How to Choose a Rescue Dog

There are so many potential pets to choose from. Here's a guide to finding the one that's just right for you.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #118

Many shelters and rescue groups work hard to make good matches between people and dogs. They systematically evaluate a dog’s behavior. And, as much as possible, they assess the dog’s activity level and personality. Last week, I offered some advice for a situation where a young, super-high-maintenance dog had been placed with an inexperienced family that included two young children. The rescue group should have sent that family home with a low-key, child-loving, adult dog and saved the firecracker for someone who didn’t have little kids and was excited about working intensively with him.

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But many rescues and shelters are underfunded and understaffed, and some are just plain careless. This week, 3 Quick and Dirty tips to help you choose the right shelter dog:

Tip #1 – Prep Before You Go

Think about what you’re looking for in a dog. A couch-potato pal? A running partner? A sedate companion for long walks? The answers suggest how young and energetic your dog should be.

Consider how much time you have to spare. Housetraining doesn’t take forever, but it’s a lot of work. Almost all puppies and young dogs need plenty of exercise. Manners training calls for much up-front time, attention, and consistency. As for grooming, you’ll be doing that, or paying for it, throughout your dog’s life. The choice between high and low maintenance is a lot less trivial than it might seem.

Feel like you don’t have a lot of time and energy to invest? That’s fine: older, quiet, short-coated dogs need homes too.

Prepare yourself with information and expert help to choose the right dog for you.

Tip #2 – Visit the Shelter and Look for Friendly Dogs

A friendly dog wiggles when he sees you coming. He may press himself against the front of the kennel to get as much of himself close to you as he can. His eyes are squinty and his mouth is probably open in a doggy grin. His tail is wagging, but not high and tight over his back; it’s held fairly low, and his wags are soft and loose. If he barks, the bark is excited and happy, not a deep bark that comes from the chest.

A friendly dog won’t charge the front of the kennel. He won’t stand rigid and facing you head-on, barking deeply. He won’t sit or crouch stiffly, watching you out of the corners of his eyes. He won’t advance and retreat, barking and growling, nor will he cower at the back of the kennel. And – unless maybe he’s sound asleep, unlikely in a noisy shelter – he won’t ignore you. Shelter dogs are usually lonely for human company.

Tip #3 – Have a Trainer Help You Make Your Choice

Behavior evaluations are imperfect, but in a world of limited resources, they beat making life-and-death decisions on the basis of how cute a dog is or whether an especially persuasive staff member has gotten attached to her.  Shelter staff should receive formal training in how to conduct these evaluations, and that’s an advantage you won’t have.

So enlist a trainer to help. The Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers is a good place to start your search; many certificants have backgrounds in shelter work, or have had formal training in behavior evaluation, or both. Ask. You should also interview candidates about their education and experience generally, as I explained in my earlier article about how to find a good trainer

It may seem strange to hire a trainer when you don’t yet have a dog, but the money you spend now can save you considerable heartache in future. It’s one thing to take on a dog with serious behavior problems when you know that’s what you’re in for and you have the requisite experience and education. It’s quite another if the dog you fell in love with rips open your dinner guest’s hand when he reaches for the chicken wing he dropped on the floor. 


To the extent possible, your trainer will perform the kind of evaluation the shelter or rescue staff should have done. She’ll consider many factors:

  • the dog’s body language

  • how he responds to being touched, in both pleasant and mildly unpleasant ways

  • how excitable he is, and how quickly he calms down

  • how rough or gentle he is in play

  • his reactions to other dogs

  • how he reacts if approached or handled when he’s in possession of food or an edible chew

  • how he responds to the sudden appearance of a stranger

  • how he responds to being startled

You can see why, for safety’s sake, it’s important to have professional help with such assessments. If you can’t find a trainer, I recommend you use Sue Sternberg’s Successful Dog Adoption. As far as I know, this is the only book that provides a detailed, step-by-step procedure for assessing the behavior of dogs in a shelter situation. Sternberg and I disagree on some aspects of dog behavior, and her criteria for an adoptable dog may appear overly strict. But with a trainer’s in-person help, or with Sternberg’s book, you can hugely improve the chances that the dog you adopt will be one you’ll enjoy living with for the rest of her life.

Last thought: I won’t pretend it’s easy or painless to turn away from the fearful dogs, or the dogs who respond like sweethearts in the behavior evaluation – until they explode when approached while they chew a pig ear. Bear in mind that many of these dogs could never have normal lives even if a behavior expert adopted them. And behaviorally healthy dogs also deserve the stability and happiness a lifelong home can give.

You can help behaviorally damaged dogs without adopting one yourself. Contribute time and money to shelter behavior modification programs. Spread the word about how appropriate socialization helps prevent behavior problems. Help give all dogs and cats a better start in life by campaigning to shut down breeding mills and ban the sale of animals in pet stores. And cherish your own happy, healthy, friendly dog.

I welcome your comments and questions, and I may use them as the basis for future articles – email dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. You can talk to me on Facebook, where, amazingly enough, I’m The Dog Trainer. Dogalini is me on Twitter. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).