Features November 2017 Issue

Successful Dog Adoption, Part 2: What To Do at the Shelter

Part 1 of this article will guide you in creating a new dog criteria for your prospective adoptee. Once you have that, use Part 2 for when you are ready to start visiting dogs.

[Updated August 24, 2018]

So – you’ve made your list of desired qualities and located a well-regarded shelter, rescue group, or breeder, and are ready to start your search. Perhaps you’ve already identified a prospect on an organization’s website. What now?

Go meet some dogs!

Here are six important observations to make for each dog you look at. Remember: take your time and don't settle for a dog unsuitable to your lifestyle or needs.

1. Watch: If you can, stand back and watch your adoption prospect for a while.

Ideally, he comes forward and happily greets all visitors. Is he an equal opportunity greeter, happy to meet children and adults, men and women, people of different races, and people with odd mannerisms? If he’s in a foster home rather than a kennel, again, watch and note how he interacts with any humans present.

Concerns: If he happily greets some people but is troubled by others, he may need significant behavior work to help him accept those types of people. If he barks and lunges at passing humans or dogs, he could be generally reactive or aggressive, or it could just be barrier reactivity. This behavior may or may not continue when he is no longer kenneled. If it does, you will be doing significant behavior modification work.

If he moves to the back of the kennel and avoids contact with humans, he is likely fearful and/or undersocialized. You cannot fix fear with love alone. Dogs who are fearful will require a lot of management and behavior modification in order to be comfortable and safe (not a fear-based biting risk). Again, this may just be a response to the overwhelmingly stressful kennel environment, or it could be a bigger behavior issue. Some dogs behave like entirely different dogs when they are removed from their kennels and taken to a more normal environment, such as a get-acquainted room.


This dog passed the parents’ assessments and seemed calm and sweet. However, she was alarmed by and fearful of the younger, more exuberant boys. A dog who enjoyed (or ignored) spontaneous, lively kid activity would be a better fit.

2. Engage: Assuming you are comfortable with his responses to others, approach the kennel.

Does he come up to greet you? When your other family members approach, does he stay engaged and friendly? Do you like what you see? If so, continue.

Concerns: He needs to respond well to all family members. A dog who is afraid of or reacts badly to one or more family member will likely be a source of conflict and is not a good choice.

3. Meet: Now it’s time to see him in a different, less-stressful environment.

Hopefully, the shelter or rescue has a quiet room or outside fenced area where you can spend get-acquainted time with the dog, away from the chaos of the kennels. Watch as the staff person or volunteer leashes him and removes him from the kennel. Does he avoid them and/or their touch? Do they have difficulty leashing him?

Concerns: Discomfort with or avoidance of close human contact can be an indication of lack of socialization or of abuse. This may require moderate to significant behavioral work.

4. Interact: Spend time with the dog, preferably in a separate room or fenced area.

Give him a little time to sniff and explore the room, without making an effort to engage him in any way at first. After he’s explored the room a bit, does he turn his attention to you and your other family members? Does he interact appropriately with you and other family members? Will he play with toys? Does he appear to have had any training? (Most dogs who have had some training will at least respond to a “Sit” cue.) Can he calm down and settle after you play with him, or does he stay aroused? Is he mouthy (putting his teeth on human skin)?

Think about how his behaviors will mesh with your family. Is he too energetic for your children? Does he pull too hard on the leash for them (or you!) to safely walk him? Are any of your family members afraid of him? Conversely, does he have no interest in you? Does he run away, or hide?

Concerns: The dog you adopt needs to be an integral member of your family. If you have children, the dog must adore small humans, and demonstrate this during your family’s interactions. “Tolerate” isn’t good enough. If he has behaviors that are wildly inappropriate, or that threaten the safety of family members, he will be a source of tension, and will likely end up shut away from the family a good part of the time, or perhaps returned to the adoption agency.

5. Ask: Shelter/rescue personnel may have additional information that they have not yet shared.

Was a behavior assessment done? (Remember to take assessment information with a grain of salt; see “Adoption Options,” below.) Is there an owner questionnaire that you could see? Behavior notes from staff and volunteers? Medical records? More information is always better.

6. Think and discuss: Assuming all has gone reasonably well so far, have a family discussion (or a mental discussion with yourself).

There are lots of dogs in need of homes. If this one isn’t a good fit, there will be one who is. Be willing to wait. On the other hand, if this is the right dog for you, full speed ahead! Get ready to comply with any additional adoption requirements the organization may have (fill out an application, landlord check, meet your current pets, etc.) and then be prepared for a lifetime of joy and fun with your new family member.

shelter dog

Super cute...but does he have a record of biting people...in the face? It would be good to know.

Adoption Options: Progress Isn’t Perfect

Adopting a dog hasn’t gotten any easier in the 40-plus years I’ve been involved professionally with animals. My two decades in animal sheltering (1976 to 1996) were prior to the emergence of the so-called no-kill movement. In those days, the art of doing behavior assessments for shelter dogs was just becoming the norm. We did our best to make available for adoption only those dogs who were likely to be successful companions and who could function reasonably well in society. We then trusted our adoption counselors to help make good matches, with a goal of placing every dog in a life-long, loving home where canine and human were well-suited to each other’s needs. We weren’t perfect, for sure, but we tried. Even then, finding the right dog was not an easy task for a prospective adopter.

