Adopting a dog from a shelter, pound, or rescue: The decision

Before I even start, if you are considering adopting in the New England area please look at the Hartford, CT, pound. This is a straight-up pound, no frills, the dogs have ten days before they are euthanized. If you adopt from this pound you are directly saving a life, and–unusual for this area–the pound often has small, young dogs. Out-of-state adoptions are FIVE DOLLARS; in-state are $50. The Hartford pound’s website usually has a high proportion of pit breeds, because those are the ones that stay in long enough to become urgent. The website does not reflect the actual makeup of the dog population there. If you are looking for a non-pit breed, visit often, call often, e-mail often. Wilson, Sparky, and Ginny all came from the Hartford pound and I cannot say enough good things about the animal control officer there and how hard she works to get these dogs adopted.

This has been brewing around in my mind for a while, and I think it’s high time I sat down and wrote it out.

There are a lot of feelings and beliefs about dog adoption that need to be addressed respectfully but truthfully. There are a lot of feelings and beliefs about breeding that need the same respect and the same attention to truth. So I am not going to be posting what some people want to believe about either option. I’m going to tell you as close to the truth as I know how to tell, and I am going to try to keep it unbiased.

Since Doug and I began our work with dogs, I’ve rescued lots of dogs personally and been involved in the rescue of many, many more. Eight of those (five of my own rescues and involved in three more) have been in the past year.

I’ve also been a show breeder of Great Danes and, more recently, have owned show-bred Cardigan Welsh Corgis. I am a member of my local breed club and am as involved in the world of purebred dogs as I can be at this time in our lives.

The reason the rescues have been so concentrated in the last year is that it’s difficult and not altogether fair to the dogs involved to bring in a lot of other-breed rescues when you have Danes. Danes tend to scare other dogs and bring out the worst in them, and Danes as a whole are not as tolerant of misbehavior as some other breeds. And when a Dane decides to get in a fight, a lot of damage can be done unintentionally. Once the last of the Danes left, we made it known that we were open to doing rescue, and typically when you do that the dogs come out of the woodwork. I fully anticipate that we’ll continue to do rescue as often as we physically can.

Anyway, all that to say that I’ve lived both sides of the choice and, having been so involved on both sides, can tell you that in my experience there is not a wrong choice when it comes to buying from a breeder or adopting. It entirely depends on the needs of your family and which dog you can provide an ideal home for. Good breeders are not contributing to the population of unwanted dogs (there will be a long post on this later, but this I promise is true). Shelters and rescues are not necessarily beacons of goodness and light either. So this choice really needs to have a lot of HEAD input, not just heart.

It is a HUGE blessing to adopt a dog. I cannot say this enough. Trust me, you will get a lot more out of it than you could ever hope to put in. But it is also a blessing to be perfectly matched with a well-bred purebred and end up good friends with his or her breeder. And, as hard as this is to hear, it is a blessing to walk away from a dog you cannot do a good job with. Letting a dog go to heaven is not worse than giving it a less than perfect home here on earth.

I’m going to admit immediately that I have broken a lot of the rules I’m going to put down here. However, I can tell you that every time I do, it bites me in the butt (often quite literally). I also have some tools available to me that you may not have available to you. For example, I am quite tolerant (meaning I don’t panic, not that I actually tolerate it as a behavior) of biting. My kids have been bitten by a lot of dogs and they know that my first question to them is going to be “What did you do to the dog?”  I have an insanely tolerant husband who doesn’t insist on perfect–or even good–behavior from rescue dogs for a long time. I also have a large fenced yard, am willing to spend a lot of money on training and vets, and I have an extremely well-socialized core group of dogs that can heal the mental and emotional wounds of “broken” dogs. The extent to which you do not have these or similar tools is the extent to which you should NOT deviate from the rules.

One final pre-explanation: When I give a caution below, I am in no way implying that this particular issue would automatically disappear if you bought a puppy from a reputable breeder. For some that is true, for others very definitely not. I don’t want this post to be 30 pages long, so I am going to concentrate on adoption here, but I will (eventually, I promise) post about the cautions you must use when buying a dog. For now, imagine that your choices are [adopt a dog] vs. [no dog at all].

OK, away we go.


