Adopting a Dog from an Animal Shelter or Breed Rescue

There are countless thousands of good dogs in Animal Shelters across Maryland and Pennsylvania. Each arrived there by only one of four ways; Animal Control pick-up, Public stray, Abandoned at Shelter and Owner Surrender. My own work with Maryland’s Humane Society of Harford County in Fallston and the Mid Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue has seen many thousands of dogs surrendered by owners or brought in by Animal Control each and every year. It is heartrending to see them, displaced and anxious, unaware of what the future may hold for them.

The reasons for surrender are often the owner’s inability to deal with a behavior problem that is often the manifestation of the owner’s own ignorance, lack of concern or absence from the dogs’ life. The demographic for dogs in shelters is unchanged after many years of studying the institutionalization of animals; mean averages are young, intact males between the ages of 8 months and two years, seconded only by the adult demographic of two years and older (often intact), followed by the senior dog population and puppies (under the age of 8 months), which surprisingly [puppies] make up only a small percentage of any given shelters population over the course of a year.

Some of the dogs that come in as public strays and through Animal Control are dogs who have escaped the confines of their yards or homes and the owners are blissfully unaware or unconcerned over the dogs’ departure. These dogs fit the demographic above; intact, young males for the most part, owned by people who are unconcerned or otherwise uninvolved with their care and maintenance. The vast majority of these dogs are mix breed dogs, their ancestry is undetermined.

Although there is a percentage of pure bred dogs that end up in shelters, most of these dogs end up in Breed Rescues and are offered for adoption after selection criterion for adoptability are studied. It is never productive to speculate on why or how a dog ended up in an Animal Shelter or Breed Rescue. That they are there is enough. Of the dogs I have worked with at the Harford Shelter or M.A.G.S.R., less than one percent have had any obedience training of any kind, and most of them are surrendered for behavior problems that are most easily addressed with a little thought, effort and commitment.

Of the dogs brought in as strays through Animal Control, the fact that they mirror the surrender population demographics should come as no surprise. More often than not, these dogs became “strays” because their owners turned them out in the streets or farm lands to absolve themselves from the responsibility of their care.

Lionheart K9 is a strong advocate for the adoption of dogs from shelters and breed rescues. If the prospective dog owner is looking for a dog and is not concerned about racial purity or “pedigrees”, then a shelter dog or rescue dog may certainly be the answer.

There are a variety of dogs available from shelters and rescues, and if you do your homework, there is no reason that you cannot successfully select a dog from this source. Again, as in the above section on pure bred dogs, obtaining a dog from an animal shelter or pure breed rescue is not without it’s pitfalls. Unless the dog is an owner surrender, there is little if any chance of ‘knowing’ a dog’s behavior background, health issues or other mitigating factors. The assumption should ALWAYS BE that the dog WILL have a problem or two during the transitional phase from street to shelter to new owner. Even if the dog is an owner surrender, you cannot count on the accuracy of any statements the owner may have made regarding the dog and his history in that family or environment.

People lie.

In the misguided aspirations of making their dog ‘more adoptable’, they may have omitted pertinent information regarding bite history, health issues and so forth. In the cases of owners who are so angry at their failure to control, contain or otherwise care for the dog, they may swing the pendulum to the opposite side of the surrender spectrum and provide damning testament making it literally impossible to offer their dog for adoption.

Sadly, it happens. But what do you do? How do you know?

These are salient questions to a critical aspect of adopting or procuring any dog from any source. Most if not all specific breed rescues and animal shelters have very stringent criterion for selection of dogs to make available for adoption to the public. Since the sources of their dogs vary from owner surrenders sent to rescue or through shelter networks in any given region, it is necessary for breed rescues and shelters to be critical in their selection for safety reasons, health factors and adoptability criterion.

Rescuing and sheltering dogs costs money! Every legitimate breed rescue and shelter I know of operates as a 501 C non-profit organization and their charters reflect that. It still costs money to house these dogs, obtain medical attention and medical care for these dogs and to feed these dogs. They have to be careful in what dogs they offer for public adoption, and mitigate the cost for each specific dog against the likelihood for adoptability.

Most of the questions are answered for you with these resources. A reputable breed rescue or shelter will not KNOWINGLY offer a dog for adoption that has a recorded bite history. A reputable breed rescue or shelter will not KNOWINGLY offer a dog for adoption with undisclosed health problems or behavior problems. Bear in mind, these dogs often come into the rescue or animal shelter with health and behavior issues. That is usually why they end up there to begin with.

Many dog breed rescues and quite a few animal shelters also offer behavior evaluations within a few days of the dogs’ arrival at that faciltiy. A very few are able to observe these dogs on an on-going basis and record behavior shifts and behavior problems as they develop. Even fewer are actually adequately staffed to address these problems on a case-by-case basis to accommodate the number of dogs they house and care for. For the most part, dogs that pose a threat either through behavior problems or medically, are removed from the population and are not made available for adoption.

If you should decide that your next dog will be a rescue or shelter alumni, be sure to ask a few questions of the appropriate staff about the dog you are interested in. Do they get along with other pets? A dog who is living with another dog at a shelter or rescue is a safe bet, although some of the problems that may arise once in the new home may be defensive aggression on leash in the presence of other dogs or increased territorial displays and food defense with the other animals. These are all behaviors that are common to dogs who have been institutionalized and can be resolved quickly and permanently.

If the dog was fostered in a private home for any length of time, speak to the foster if you can and ask about compatibility with cats or other small animals if known; interactions with children, or behavior observed around strangers. Once in a new home, there is a possibility of a dog becoming reactive with strangers or even members of the new household, and again these are manifestations of the institutionalization of the dog prior to the new home. All resolvable issues with effort and a little planning.

There should be adequate health records supplied by the dog breed rescue or shelter to indicate the date of the Rabies immunization, spay or neuter records if age appropriate, booster shots and tests for internal parasites. Any other health issues that are specific to a dog may be identified through veterinary records if they had been supplied, but for the most part a dog in a shelter or rescue is an unknown quantity. Unless there is a specific reason that indicates extensive examination via radiographs, blood tests or surgeries were/are necessary, there are no guarantees that a dog from these sources is physically ‘fit’. A dog breed rescue or shelter will have documentation regarding any health disclosures. Be sure to ask for health records if they are available.

On that note. You will have to assume responsibility for your new dog regardless of his origins. Whether pure bred purchase, adopted from an animal shelter or dog rescue, there are things you must provide on your own. Have your new dog seen by a veterinarian within the first few days of bringing him home. Be assured that your chosen rescue or shelter did all that they probably could considering their financial and other critical resources. Don’t be surprised or angry if your rescue dog or shelter dog has internal parasites. In most institutional environments that house animals, although easy to manage, internal parasites are difficult to eliminate because of their resilience to cleaning agents and the surface on which the population may be housed.

Your new dog should be flea and tick free when you bring him home. Be sure to have the staff check for fleas and ticks before you leave. Most dogs in shelters and rescues are treated for fleas and ticks when they arrive at the facility, but again it can be difficult to manage large, ever-changing populations of dogs without having the occasional flea come in undetected.

As the new owner of your shelter dog or rescue dog, you and you alone will be responsible for your dog; his care and maintenance, including a proper, nutritious diet, annual veterinary visits for health check-ups and all appropriate immunizations as well as his behavior.

If you cannot emotionally, financially or mentally commit to the prospect of owning and caring for a dog, DON’T GET ONE!

If you do decide that your home and your heart are big enough to explore the profound joys of owning a dog, remember that there are ample resources available to help guide you through your journey!