Features November 2017 Issue

Successful Dog Adoption, Part 1: Develop an Adoption Criteria

For the best odds of finding your canine soulmate – a dog who fits as well into your life and family as you can imagine – follow these dog-adoption tips.

[Updated August 24, 2018]

So, you’re thinking about adopting a dog. Wonderful! Your whole future with your prospective new dog is ahead of you, and all things are possible. Visions of agility, rally, obedience, trick and/or nosework titles may be dancing in your head, or perhaps long, relaxing walks in a nearby park and snuggles in front of the fireplace on cold winter nights. Maybe you’d like to give back to the community with the warm comfort of a therapy dog. Perhaps you’re looking for a pal for your child.

Whatever your reasons for adopting, with so many dogs looking for their forever humans, how is a dog lover to know which one will be the right match for her family? While it’s not easy to sort through all your adoption options, and there are no guarantees that you will end up with your perfect dog, there are steps you can take to help you make a wise, educated choice and increase the odds that you will find the dog you hope for.

family at dog shelter

It’s a good idea for parents to initially come to the shelter without the kids. Once they’ve found a likely candidate, then they can bring the kids, telling them, “We are here to meet just this one dog (or two).” That way, the family doesn’t get split in pieces with different people pulling for different dogs, and the carefully considered selection criteria going out the window.

What Kind of Dog Do You Want?

To start, engage the entire family in discussions about what kind of dog you want. If you live alone, have the discussions with yourself. Some things to think about:


Purebred? Mixed breed? Don’t care? More and more competitions are open to mixed breeds these days, so a desire to compete no longer limits you to purebred dogs. I have owned and loved both pure and mixed breeds. While a purebred dog may be more predictable in terms of size and behavior tendencies, there are no guarantees. I know dog training professionals who have acquired their purebred puppies from reputable breeders and still have had significant behavioral issues. And some of my mixed breeds have been the best dogs ever.

(Note: If you decide to purchase a puppy from a breeder, the process will be very different from that described below. A good breeder will guide you in making your selection. Just be sure to avoid puppies that appear fearful and/or poorly socialized.)


Even if you’re not set on a particular breed, size can matter. I was always a “big dog” person – until we adopted our first Pomeranian. Now I am smitten with small dogs as well as large. Toy-sized dogs may be too fragile for some small children – and can become aggressive in order to protect themselves from unpredictable toddler behavior. Large dogs may be a hazard for small children, especially large active dogs who can easily bowl over a wee human. A bite to a child from a large dog can be far more serious than a bite from a small dog. Small dogs can get underfoot, while large dogs can counter-surf more easily.


Long-coated dogs are undeniably gorgeous; however, most of those coats require work – some require a lot of work. Do you have time to do a lot of grooming? Do you even want to? A professional groomer is an added pet-care expense you’ll need to figure into your budgeting. Don’t count on the kids promising to do all the brushing; that can be one of those sources of tension, and it’s not fair to the dog to neglect the grooming just because the kids are supposed to do it. Dogs with long and short coats shed.


Do you care about color? Maybe you don’t, but maybe someone else in the family does. Just one more thing to get clear about before venturing out to meet dogs.


Puppy? Adolescent? Adult? Senior? Puppies are perilously cute – and they can be a handful, especially with small children in the home. (I tell clients all the time, “I am a dog training/behavior professional, and I don’t adopt puppies!)

My preferred age is six months to a year – old enough to be past the worst of the puppy stuff, but still young enough to be a relatively clean slate, with many years to look forward to spending together. That said, one of the loveliest dogs I ever adopted was an eight-year-old Rough Collie. Deciding in advance what ages you’ll consider can help prevent an impulse adoption.


Calm? High-energy? Snuggler? Independent? Bold? Cautious? It helps to have a picture of your ideal temperament in mind.


I respect and admire people who take on dogs who have significant health or behavior problems – but I encourage clients to look for physically and behaviorally healthy dogs.

It’s easy to feel sorry for the hurt and frightened ones – but one should be aware that they can require a massive commitment of time, energy, and financial resources, and still may never be the satisfactory companions you had hoped for. If you do decide to take on a “project dog,” know full well that you may be in for quite a ride. It’s important that your new family member not be the source of tension, so the more agreement you have in advance, the better.

family meeting shelter dog

Let the kids know ahead of time that you probably won’t bring home a dog that day; if the dog turns out to be perfect, then taking the dog home that day can be a happy surprise. But if the previously selected dog turns out to be uncomfortable with kids, take a pass on that candidate and keep looking. For everyone’s happiness and safety, dogs that live with kids should love kids, not just tolerate them.

Giving thought to these qualities in advance can, again, help you make an educated choice when you are overwhelmed by all the beseeching eyes in shelter kennels.