If you are not willing to invest as much as, if not more than, the money you would give to buy a well-bred purebred.

Never, ever adopt because it’s cheaper. One vet bill for diarrhea will wipe out that difference (and I am not kidding–Sparky was adopted for $5 and four days later had cost a total of $850). Even if you take home a healthy dog on that day or that week, if your rescue dog turns out to have crippling luxated patellas or develops cataracts or glaucoma, all diseases that are more common in poorly bred dogs or randomly bred dogs, you will spend thousands to fix it. Always plan to go straight into training as soon as the dog has had a little time to adjust to your home–budget $150 for that, and more for additional classes. You may end up needing a behaviorist; I have spent $60-$80/hr for mine (and it is more than worth it). You are going to spend just as much to feed, train, vet, fence, and keep this dog in Nylabones as you would for any dog, and no dogs are cheap.

If you feel sorry for the dog.

WOW is this dangerous. You cannot fall into this trap. What makes this even worse is that the dogs that are the most threatened, the ones that are close to euthanization or in the worst shape, are the ones that are cowering in the back of the cage or who bark at everyone who walks by. These are the dogs that are going to be the most difficult to rehabilitate and who are the most likely to take a few chunks out of you on the journey.

There are ALWAYS Cinderella stories. Many dogs on their last day turn around miraculously. But many more are only rescued to live a life of barriers and frustration because they were so damaged, or because the breed choice or dog choice was totally wrong and the owners cannot offer the dog the life it needs. For a dog, there are many worse things than death. This is a hard truth but you’ve GOT to accept it. You cannot adopt a dog who won’t get an IDEAL life with you.

Talk to your friends who have adopted children, because the analogy is pretty accurate. You can never adopt a child because you feel sorry for it. You adopt a child because you desperately want THAT child, in YOUR home, forever. Give your dog the same respect and the same sense of being wanted.

If you know nothing about the breed.

If someone complains that their rescued husky always pulls and is difficult to control on leash, I honestly just stand there and blink for a minute. OF COURSE he does; his entire brain is one seething gland that screams “PULL PULL PULL” day and night. If an adopted beagle kills the family rabbit, nobody should be shocked (the only surprising thing would be that he let it live as long as he did). If an adopted pit starts fights with the other dog in the family, that is entirely normal. And so on.

While, again, there are always exceptions and some extreme and surprising ones, BREED OR BREED MIX MEANS SOMETHING. Give your family and your dog the gift of knowing what you want and knowing what you are getting in to. Remember, you’re here to provide an IDEAL home. An unprepared home, or one that is going to respond to the dog’s “problems” (which are not problems, but normal for the breed) by punishing or exiling or rehoming the dog is worse than no home at all.

If you are not capable of handling training challenges.

Of the eight dogs we rescued in the last year, six bit my kids. NONE of them are bad dogs. NONE of them are unsafe dogs. ALL the bites were bites of fear or confusion or stress, and did no serious damage. ALL of the dogs are now happy and are extremely unlikely to bite. But you need to look this in the eye if you’re going to adopt. Adopted puppies are usually unsocialized and frantic with energy and worry. Adopted adults are terrified, insulted, and sometimes come with whatever bad habits drove the first home to dump them. (By the way, I tend to blame first homes very little if at all–there’s a fashion right now of assuming that any dumped dog was abused or kicked or that its issues were all the result of its life before the shelter. Nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as the dog walked in your door, YOU are the one creating and shaping its behavior, and after about a month you are 100% responsible for whatever good or bad the dog is doing.)

You need to be ready to get the dog into training right away. You need to be prepared to do some serious behavior shaping. If a bite is the worst thing that could ever happen to you, you should adopt only from a rescue that has all dogs in foster homes, and make this requirement very clear to the rescue.

If you are willing to fail.

These dogs have already had a major failure in their lives. If you go into it with the attitude that at least you’re giving the dog some semblance of an existence, and if things go to heck you can just give the dog back, you WILL fail, and you will compound the fear, confusion, and bonding issues of the dog.

If you are not willing to fail.

