What You Need to Know Before Adopting a Dog

Man playing fetch with dog
Man playing fetch with dog Jaromir Chalabala / EyeEm / Getty Images

Finding your new best friend can take some serious time and careful planning, especially when adopting. Luckily, there’s no shortage of pooches to choose from. In 2014, the ASPCA adopted out 423 dogs, and PAWS Chicago found homes for 2,692 dogs. And according to the ASPCA, U.S. shelters receive about 3.9 million new dogs each year.

While adopting can feel like a daunting task, it doesn’t have to be. To get started in the process, visit a shelter’s website to see any dogs that might interest you and what you need to bring with you to adopt: Many shelters will need proof of address and a government-issued ID. If you’re a renter, bring a copy of your lease to prove you’re allowed to have pets. Knowing your city’s dog ordinance is also important: Do you have a breed ban or restrictions? Is there a limit on how many pets you can have?

Once you have the logistics out of the way, you’re almost ready to walk out the door with your four-legged buddy. Even better? You didn’t just gain a new jogging and hiking partner — you have a new wingman. “Saying you have a rescue dog is really sexy right now,” says Stephanie Filer, manager of special gifts and partnerships at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, which cared for 7,290 dogs last year.

If you’re serious about adopting a dog, here’s everything you should know to make it as smooth as possible.

Don’t judge the dog too quickly.
Whether you’re looking for a pure breed (yes, shelters have pure breeds), think certain breeds are more vicious than others (no, pit bulls or certain breeds aren’t meaner than others), or are obsessed with Labrador Retrievers, don’t overlook a dog just because of its breed. “At the end of the day, breed doesn’t really matter, it’s the personality of that specific dog,” says Cassandra Johnson, pet behavior lead at ARL-IA. You can go into a shelter and think you want a Lab because you want a kid-friendly, playful dog, but if the Lab available at the shelter doesn’t meet any of those characteristics, you’re better off adopting a dog of a different breed that does check off every box for you.

Don’t be afraid to go with your first instinct. 
Go to a shelter looking for a pint-size mature mutt and fall in love with a Mastiff puppy instead? You wouldn’t be the first person. It’s OK to want a puppy, but be realistic. “People get totally bowled over by how cute puppies are,” says Diane Wilkerson, adoption center director of PAWS. “But they need to be taken out every two to three hours, they need obedience training. Do you have the time for this? Because if you do, you’re going to have a great dog, but if you don’t, you’re going to get a rowdy adolescent, a dog that’s under-socialized, or you’re going to have house-breaking problems.” Just don’t be the guy who pretends to come home over his lunch hour when you know your boss has a penchant for working lunches.

Do know what you want in a dog.
When you think you’ve found “the one,” grab a staff member and let them know you’re interested. They’ll ask you personal questions such as:

1. What do you want in a dog — a playful pup or a couch potato?
2. How much time are you able to spend with the dog?
3. Are you an experienced dog owner?

“Our goal is to match you up with your perfect pet,” Wilkerson says. “We’re not going to set the people or the dog up to fail.” So don’t take it personally if the shelter doesn’t think you and the dog are a good fit.”I had one person that tried 10 different times and finally found one,” Johnson says. “It’s all about matching personalities.”

Don’t go full frontal.
When it’s time to interact with the dog one-on-one, it’s a little bit like a first date. It can be awkward, but just a few changes in body language will ensure a positive interaction. “When we approach one another, we approach in a full-frontal posture,” says Dr. Emily Weiss, PhD. and ASPCA vice president with research and development. “When dogs approach each other, they do so by turning their body or their head sideways, and that’s a communication that means no fights.”

So turn to your side, and let the dog come to you first. Don’t do anything to rile up the dog; you want the dog to feel calm. Avoid petting him or her on the head right away; instead, pet their back or chest. And, although it might sound obvious, don’t put the dog in a headlock.

Do let the dog meet everyone in the household.
Whether you have a roommate, girlfriend, or children, the new dog needs to meet everyone it will share a space with, including other resident dogs. Bring your dog to the shelter so they can meet on neutral ground. “Don’t expect them to be best friends right off the bat,” Johnson says. If you’re having trouble finding a match for your current pup, you might try adopting a dog of the opposite sex. “There tends to be more flirtatious behavior between male and female dogs,” Weiss says, “and that behavior can help solidify a bond.”

Do come back.
Adopt a dog, but it’s not working out? Many shelters have policies allowing you to return the dog. “As much as we want the animals to get out of here as fast as possible, we have more coming in every day,” Filer says. “So just because this one didn’t work out, you can choose from the other ones we have.”

The ASPCA and PAWS also have guilt-free return policies. “The goal here is for us to get these animals home and have this relationship be a good relationship for both the non-human and the human,” Weiss says. But look into resources the shelter offers, such as training, to prevent you from having to return the dog.