with your lifestyle.

7. What can I expect in the first months with a rescue dog?

Anticipating what to expect when adopting a dog can be overwhelming, but remember, the first few months with a new dog are about establishing a relationship. From the dog’s perspective, they don’t realize that they’re adopted and loved. As far as they know, they’ve been taken away from a familiar environment.

It’s important in the first weeks and months of adopting to take things slowly and form a bond with your new dog. As much as you are learning about the dog, they are also learning what to expect from you. Avoid stressful interactions as much as possible during this time – including dog parks, large gatherings, and busy locations. It can be helpful to keep an open mind and approach each situation with patience, as animals often need time to adjust and settle in while learning more about the habits of you and your family. Let your dog take the lead in initiating contact and avoid hugging and kissing your dog until you’ve come to know each other better. In addition, there may be some house-training accidents from time to time, which is completely normal.

woman petting a maltese dog on a bed with a white comforter

8. What’s the best way to introduce a new dog to another dog in the house? A cat?

It’s important to remember that not all dogs will be compatible with other dogs and cats. Shelters can often provide insight into each dog’s behavior around other animals and help you determine if the dog you’re interested in will be a good fit for your resident pets. Many shelters encourage potential adopters to bring their resident dogs in for a meet-and-greet under the guidance of professional behavior staff.

That being said, the best way to introduce a new dog to the household is to meet outside in a neutral location and walk together. Parallel walking is a great way for dogs to get to know one another while not having too much pressure put on them to interact.

Keep some space and walk for a while, gradually allowing them to sniff if they seem comfortable and then continue walking. Eventually, you can make your way inside. Remember to pick up toys, food, and any other high-value resource for the initial introduction period, so the dogs don’t get into a tussle over these things.

The best way to introduce your new dog to a resident cat is to keep them completely separated for a few days and let them get to know one another’s smell by scent swapping. When you introduce them, use a barrier or baby gate for initial interactions and always start with the dog on leash for the first several meetings until you’re certain the dog won’t be too overzealous about meeting the cat. You can provide them both with treats and lots of encouragement for being polite around each other, and always provide the cat with lots of vertical space to escape if they feel overwhelmed.

We want to thank Rena Lafaille for taking the time to answer our questions. Visit the ASPCA Adoption Center online to learn more about them and the wonderful work they do. But, be warned, you may come across a rescue dog on their website you can’t resist bringing home!

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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