Wait, what? What I mean is this: some placements, no matter how well-meaning and how dedicated, fail. I want you to work like HECK on this dog, work with no thought of giving up. But if you’ve been trying for a month or two and are hitting a wall, and your behaviorist agrees the dog is just a poor fit in your house, this goes back to the rule that a non-ideal home is worse than no home at all. And the longer you keep a dog in a non-ideal home, the harder it will be to rehabilitate and place in a better home. Contact your rescue or, if it’s not an option to bring the dog back, a local rescue near you and give the dog back.

If you are already leading a very busy life.

If it’s not already abundantly clear from the last hundred lines, this is not a small thing. This dog is going to require a huge commitment of time, energy, and possibly money. Be very honest with yourself about the number of hours you spend at home on a typical day, and the number of those hours you can devote to a dog. If you’re barely at home from dawn till dusk, if you’re running in and running out all day, your dog is not going to patiently wait for Saturday to get your time and attention. We live extremely busy lives nowadays, especially with growing kids. If it’s difficult for you to build at least one uninterrupted hour and several 30-minute stretches into your day, you will end up resenting the dog and the dog will respond in kind.

If you aren’t very clear about, and comfortable with, the type of adoption you are undertaking.

You may well find that certain types of adoptions are more in line with your personal philosophy or comfort zone than others; they are not all created equal.

The pound: This is run by an animal control officer and serves a certain town or set of towns. Pounds have a duty to keep loose dogs off the street. Many do not accept owner surrenders, though many do. Dogs are kept for a limited amount of time or until space is too tight and are then either killed or released to rescue organizations.

Adopt from the pound if you feel strongly that you want to solve the pet commitment problem in your local area. Adopt from the pound if you want to save the dogs that are typically the highest-risk and the least publicized. Pounds typically have lower adoption fees and fewer “value-adds” for the dogs. The dogs may not be vaccinated or spayed/neutered; they may not have more than the barest evaluation. Pounds typically do not have a dog-return clause in their contract (if they have a contract at all); you do not have the option of returning the dog if the placement fails.

Pounds are usually called “cityname pound,” “cityname animal control,” etc. Some may even be listed under police departments.

The shelter. Shelters are usually run by non-profits and have a lot of owner surrenders, though towns may contract with them to accept overflow stray dogs or even to function as the pound for that region. Shelters usually spay/neuter/vaccinate all dogs that come in, and they try to keep the dogs longer than a pound can. Adoption fees are usually higher than a pound and, in my experience, tend to reflect the actual costs of spaying/neutering/vaccinating/feeding (around here, typically about $200).

Adopt from a shelter if you want a little more screening of the dog but still want to rescue a local, at-risk dog. There are usually limited breeds at a shelter, and the small dogs, fluffy dogs, puppies, and light-colored dogs will go first. If you want a particular breed, especially a particular age of a particular breed (and that breed is not a Lab or a Pit-type), expect to check back regularly.

Shelters are usually called “cityname animal shelter” or “regionname humane society” or “townname animal rescue league.”

The rescue. Rescues are typically NOT pounds, though there can be some overlap with shelters (for example, one of my local shelters partners with a save-the-sato rescue that brings dogs up from Puerto Rico). Rescues have a more limited mission than shelters; they tend to focus on one breed, or a type of dog (small, large). Rescues are most likely to have dogs in foster homes and will usually try to keep any adoptable dog until it finds a new home; time limits are rare.

Purebred rescue is often associated with the national breed club for that dog; for example, the Cardigan Welsh Corgi National Rescue Trust is affiliated with the Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club of America and will accept purebred Cardigans being surrendered, will pull any purebred Cardigan out of a pound or shelter, will transport Cardis across the country if necessary, etc.

Rescues typically ask higher adoption fees than either a pound or a rescue (many of them approach a decently bred puppy purchase price). Many of them bring dogs from other areas of the country to eager adopters in the Northeast or Midwest.

Adopt from a rescue if you feel comfortable only with a single breed or small group of breeds. Adopt from a rescue if you need more predictability in the dog (because the foster home can hopefully give you a good idea of the dog’s temperament and habits). I would certainly encourage you to adopt from the national breed-club-affiliated rescues if you are looking for a purebred; these clubs usually require a dog-return contract (so your dog always has a home) and the number of breeders affiliated with the rescue means that you can get expert advice and problem-solving.