Two significant changes have occurred in the past 20 years that can make it even harder. First, well-meaning, warmhearted “no-kill” animal lovers have made it their admirable mission to reduce the numbers of dogs and cats euthanized in shelters around the United States. Their efforts, alongside the ongoing spay/neuter and educational programs and hard work of shelters over the years, have not been fruitless; euthanasia numbers have dropped significantly. An estimated 18-20 million dogs and cats were euthanized in shelters in the 1980s; today’s estimate is two to three million. That’s great news, to be sure.

But there has also been an exponential proliferation of hoarders (individuals and rescue groups who take on far more animals than they can care for). Today, many dogs are “saved” from shelters – many of which are eager to improve their live-release numbers – only to be “rescued” by hoarders and forced to suffer from overcrowding, poor sanitation, disease, malnutrition, and death in the hands of their would-be saviors. Some supposedly no-kill shelters have, themselves, become institutional hoarders.

Plus, in the quest for better numbers, a significant percentage of non-hoarding adoption sources are placing poorly socialized dogs, dogs with other behavior problems, and even dogs with a known history of aggression. (A recent example: A rescue group in Virginia adopted a dog with a known history of aggression to a family that included a 90-year-old grandmother. The dog killed the grandmother on the first day in his new home.) Those who adopt from both hoarding and non-hoarding situations often find themselves facing significant health and/or behavioral challenges with their new canine companions.

To make matters worse, several recent studies suggest that shelter behavior assessments aren’t as useful as we have long believed them to be. The studies show that not only are there are a lot of “false positives” – dogs who show undesirable behavior in the assessment but not in a home environment, meaning they may be euthanized unnecessarily – but also, there are many “false negatives” – dogs who don’t show behaviors in the assessment that do show up later in the home, meaning adopters may be given false assurances about their new dogs’ behaviors. As a result, some organizations have discontinued any assessments, lowering or removing adoption screening standards, harking back to the unfortunate old days of “You want him? Plunk down your adoption fee
and he’s yours” – the standard practice when I started working in shelters.


1. Give careful thought in advance to the qualities you and your family want in your new dog. Don’t allow yourselves to be swayed by an adorable face if the dog behind the face doesn’t meet at least most of your desired criteria.

2. Take your time. There are lots of dogs looking for their forever families. You might as well hold out for one who will do well in your home.

3. Consider utilizing the services of a training/behavior professional if you are not confident in your ability to make a good choice. Many trainers are aware of dogs, perhaps belonging to former clients, who need new homes for any number of sad reasons (divorce, illness, financial difficulties, etc.).

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 (6)

I read your articles with a chuckle. After my fantastic dog had passed away, I waited until was ready for another dog
I wrote down what I wanted. I as quite specific because my 2 year old granddaughter visited often
For a month, I connected with rescue groups and checked ones in foster homes
I found a dog in a foster home that sounded perfect but wouldn’t be available for 2 weeks
So I kept looking....
One morning there was a dog at our local humane society, so my husband and went to look. She came into the room, came over and licked my husband on the cheek.
She was not anything we wanted. We knew nothing about her background. She came from a high kill shelter 2 days before.
Sometimes you just have to follow your heart. That kiss sealed the deal
Almost 2 years later, she has been a great dog. It’s been a lot of work but worth it