Organize Your Dog Criteria List

Now it’s time to organize your thoughts and to get clear about the attributes you hope to find in a new canine family member as well as the traits you would prefer not to have to deal with. Write down your likes and dislikes in columns headed by these categories:

  • Must Have
  • Would Like to Have
  • Would Be Okay With
  • Would Prefer Not
  • Absolutely Not

Take the list with you when you go to meet your adoption prospects. You don’t necessarily have to rigidly hold yourself to all of them, but if you are tempted by a dog who has few of your family’s “must have” traits, and many of your “would prefer not” traits, at least you will be reminded that you are making a conscious choice to step outside the lines you have drawn. Also, the list may be useful if you need to remind other family members that they agreed to certain criteria (no puppies, no dogs over 50 pounds, etc.).

Best Adoption Sources for Getting a Dog

While you’re thinking about the traits you want in your next dog, start doing your homework about potential sources for your adoptee. Does your local shelter have a good reputation? Are veterinarians seeing a lot of health issues from some of the rescues or shelters in your area? If you look outside your immediate area, you’ll need to be willing to travel. Always meet your potential new family member in person before agreeing to adopt.

Good options for sources of your next dog are:

Reputable Shelters

There are all kinds of shelters, good and bad. Visit the ones in your area. Avoid adopting from shelters that appear overcrowded, dirty, or where staff is unfriendly. Ask if they have adoption counselors to help you with your choice. A good shelter will insist that all family members meet potential canine adoptees and are likely to also insist on meet-and-greets with any current canines in your home.

Reputable Rescue Groups

There are many excellent rescue groups from which you can adopt your canine companion. Ask your local animal control agency and your veterinarian if the group is reputable; both are likely to have had interactions with local rescue staff members and animals from the rescue. It’s also a good idea to consult online sites like guidestar.org and charitycheck101.org to confirm whether an organization is a legitimate 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Good rescues should be able to provide veterinary and vaccination records for their wards. Ask for references from previous owners or adopters – and call them. Visit housing locations for the dogs. Trust your instincts if you experience red flags, such as an unwillingness to answer questions.

Responsible Breeders

Good breeders will screen you as carefully as you want to screen them. They will have complete health records for all their pups, won’t object to you seeing the puppies’ living area, and meeting the mom – and the dad, too, if he’s on the premises. They will have done lots of foundation socialization work (ask them!). They are likely to have a contract that includes a spay/neuter requirement if the puppy isn’t going to be shown or bred and will commit to taking a dog back anytime during the dog’s lifetime if that becomes necessary.

A breeder who will sell a puppy to anyone who has the purchase price is not a responsible breeder.

Pet Adoption Websites

There are a number of websites that serve as clearinghouses for shelters and rescue groups, listing dogs of various breeds and mixes around the country (and some in Canada). The best known are petfinder.com, adoptapet.com, and rescueme.org.

Friends or family members. Sometimes, sadly, people must give up a dog for a legitimate reason. It can be a significant advantage to all concerned if a dog can be placed in a new home without having to experience the stress of a stay in a shelter or rescue, and if the new owner can communicate directly with the former owner about the dog’s behavior and health history.

Pet Adoption Sources to Avoid at All Costs

Pet Stores

Never, ever. Despite what the store employees may tell you, no responsible breeder sells puppies to pet stores. If you buy a puppy from a pet store, you are without a doubt buying a puppy mill puppy. Don’t. Do. It.

(Note: this is not the same as adopting from a non-profit group that is holding an adoption event at a pet store. That can be acceptable.)

roadside puppy sale

What about those adorable pups in the cardboard box at the supermarket or in a pen alongside the road or in a parking lot? Not only will such a purchase likely fail to give you the benefit of any reliable information as to the health status of the puppies or the behavioral health of the parents, the sale will only reward the seller and encourage further breeding and sales.


Lots of scammers on craigslist.org. Enough said.

Parking Lots

Hoarders and disreputable rescues are notorious for agreeing to meet you halfway somewhere to “save you the trouble” of a long drive. If you aren’t allowed to see the conditions your potential adoptee is being housed in, chances are it’s not a good situation.

Dog Brokers

Many people are not aware that this is a “thing” – trust me, it is. Dog brokers gather dogs and puppies from shelters, rescue groups, puppy mills, online ads, etc., and sell them for a profit. Given that the dogs are more likely to be well treated, accurately represented, and carefully placed in screened homes (for lower adoption fees) from the first shelter or rescue they found themselves in, it’s unconscionable to pay a broker for them.

Dog brokers often have websites advertising various dogs that they don’t actually have in their possession. When you express interest in a particular dog, they may say, “Oh she just got adopted, but I can find you another (insert breed of your choice) and will get back to you.” Then they scour all their sources to find one, and contact you. Or, they may just meet you with a dog that looks similar and try to pass it off as the dog you saw a photo of.

Non-Reputable Shelters, Rescue Groups, Breeders, Hoarders, etc.