Rescues have names that reflect one breed, or are named Cutey-Fluffy Rescue (as opposed to a town name). They all seem to have names like Woof and Wags, or Odd Dog, or Last Chance, or Barker Nutter ResQ. It’s a pun breeding ground.

Some stuff you should know:

If there’s a group that can be considered controversial, the transport-oriented rescues that charge a ton would be it. They tend to pull dogs from southern or over-the-border pounds and shelters to fill perceived demand. So they will go get puppies, or small dogs, or fluffy dogs; the “unattractive” dogs are left behind. Some people are uncomfortable with this approach, which can seem to be like stocking the shelves with the cutest and youngest. There’s also a worry that if there are little white fluffy puppies available from rescue X, the less-cute dogs, often larger and older, that fill the shelters and the pounds will be more likely to be killed. And, finally, many breeders get seriously angry with these types of rescues if the rescues sharply criticize breeders because of the “overpopulation problem” when the rescue is bringing up dogs from elsewhere specifically because there’s an UNDERpopulation of dogs looking for homes.

I’ll admit that it really bugs me when a rescue says that my carefully bred and meticulously prepared-for litter is morally wrong when they’re driving a van full of puppies up here because there are no puppies in the shelters, but I really don’t care as long as every dog has a chance to get a home. But be aware of this issue, and if you want to solve your local problem you should adopt from your local pound or shelter or request a local dog from a rescue.

There are two “humane societies” that DO NOT rescue dogs. One is PETA and one is the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS does not rescue dogs and never has. It’s purely an animal-rights (as opposed to animal welfare or animal advocacy) organization. PETA does accept animals, but does a spectacularly bad job of finding them homes and kills most of what it takes in. Please DO adopt a dog, if that’s what you decide is right for your family and right for the dog. Please do NOT equate rescue with one of these two organizations.


10 thoughts on “Adopting a dog from a shelter, pound, or rescue: The decision

  1. Once upon a time I adopted a pom/chi mix (a designer dog!) because I felt sorry for her. Never really liked her, although she loved my husband. She was $50 to adopt. 3 months after I adopted her, she got out of our house one night and ran into a neighbor’s yard, and was attacked by the neighbors’ labs (but labs are so gentle! so sweet! so good with kids!) and our vet bill to “fix” her was $1700. For a dog who had cost $50 to adopt! She was never really the same after that. Did I mention that she was so nervous around our four young kids that she started getting really stressed out? Eventually we rehomed her to a rescue for small breeds, where she is currently being fostered waiting for the right family (with a lack of small children). Ugh. Yeah. I wish I hadn’t adopted her in the first place: I did it because I felt sorry for her, I never really like her, and she was a horrible breed for our family. Lesson learned. (That said, I want that adorable corgi mix I pm’ed you about on MDC!)

  2. As usual, I agree with nearly every word you have to say.

    One thing I would add is that rescues can be a good choice for people with small kids or other pets, because the dogs can be tested for these situations in foster care. It’s not 100%, of course, but it makes for a little bit more of a known quantity than the pound might.

  3. I’d love to print this with your permission and hand it out to clients who are considering adopting a dog. And I’d love to shove it in the face of the client who just adopted a 2yo Irish Wolfhound and is complaining because he doesn’t act like a freaking lab retriever *ugh*

  4. Pingback: Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue part two: The right dog « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

  5. wow, a shelter local to you partners with Save-The-Sato? LOL, I’m from PR, I should have a sato… and unfortunately, most of the dogs at my local shelter are either pit or chihuahua mixes, or the types of terriers that are usually really bad with kids. So, as much as I’d love to help solve the local problem, it looks more & more like I’ll have to go the rescue route so we can find a dog that will find a permanent home with my family.

    I agree with everything you wrote, as usual. I hope lots of people will read this and understand.

  6. Pingback: Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue part 3: The first month « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

  7. Pingback: Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue: roundup post « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

  8. Pingback: Ruffly Speaking = Blacksheep Cardigans » Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue: roundup post

  9. Pingback: Ruffly Speaking = Blacksheep Cardigans » Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue part two: The right dog

  10. Pingback: Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue part two: The right dog | ruffly speaking = blacksheep cardigans

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