Shelter Dog Adoption
If you’re considering bringing a new dog or cat into your home, there’s no doubt that saving a life at your local city or county animal shelter is a wonderful way to go. But if you’ve never adopted from a shelter, you might be unsure of what to expect.

Here are some things to consider.

Before You Head Out

First things first: Do your research. Spend some time looking at shelter websites and Facebook pages to see what animals are available for adoption. Check a shelter’s adoption requirements, so you can be prepared before you go to the facility.

“There’s nothing more heartbreaking than falling in love with an animal and not being able to take him home,” says Emily Weiss, the ASPCA’s vice president of shelter research and development.

Requirements vary widely, but you can expect to:
  • Fill out an application, including the names and ages of the people living in your home and the health of current or previous pets you’ve owned. Some shelters also ask for references.
  • Provide your veterinarian’s contact information or even veterinary records.
If you’re a renter or live in an association, you may need to provide a copy of your lease/condo agreement or your landlord’s name and phone number to verify that you’re permitted to have a pet (or more than one pet, if you already have one).

Some organizations require a home visit (especially when you want to adopt a dog). Some also require a fenced yard for a dog; however, this is becoming less common, according to Weiss.

It’s also important that you know what traits you’re looking for. Weiss says you should think through what you’re looking for in a pet before heading to the shelter, so you can articulate your desires to the staff.

“We certainly would recommend that anyone looking to bring a pet home can answer the question, ‘It’s most important to me that my pet… (fill in the blank’), ” Weiss says. “That can help [adopters] move away a little bit from just love at first sight.”

That “most important thing” varies widely. You may want an affectionate or playful pet. Or you might be looking for a pet who is happy going on long walks, is a certain size or loves kids. This information is very helpful to the staff member who’s assisting you in finding a dog or cat who’s the right fit.

If you want to see a specific cat or dog you’ve found on the shelter’s website, Weiss recommends that you call ahead to make sure that animal is still available.

The ASPCA also suggests you have a list of questions for the shelter about the animal you’re interested in, such as:

  • What do you know about the dog’s or cat’s history?
  • What are his personality and behavior like?
  • What do the volunteers think of him?
  • Does he like other dogs and cats?
  • Does he like kids?

When You Arrive at the Shelter

In some city or county facilities, you might be allowed to walk through on your own and look at all the animals, while in others you might have to wait in line to see an animal, Weiss says.

You’ll also find a wide range in the information available on each animal. “In some cases, there might be a tremendous amount of information — it might have been an animal who was relinquished by someone else,” Weiss says. In that circumstance, you might know “his favorite place to sleep, how he uses the litterbox, how he does when he’s out on a walk,” she says.

In other cases — especially in a busy city shelter — there may not be a lot of information about an animal, especially if he was brought in as a stray, Weiss says.

If you walk through the kennel area, the ASPCA recommends watching the dogs’ reaction to you and looking for signs that they’re friendly. That could include pawing, wagging their tails or eagerly approaching the front of the kennel. Do keep in mind, however, that a shelter can be a stressful environment for pets, and one who seems shy might not behave that way outside the kennel.

Choosing the Right Pet

When you find a dog or cat you’re interested in learning more about, spend some time interacting with the pet. Most shelters will allow you to visit with the animal in a meet-and-greet room. If it’s a dog, you might have the opportunity to take him for a walk or spend some time outside with him.

Weiss says it’s important to “be able to interact with him the way you would in a home.” That can help you visualize your life with that animal and whether he would be a good fit.

“Keep in mind the things that are important to you,” Weiss says. “If being social is really important to you and he’s not really interacting with you in the room,” that’s something to think about.

The dog whom you saw online may not act the way you expected. He might be more shy — or more energetic. That may mean you’d like to expand your search to find a dog who better fits your expectations — or it may mean that you’re willing to change your expectations to accommodate his needs, now that you’re aware of them.

Weiss says you should “at least keep your ears open — listening to the staff at the shelter or watching the way the animal interacts.”

If you’re bringing a cat or dog into a home with children, include your family in the meet-and-greet. Having them in the meet-and-greet room is a good way to observe how the kids and the potential new pet do together. Some shelters require that the whole family meet a pet before he goes home. (Be aware, however, that some shelters will not adopt stray dogs without a history to families with children under a certain age.)

“You want to see the dog or cat proactively deciding to interact with the kids,” Weiss says. “Does that dog or cat enjoy being around children? If put in a room [with kids], does he move away from them or toward them? If you see the dog or cat is approaching — and approaching in a nice, comfortable way — he’s really choosing to be near that child.”

Likewise, if you have other pets at home, you might want to bring them with you to meet the animal you are considering. In fact, some shelters require this step to help ensure that your current pets get along with your new addition. Check with the shelter first to find out if you should bring your pets along on your initial visit.

And don’t be overly concerned about minor training issues. If you take a dog for a walk, the ASPCA says not to worry too much about pulling or jumping, because you can usually correct those issues with training. (And remember that he’s been cooped up in a kennel, so he may be excited to get outside.) However, you do want to make sure you can control him, so you should observe how he reacts when he sees people, other animals and outside sights and sounds.

Other behavior issues, though, such as a dog nipping or baring his teeth or a cat hissing, are more concerning. Talk to the staff member who’s assisting you to determine whether you need to reconsider adopting that particular pet.

What’s the Cost?

Adoption fees at municipal shelters vary widely. The fees might include spaying or neutering, a microchip, training, an offer for pet insurance and/or a voucher for a veterinary visit. During some special promotions, there may be no cost at all, but some fees can be as high as $500, Weiss says.

“One of the ways shelters can support those animals who have certain medical needs is by charging a larger fee for high-demand animals,” Weiss says. “That one fluffy puppy can save the lives of other animals [through] a higher adoption fee.”

Heading Home

Some shelters give you the chance to put a dog on a 24-hour hold, allowing you to think things over and come back to visit. You may also have to wait a few days for the pet to be spayed or neutered — but there’s a good chance your new best friend could go home with you the same day.