Are you thinking about getting a dog? If you’re like many Americans, you may be thinking about adopting a shelter dog. Adoption is on the rise across the United States. In recent years, adopting a rescue dog has become the first choice for many people seeking out a dog. 

Some Rescue Dogs are a Hot Commodity

Adopting some types of dog is harder than others. You may have to search to find the following types of dogs:

First Choice

  • Puppies. People love puppies. Whatever the breed, puppies go fast at adoption events of all kinds.
  • Purebred dogs, other than hounds and bully breeds. Every now and then there is a German Shepherd, herding breed dog, Rottweiler, or husky at my local shelter, but they don’t last long. Their stays are measured in days, not months.
  • Small breed dogs. Little dogs of all kinds are popular everywhere, often even with health or behavioral concerns.
  • Dogs with hair instead of fur. Many families want (or need) a dog that is less likely to cause allergies, so breeds that shed less are adopted first.

Second Choice

  • Lighter colored dogs and dogs with distinctive markings. I couldn’t tell you why, but black, brown, and brindle dogs are often the ones that are adopted last.
  • Dogs with good “kennel manners.” Many dogs, especially those from breeds with guarding in their ancestoral job description, protect their “home” by behaving aggressively. These dogs are usually perfectly friendly when they aren’t facing a stranger from behind a barrier. It’s hard to convince most potential adopters however.

The most desirable rescue dogs are actually a hot commodity. This is especially true in northern states where spay and neuter laws may be stricter and there are fewer homeless dogs available. Homeless dogs are send north by rescue groups to fill the need there, leaving fewer highly disirable rescue dogs available even in the south, where homeles dogs are plentiful.

What About the Rest?

If you walk through the aisles at your local animal services, you’ll likely see “the rest.” These dogs are bully breeds, often brown, black, or brindle, and they aren’t puppies anymore. They may bark or growl at the fence, and they often seem extremely energetic.

Depending on the shelter and whether it has no-kill status or not, these dogs could wait months or years for a new home, or they could face euthanasia soon after arriving.

How to Choose Your Next Dog

You may find yourself wondering whether one of the more readily available rescue dogs can fit your needs or if you should just go ahead and purchase the dog that you want from a breeder.

Buying a healthy puppy from a responsible breeder is a great way to get a new pet for your family. Adopting a dog from the shelter, even a dog you may have initially considered “less adoptable” can also be a great way to bring home a new pet. The choice is up to you. Here are some considerations to help you decide:

Downsides to adopting a shelter dog

  • Making the wrong choice could result in sadness for both you and the dog if you decide that you need to rehome. It can even be traumatic enough to make your family resistant to rescuing again.
  • Rescuing can be a dangerous situation if the rescue dog has unexpected behavior towards other pets, family members, or visitors.
  • Adopting a shelter dog prone to medical issues can be heartbreaking and very expensive. 

I’ve adopted and rehomed a few dogs myself and I’ve watched dogs go in and out of the animal shelter for years as they are adopted and returned. I’ve also seen a lot of amazing matches and enjoyed seeing the pictures and videos of once at-risk homeless dogs living their best lives for years to come.

A good match is much better for everyone. 

Here’s what I know about how to pick a shelter dog who will be a good fit for your family. 

Your best fit in a shelter dog might surprise you

The best dog to adopt might surprise you, especially if you have visions of fat puppies or homeless poodles. You can find almost any kind of dog, of almost any age, in the rescue system if you search long enough.

However, it may actually not be in your best interest to compete for the “best” rescue you can find. Here are my tips for choosing the best rescue dog for your family. Remember, this isn’t an exact science. My recommendations come only from my own experiences working with rescue dogs and adoptive families.

Tip 1: Consider an older rescue dog

Dogs that are at least three or four generally have expressed all of their breed-related instincts and many genetic health problems. When you adopt an older rescue dog, what you see is more often what you get. Whatever breed or mix you are considering, if you want predictable size, behavior, and energy level, an older dog is a good idea. Since many dogs don’t express their breed-related instincts like prey drive or aggression to other dogs until they are at least three, adopting a rescue dog who is good-natured at this age makes it more likely that they’ll remain that way.

