How to Adopt a Shelter Dog

All of these dogs came from shelters and are beloved family members of Orvis associates.
Photos by Les Jorgensen

If you’re thinking of adopting a dog from a shelter, first it’s important to understand there are different types of organizations that take in stray and surrendered dogs: brick-and-mortar ‘animal shelters’ and animal rescue organizations. The latter are virtual in nature, meaning they don’t operate out of a physical storefront, they’re often dog breed specific, and they’re spread out across the country. Brick-and-mortar shelters include local municipal shelters owned and operated by the local government, and private shelters which are usually nonprofit.

What Are Other Differences Between Dog Shelters and Dog Rescues?

Wide variability exists between dog shelters—private and municipal—and dog rescue organizations, as illustrated in the following table. Keep in mind this is distilled information, and the scenario at individual shelters will vary. But it shows at a glance the differences between dog shelters and dog rescues, for a few key variables.

Animal Shelters vs. Dog Rescue Organizations

  Municipal Dog Shelter—The “Dog Pound” Private Dog Shelter Breed-Specific Dog Rescue
Dog Admissions open-door policy limited limited
Housing kennels or runs kennels or runs sheltered in established foster homes
Dog Screening limited temperament and health screening screened for health and temperament screened for health and temperament
Staff Expertise not guaranteed to provide guidance in choosing an appropriate pet trained, knowledgeable staff available knowledgeable volunteers
Staff Expertise not guaranteed to provide guidance in choosing an appropriate pet trained, knowledgeable staff available knowledgeable volunteers
Visiting Hours open to public, regular hours open to public, regular hours by appointment only
Meet-and-Greets space limitations for one-on-one visit with the dog common rooms or outdoor space available for visit meet dog at adoption event or by appointment
Spay/Neuter Requirements dog must be spayed or neutered soon after adoption shelter vet spays or neuters the dog dog must be spayed or neutered
Adoption Requirements fewest stipulations strict guidelines and often a home visit required strict guidelines, and may require pre-approval
Cost least expensive option extra care and services add to the cost extra care and home sheltering add to the cost
Other dogs are not at their best in a crowded, noisy shelter perhaps the easiest way to find the dog who’s right for you perhaps the easiest way to find the dog who’s right for you

You can find wonderful dogs through each type of adoption agency, though each has its own challenges. Given that municipal shelters are often underfunded and overcrowded, they can be daunting for a first-time dog owner. The dogs in a municipal shelter are often stressed and not at their best, so evaluating whether a dog might truly be a perfect lifelong companion can be difficult.

On the other hand, private shelters tend to be much more inviting, with trained staff available to provide guidance, and the dogs there are generally less stressed. But the requirements to adopt a dog at a private shelter can be onerous, and often include a home visit.

In principle, rescue organizations represent the best of all worlds, particularly since the dogs a rescue takes in have been screened, and are being cared for in private homes by experienced dog owners. But the virtual nature of dog rescue organizations can make them feel less accessible than a shelter, and their adoption requirements can also be formidable. If you have your heart set on a specific breed, a rescue may be where you want to start, but the adoption process will demand your patience and tenacity.

Common Requirements to Adopt a Dog

The following list includes typical requirements you may encounter to be approved to adopt a dog. These vary widely from agency to agency, with municipal shelters typically having the fewest. While many of the requirements may seem needlessly burdensome, the agencies are doing the best they can to ensure you will provide a LIFETIME home for the dog:

  • Supply multiple references, including a local veterinarian (even if you don’t own a dog yet!)
  • If you are leasing or renting your home, provide written permission from your landlord
  • Reside at your current address for at least three months
  • Possess a fenced-in yard (electric fences usually don’t pass muster)
  • Certify that he won’t be an ‘outdoor’ dog
  • Provide information about how long you must leave the dog alone each day
  • Answer questions about where the dog will eat, sleep, and be left when alone in the house
  • Have no other pets or meet some qualification about other pets
  • Have no children under a certain age in the household
  • You must be the right age: not too old or too young
  • Certify that you will surrender the dog to the shelter (only) in the event of a life change
  • Certify that you won’t give the dog to anyone else without special permission
  • Submit to a home visit where all members of the household will be interviewed
  • You may not be able to adopt multiple dogs at once

There is a common saying in animal rescue circles: when you adopt a ‘shelter’ dog, you actually save two lives: the life of the dog you are adopting, and the life of another dog who can then take your dog’s spot in the shelter. But that’s not the only reason for adopting from a shelter—it’s an excellent way to find a wonderful canine companion—and we speak from many years of collective experience. It helps to do your homework first, especially if you’re new to the world of pet adoption.

In spite of the challenges, rescuing a dog from a community shelter or rescue organization could be the way to go if you’re looking for a new four-legged family member. Often, these rescued dogs come from a part of the country where there is an overpopulation and euthanasia is a common solution. The ‘saving two lives’ wisdom really does ring true—and some dog lovers maintain this equation even includes the human.

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