Posted by: Autumnoak | November 20, 2017 7:40 PM    Report this comment

I strongly disagree with the authors negative position on dogs fearful in a shelter environment, especially any suggestion fearful dogs are more prone to biting. Any showing bite behavior are euthanized on intake or kept from adoption for observation. I come from 7 years of working for vets, 30 years of rescue work, including pulling hundreds of dogs for rescues while walking at a normal pace down the shelter isle, and 20 years of being a human doctor. I specialize in rehabbing terrified/feral dogs. Dogs from a stable home environment are often the most traumatized in a shelter environment. It's a NORMAL response to be torn from everything they love, for a sensitive dog! Over 30 years of rehabilitating them, I have several observations. MANY dramatically change to normal as soon as getting out of the shelter but most take about a week of a regular routine to adapt. In 30 years, one dog remained difficult to walk up to in the open, although he's a joy inside. All others have gone on to be re-homed. Overwhelmingly, the fearful dogs are the BEST dogs for a person looking for that "special" relationship. They are the more quiet dogs and rarely hyper. Truly, they are SENSITIVE, not "fearful", and work to PLEASE when being trained. In fact, I do NOT spend more time to rehab them for adoption, especially compared to the hyperactive dog jumping at the front of a cage. It's MUCH easier to make a quiet dog playful, than make a HYPER dog quiet LOL I DO change things a little when training. First, Instead of "sit" and "down", I teach "watch me" (eye contact) and "touch" (having them touch your hand wherever you have it) for treats. "Watch me" has to be rewarded for even a 1 second glance at your eyes, initially. To start "touch" I actually touch their nose with the flat of my palm in a very calm way, and reward. Then make it a game and they respond quickly. Within DAYS you'll see rapid improvement in their depression, as you REWARD them for more assertive behavior. A gentle stable buddy dog is a help and they usually do best re-homed with other calm stable dogs. Play breaks the ice with them. Imitate their happy behaviors and they respond immediately. Massages are a vital part of their rehabilitation. Wait till quiet at night, and do a whole body massage. Many will have no response, or simply tolerate it. No matter, do it every night for 15-30 minutes, religiously. Massage every part of their body from around their eyes to the top of their tails. You'll see dramatic improvement due to serotonin release. One of my more difficult dogs lived in a puppy mill for her first 2 years. She would jump 2 feet straight into the air, from a laying position if you dropped a fork. She had no personality to even write a bio for her adoption, but I did the massages every night. I incorrectly doubted she'd ever be normal. One night I was busy and forgot the massage, and she came to me. It was very odd behavior for her. Then it hit me! She wanted her massage! For her this was the turning point. Humans had never "listened" to her, so she didn't know we would. Once they SEE you understand their language and can "speak" back to them, it's a tremendous life altering moment. Most fearful dogs are in no way this severe, but I will honestly say she went on to be an utter JOY of a dog. She had a funny sense of humor and was a tremendous help for me in rehabbing other dogs. She was my best Ambassador in rehabilitating other fearful dogs! In summery, in contrast to the author, I highly encourage the adoption of the more shut down or fearful dogs in the shelters, especially the ones NOT jumping at the front of the cage. Any adaptation in training or extra socializing is MORE than worth the deeper lifetime relationship they give in return! Truthfully, anyone adopting a dog should be prepared to take the dog to training classes and socialize the dog. If not, they are likely to be disappointed with ANY dog they adopt.

Posted by: addctd2dogs | November 19, 2017 4:37 PM    Report this comment

My first dog was a JYD (junk yard dog). My 2nd dog came from "the pound." My 3rd dog was found in our local "Classified Attic" newspaper ads (Free); he was found wandering, original owner unknown. My 4th dog was abandoned as the result of a local wildfire. My 5th dog's former owner used to take and use his belt to discipline his kids. (Who knows what he did to "discipline" her.) That super smart girly dog turned out to be one of the best dogs in the multiverse.

10 dogs rescued so far, over a period of 50 years. We now have a 4.5 lb-er (found running loose 9 years ago) and a Craigslist 55-lb awesome, awesome dog----the first dog we've rescued where we know his actual birthday (likely a puppy mill product, sold originally at a pet store, kept one month and then sold to us at age four months).

All terrific companions. All "found" by me already aged 9 months or a little older. Each came with his/her own bit of baggage. Obedience training, consistency, lots and lots of exercise and each one became a happy happy dog.

I like that this article informs us that assessing the behavior of dogs when dogs are kenneled at a shelter is a tricky task. One of my sweetest dogs was extremely noise sensitive. Being at the shelter made her seem like a fear-aggressive, poor poor candidate for adoption.

As soon as she was leashed and taken for a long walk, she transformed into a buttercup-----all happy and eager to please. She never got over her noise sensitivity (a genetic trait for many dogs) but she was loyal, biddable, wonderful right up to her last moment on Earth.

I also like the suggestions that potential adopters might want to take along a dog trainer and take the time to quiz shelter employees and volunteers about the adoptable dogs. It's always good to have observations shared, taken into consideration.

Most of all, new owners must be patient, consistent with training and make sure their pets (cats, too) get plenty of exercise, healthy food and love. Plenty of love.

Posted by: MiTmite9 | November 19, 2017 11:57 AM    Report this comment

I adopted a Labrador Retriever at a shelter who was a kennel mate with a large Rottweiler. The 3 year old dog was malnourished and fearful and went to the rear of the kennel. She did not want to come with me. She had been mistreated by previous owner and it took a lot of walking her and two months until she accepted me. I have had her 10 years and I have the sweetest dog you could want. She is friendly to everyone and even to a cat who lives with us. She adores me and when walking her if I drop her leash she will pick it up and follow behind me.

Posted by: Arnie | November 19, 2017 10:30 AM    Report this comment

Very helpful article, especially for first-time adopters. When we adopted our now 10 year old Chocolate Lab, I pushed all his buttons (fingers in the mouth, hugging him around the neck, hands where a vet would put them, etc.), and he just stood there and allowed it. He has continued to be the most laid-back dog I've ever owned. Any dog who sleeps through a hurricane is pretty much bomb-proof.

Posted by: DreamWeaver | November 19, 2017 9:50 AM    Report this comment

This is a fabulous article. I wish I had this information before I became a trainer and I adopted my first dog.

Posted by: South Orlando Dog Training | November 12, 2017 5:53 PM    Report this comment

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