Consider Rescuing a Bully

Shelter dogs that look less bully get adopted first, regardless of their actual genetics. Shelters are full of dogs that look like bully breeds. These dogs range dramatically genetically and in personality. “Pitbulls” and dogs that “look like pitbulls” have the longest shelter stays and are euthanized more often.

It’s not necessarily that rescue dogs that look like bullies are more likely to be a good pet than any other shelter dog. In fact, adopting a pitbull comes with special problems

It’s just that you have more of them to choose from. You can meet lots of these dogs, foster them, and take your time to pick your perfect family pet. You’ll soon find that their personalities vary, well, as much as dog personalities can vary. 

Not every bully-type shelter dog is a good fit for most families, but many are. Choosing a mature dog and taking your time to decide sets you up for success. Go to your local intake shelter and you’ll find cage after cage of wonderful bully-looking mixed-breeds just longing to be your perfect family pet. 

Families who foster at-risk bully breed dogs, thinking they can’t adopt, are often surprised by how easily these dogs can fit into their lives, leading to “foster fails.” This has been especially noticeable during the Covid virus, when fostering and foster fails have been exceptionally high. Even if you don’t adopt a given dog, having been in a home makes it more likely that the dog will be adopted.

Adopt a Hound Dog

Hounds are frequently discarded by hunters, especially in the south. Not every family is suited to owning a hound, but those that have the room and patience adore these goofy dogs. If you have a big yard and don’t mind some noise, consider adding a hound rescue dog to your life.

With dedication, many can settle into smaller living quarters as well. Hounds of all sizes and types, many purebred, are readily available in shelters across the south, and often brought north as well. 

Be wary of the most desirable rescues

I know that this sounds unintuitive. Everyone else is snatching up a Maltipoo if they can find one, so why shouldn’t you? Here are each of the most desirable rescues and why you should think twice. 

Adopting recue puppies

Everyone loves a puppy right? Of course. Puppies are open to learning about your family, likely untouched by the trauma that older shelter dogs may have endured, and of course, they’re adorable. 

I probably don’t have to bother going into why you would want a puppy. Many rescue puppies grow into happy, healthy, well-adjusted dogs that are wonderful additions to your family, but some don’t. Here is what you should know before adopting a mixed breed rescue puppy. 

Unpredictable adult size of rescue puppies

Puppies often surprise us with how big or small they end up being. Knowing one or even both parents can’t guarantee a puppy’s size, especially if the parents are mixed-breed dogs.

Tricks like looking at the paws are usually deceptive. You may end up with a dog too big for your apartment or too small to go jogging with you. If unpredictable size isn’t a problem for you, then no worries. 

rescue puppy Instincts

Many instincts don’t come out until a dog reaches maturity, which could be from around nine months to two or even three years old. At this time, instincts that had not previously been expressed can suddenly influence your dog’s behavior. 

  • A dog that had been great with family pets may suddenly show aggression.
  • A dog who had always loved new people may begin showing signs of guarding your home.
  • A dog who had ignored livestock and small pets may suddenly be obsessed with chasing them.

Instincts have been bred into dogs for thousands of years, and they may come out unexpectedly in mixed-breed dogs. 

Sometimes an instinct isn’t a big deal, like a sudden obsession with chasing squirrels as prey drive develops. Other times, a developing instinct may mean you need to rehome your dog. Many owners spend significant time and money on a trainer or animal behaviorist to change and shape a dog’s developing instincts, often without much success.

rescue puppy Health concerns

Most of the time, mixed-breed dogs tend to be pretty healthy, and most rescue puppies grow into healthy dogs. However, sometimes early malnourishment or malnourishment and stress in the mother can result in health issues that may not be apparent until later in the dog’s life. Too often, dogs that are neglected are allowed to interbreed, sometimes for generations. This results in dogs that are “mixed breed” but have recessive genetic problems.

When adopting an older dog, there is a good chance that many serious health conditions are already beginning and diagnosable. Adopting a puppy increases the risk that there are major health problems that have not yet been diagnosed. 

