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Adopting a shelter dog


By Jean Donaldson
Academy Director
San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers

Four-to five million (yes, that’s million) dogs and cats – half of those that enter animal shelters – are euthanized in the United States every year, according to conservative estimates. So, if you’re considering adopting from a shelter, you are part of the solution to this problem. Before you adopt, however, be aware those shelter dogs were probably originally acquired by well-meaning people rather like you who just didn’t think through the full ramifications of caring for a dog.

Even the very best dogs on the planet urinate and defecate several times a day, make noise, need arrangements when you go out of town, and cost hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars per year in food, gear and medical care. They often shed up a storm, won’t do anything you want (unless you invest in training), and will regurgitate grass on the carpet, usually just after it’s been cleaned. Lots of people, understandably, aren’t ready for this much biology.

Most dogs are not space-intensive - that’s a myth - but they are extraordinarily time-intensive. Only when you’re sure that you’ve got time over the next fifteen years for daily exercise (just putting the dog in the backyard won’t cut it, unless you want to end up on “Animal Cops”), training and cleaning up all that biological waste can you start your adoption quest.

To begin, find out on what days your local shelter is typically less busy. Visiting on these days will get you more personal attention. Bring everyone in your household along to the shelter. If the shelter keeps records, scope for information on how the dog was in a home environment. Breed or breed mix info is sometimes illuminating though one must recognize the full meaning of standard euphemisms. “Loyal,” “aloof” or “discerning” often translates into “fearful or aggressive to strangers.” “Profuse double coat” usually means “dog hair on everything.”

One of the huge benefits of shelter adoption is the fabulous selection of young adult dogs in the 1-3 years age range. Not only is what you see what you get in both size and appearance, but also in the dog’s personality. His disposition – especially his gregariousness – will be pretty evident. Look for a dog that is friendly – one who approaches wagging, with ears plastered back on a mission to lick your face. You also want a dog whose exercise requirements are a realistic option for you (the shelter staff can help you here). If possible, take the dog for a test walk in the neighborhood. Observe how he reacts to kids and other dogs. Handle the dog all over his body. Does he react in an aggressive or unfriendly manner? There shouldn’t be a response, except maybe a wagging tail. You’ll find the cliché of shelters being full of problem dogs has little truth. People relinquish dogs for people-related reasons, rarely dog-related reasons.

If you find “The One,” don’t balk at any possible sticker shock. Most shelters do not give animals away. Not only do they need the money to do their good work, but a non-trivial adoption fee is a means and seriousness filter. Anyone balking at the initial fee of a hundred or so dollars is also likely to balk at routine maintenance costs. Plus, there is usually massive value added at most shelters. Getting spay or neuter surgery alone – which will have been done before you adopt the dog – would typically cost more than the adoption fee at your veterinarian. This service combined with vaccinations, micro-chipping and training class discounts, puts a shelter adopter way ahead of someone acquiring a dog from other sources. A good shelter will also quiz and counsel you a fair amount. This is a good thing.

For the first several weeks, confine your new dog to one well-dog-proofed room (e.g. no shoes, antique furniture, etc.). Pet gates are great for this. Put in a comfy bed, water and a large variety of chew toys. Dogs differ in how much they chew and what they like to chew, kind of like how we differ in how much we read or what we like to watch on TV. Set up a bathroom routine (dogs that have been kenneled often need a refresher), and walking and feeding schedule. Come and go a lot in the first days to teach the dog that when you leave, it’s no big deal, you always come back. Many brief absences are best. Before the first few long absences (more than a couple of hours), tire him out with hard exercise, a long walk or a training session. Give him more of the house once he’s proven himself housetrained and chew-trained.

Finally, enroll in a well-run dog training class. Do this even if you think you know what you’re doing and even if the dog seems to have reasonable manners. The dog training profession has come a long way in the last 20 years and you’ll pick up valuable tips and insights. To find a trainer in your area, go to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers ( and perform a trainer search. Unless you actually like dispensing pain, avoid classes that emphasize jerking the dog around on some sort of collar or trainers who highlight stale concepts like “dominance” prominently in their promo literature. Be patient, and most of all have fun with your new addition.

Jean Donaldson, author of The Culture Clash and Dogs Are From Neptune, directs The San Francisco SPCA's Academy for Dog Trainers. The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers has gained a reputation as the Harvard of dog training schools. She has over thirty years of experience in dog behavior and training.