It may be tempting to rescue a dog from a bad situation; just be aware that any support given to these organizations helps perpetuate their efforts.

OK! Got your new dog criteria mapped out and ready to go? See Part 2 of this article for everything you need to do once you get to a shelter. Now get out there and meet some dogs!

Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, of Fairplay, Maryland, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Miller is also the author of many books on positive training. Her newest is, Beware of the Dog: Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs.

Comments (8)

Yes, purebreds can come with behavior problems but so can rescue dogs, especially from shelters who forgo the temperament test and import them by the bus loads from out of state. Our area has been flooded with aggressive dogs. Several rescues are too picky to adopt out a dog to a good home. I was denied an adoption of a nice spayed female GSD because I had a 14 year old intact male dog! It's the very reason I get my new dogs from a good breeder.

Posted by: Wolfy | February 18, 2018 6:03 PM    Report this comment

One thing that is important in the State of Texas and most likely in other States is adopting a dog requires the dog to be spayed or neutered within 30 days, if not already spayed or neutered! My adopted dog cost me $151.00 to have him neutered! So adoptions are not cheap but worth it! I adopted my dog on the 21st of September, had him neutered a week later, no problem! When I brought him home, he immediately adopted his new home and family! He was already House broken! I walk him on a leash, he fetches his tennis balls and drops them at my feet! His fenced 1/2 acre is his and He has been nothing but a joy! He obeys me just like I am his alpha and I couldn't have asked for a better companion!

Posted by: Ardvaark65 | November 19, 2017 10:58 AM    Report this comment

Hello. I am a Specialist Doctor in India. I want to bring a new puppy at home. Can this new puppy brings any serious infection like AIDS/HIV from the unknown breeder...anyone can help me with an expert opinion... thank you.

Posted by: Dr S Das | November 19, 2017 12:52 AM    Report this comment

Most of my dogs for at least the last 10 plus years are rescues. Most have been titled and trained as Service Dogs.

Posted by: Rod | November 13, 2017 9:33 AM    Report this comment

I've always adopted from rescues and I have a thing for herding breeds: their loyalty, intelligence, and intensity. I am also drawn to those who need a little extra effort: the shy and abused, or those with disabilities. I know this about myself going in and also know I am prepared to put in the extra effort it takes to adopt them. My first boy was a border collie mix, just under a year old. He had been abused and though I was never able to completely get him past his fears, he was the most loving, loyal dog ever, and smart as a whip. He was out of the worst of puppyhood when I adopted him, so was never destructive and always eager to learn.

When he passed, I specifically decided on a girl puppy so I wouldn't be comparing the two situations. The girl I chose was a GS mix who I always say has the athleticism of a Basenji, drive of a GS, and the brain of Einstein. She's also very sensitive and requires a lot of patience and reassurance. My other girl is Collie mix who's been deaf since birth. I adopted her at six months old from a foster home who had done an awesome job with her.

For me, the herding breed aspect is most important, I don't care about the rest one way or another, but agree it's important to know what you are and aren't prepared to take on.

Posted by: KsanaO | November 12, 2017 3:12 PM    Report this comment

I've always been a 'be prepared' kind of adopter, and I successfully adopted two terriers pretty much as described. They both knew many commands when I got them. I did the same when I adopted my current dog, but I threw all rules out the window when I met Charlie, who was the right size, but otherwise a quivering mass of fear, who came from a hoarding situation and was almost totally un-socialized. But, knowing that I work from home and can provide a situation most adopters can't provide, I decided that I might be the only person willing to take on the challenge.

After three years, I know that I made the right decision. He's still timid around most people (but slowly getting better), but he's as devoted to me as I am to him. Even with prior experience, I had to start from square one with Charlie since no normal methods worked on him. Still, I don't regret my decision.

I guess I'm saying that the recommendations in this article are really excellent -- and appropriate for most adopters. But, if you have enough experience to make sure that your eyes are wide open to the potential downsides and your heart is full of the willingness to do whatever it takes, it's possible to go against your original wish list and still get a wonderful and rewarding new family member.

Posted by: Timid Dog Adopter | November 12, 2017 11:12 AM    Report this comment

Don't forget that older dogs can be fantastic too. No, you won't have as long with them as you would a younger dog. But the older ones still have a lot of life left in them and a lot of love to give!

We adopted our boy last year when he was nine. He was grossly overweight and most people probably overlookrd him. He's now a trim, athletic 10 year old who's only health problems are wonky hips and arthritis in one of his shoulders. He was housetrained, crate trained, and obedience trained. He walks on a leash beautifully. We both got lucky.

Posted by: DreamWeaver | November 12, 2017 10:22 AM    Report this comment

You'll need to update your comments about never buying a dog at a pet store fearing they will be from a puppy mill. California has passed a law, starting in 2019, stating all cats and dogs must be from a rescue.

Posted by: shelley8492 | November 6, 2017 9:15 PM    Report this comment

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