Adopting Purebred and “Designer” Rescue Dogs

Purebred shelter dogs of all sizes, excluding hounds and bully-type dogs, but especially small breed dogs, are often the first to be adopted or pulled into private rescues. However, there are some good reasons to think twice about choosing to adopt a purebred rescue dog as a puppy or an adult. 

Health concerns in purebred rescue dogs of all ages

Most dog breeds are prone to a range of genetic conditions that are more prevalent in the breed than in other breeds. Responsible breeders work hard to screen their breeding stock and reduce the prevalence of these conditions in their lines. 

On average, mixed-breed shelter dogs are less likely to inherit these conditions because they have more diverse genetics. That said, in dogs that share a genetic prevalence, such as the tendency of both Maltese and Miniature Poodles to develop luxating patella, that tendency may be passed on. 

This is why even mixed breeds of similar dogs typical of “designer dogs” like the Maltipoo, may still be prone to genetic conditions similar to purebred dogs. 

Poorly bred purebred dogs are especially likely to inherit genetic conditions. While some well-bred dogs certainly do end up in shelters, purebred shelter dogs are often the result of amateur or backyard breeding, including deliberate and accidental inbreeding.

These dogs may be more likely to inherit serious genetic health conditions. This means that adopting a purebred dog, especially a puppy, with an unknown background, may set you up for a higher probability of health concerns down the road. 

Quick Commitment for purebred rescue dogs

Purebred dogs and puppies are in higher demand, which means rescues and shelters may be less likely to give you time to try having them in your home before you commit to adoption. If you are adopting from a breed-specific rescue, they may need to transport the dog some distance to you before you even meet it. 

This may not be as problematic for a puppy, but if you are adopting an adult dog, it is important for many households to make sure a dog gets along with current pets and fits in the family before committing. 

Small shelter dogs

Small dogs are easier, right? The answer is, sometimes. Small dogs are highly desirable in the rescue system, and in most areas, the majority of them are rescued, even from high-kill shelters, and even with medical or behavioral concerns. 

More people can keep small dogs, and more small dogs can usually be kept by one person, so small dogs are generally much easier to place, regardless of breed or age. 

Behavioral concerns in small rescue dogs

While it is certainly easier to handle a little dog who is physically out of control, that doesn’t mean that it is easier to get a small dog under control. Little dogs are able to make it through the shelter system and still be highly desirable candidates for adoption despite behavioral issues that would have made a larger dog unadoptable. 

Furthermore, because many small dogs are not given any guidance as they grow and because they may experience trauma around being handled or especially picked up, aggression may occur unexpectedly when you try to handle the dog. 

Most fearful-reactive small dogs can overcome their fear and the aggression it results in, but it can take a long time and a lot of patience to help your new dog through these issues. For some families, like those with other small pets or children, the issues may be too risky to work through. 

Some dogs will always have some behavioral concerns. There are certainly wonderful, friendly, well-behaved little dogs in the shelter system. What’s important is that you take little dogs seriously. 

A show of aggression in a little dog is every bit as significant and as likely to have intention of a bite behind it as a show of aggression in a big dog. Don’t assume that the consequences of a bite would be insignificant. Little dogs can inflict serious bites on other pets, children, and even adults. 

Choose Your Rescue Dog Wisely

Adding a dog to your life is a huge decision. It is easy to be wooed by the big, sweet eyes of a rescue puppy in need of a home. Don’t forget that for every puppy at a rescue event, there are a dozen or more adult bully breed shelter dogs in your local intake shelter that are longing for a home. 

Sometimes less desirable dogs have more predictable behavior, size, and health. Take time to get to know a few dogs at your local shelter before you jump into the race for puppies, purebreds, and small dogs. 

Ready to start looking? Learn about fostering a shelter dog. 

Adopt a special rescue dog

Have you ever considered adopting a dog with special needs? Thousands of dogs enter the shelter system or become homeless due to injury or illness. Many rescues offer hospice or long-term foster situations, in which they’ll cover the expenses of the pet throughout its life.

I cared for and loved this paralyzed King Charles Cavalier Spaniel for three years until he found an amazing forever home. He is an awesome dog despite, and perhaps in part because of, his disability.

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