How to Adopt a Dog From an Animal Shelter or Rescue Group

Get tips on how to find a good shelter or rescue group to help you adopt a great dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #71

How Dog Shelters Match People and Dogs

So you’re at a shelter, or you’re looking at the website of a rescue, and they do careful behavior evaluations. Sorry! Still not done! Not every dog adoptable by someone is adoptable by you. A super-energetic adolescent, for instance, probably won’t suit a couple with two-year-old human twins. That family already has enough to keep it busy. On the other hand, if you have a blast teaching tricks, you might looooooove a quick, clever dog who would drive most normal people nuts.

Extra points, then, to shelters and rescue groups that steer dogs and people together by personality. Is this dog barky or quiet? Is he focused mainly on people or on other dogs or on that squirrel down the block? Is she cuddly? Does she live for fetch? Many shelters use the ASPCA’s “Meet Your Match” program, which puts each dog in one of three personality categories. A rescue group that cares for dogs in foster homes may be able to give all kinds of detail about your possible dog. Word to the wise, though: not everyone who fosters dogs has a sophisticated understanding of their behavior. Every so often I hear a fosterer say, for instance, that a dog is “alpha” when what she means is that he barks and lunges at other dogs. Go for those nuggets of actual observed behavior.

If you do decide to adopt, click here for my episode about bringing an adopted dog home.

Think carefully about what you want in a dog, then work with a shelter or rescue group that has everybody’s safety and happiness in mind. Next, give up your heart to your new best friend. Congratulations! I hope you and your dog will visit me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, and write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I answer as many questions as I can. Thank you for reading!


1.  There are no reliable national statistics, only guesstimates. A study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy covers the years 1994-1997 [sic] and, as the NCPPSP points out, has significant limitations. (That’s not to say anyone else could have done any better; there are huge difficulties in collecting such data.) As a sample, in 2007 New York City’s municipal shelter system euthanized 15,768 cats and dogs; this represents a decline of 54.53 percent over eight years.

The NCPPSP has prepared a brief paper highlighting reasons why animals are relinquished. Whether people’s stated reasons can be taken at face value is an open question: When people give up animals because they’re moving (the #1 reason for dogs, #3 for cats), is the bond already weakened by some other household problem, so that the move provides a pretext? And what constraints inflect the decision? I would never voluntarily move to a place where I couldn’t take my animals, but what would I do if I also had kids and the alternative was homelessness?

2. For example, this Canine Behavior Evaluation, based on a procedure developed by Sue Sternberg, and the SAFER “canine aggression assessment tool.”

3. Christensen, E’Lise, et al. 2007. Aggressive behavior in adopted dogs that passed a temperament test. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 106: 85-95.

4. Bollen, Kelley S., and Joseph Horowitz. 2008. Behavioral evaluation and demographic information in the assessment of aggressiveness in shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 112: 120-135.

5. Bollen, op. cit. See also Barbara Robinson, “Dog Is in the Details,” The Bark, spring 2004, available online here.  

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).