Pet Adoption Mistakes Too Many People Make, to Their Great Regret

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

adopting a shelter dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are approximately 3.3 million dogs in U.S. animal shelters, but only 1.6 million dogs are adopted each year
  • Get prepared before going to the shelter; talk with all family members involved about what type of dog you’re looking for, not only in terms of looks but also in terms of personality
  • A shelter environment is not an ideal one for pets, so it’s common for animals to be stressed out, anxious, shy or excited in this environment
  • A dog that’s timid in the shelter may come out of his shell once in your home, while a dog that appears overly rambunctious may calm down
  • Avoid choosing your pet based on looks, color or breed alone, and instead make the decision based on personality and your lifestyle

Have you been wishing for a furry companion to cuddle with at night? A buddy to keep up with you on your morning jogs? Someone to throw a ball to and enjoy each other’s company? A friend for your social pup at home?

If you’ve pondered any one of the limitless reasons that make people decide to add a pet to their life, and have made the decision that now is the time, your new best friend is undoubtedly waiting for you at one of America’s animal shelters. Why adopt, instead of shop for, your pet?

For starters, there are approximately 3.3 million dogs in U.S. animal shelters, each wanting and deserving of a loving home. Sadly, many of them (about 670,000 a year) will be euthanized before that wish ever comes true. The good news is that 1.6 million dogs are adopted each year.1 Will one of them be yours?

Get Prepared Before Going to the Shelter 

It’s important to make some decisions before you even step foot into an animal shelter, the reason being that once you’re there, you’re likely to fall in love with the first pup who gives you those sad puppy dog eyes. As Debbie Chissell, manager of the spcaLA South Bay Pet Adoption Center in Los Angeles, California, told PetMD, “Going into a shelter unprepared is like going into a candy store just to look — you can’t!”2

Things to think about include what age, size and breed (or breed combination) of dog may be best for your lifestyle. Are you looking for a calm dog who’s content with one play session a day or a high-energy pup to go for hikes? Do you want a dog who’s good with children? One who will help you feel safe?

Talk with all family members involved about what type of dog you’re looking for, not only in terms of looks but also in terms of personality. Remember, too, that you can adopt pets not only from animal shelters but also from rescue organizations. Both options will often post animals available for adoption online, which gives you a chance to get familiar with the animals before meeting them in person.

Prior to going to the shelter, you’ll also want to have all of your paperwork in order, including proof of permission for pets if you’re leasing your property, as well as the funds to cover the adoption fee. Making several trips to several shelters to get a feel for the emotional experience is also a good idea. Allowing yourself to meet many a variety of animals may be difficult to think about, but potentially important when looking for a forever soulmate.

Keep an Open Mind

You may have a type of dog in mind that would make the perfect pet, and this may be largely based on breed type, look or color. However, the dog that’s best for you may surprise you, so give all of the dogs a chance. Avoid choosing your pet based on looks, color or breed alone, and instead make the decision based on personality and your lifestyle.

If you live in an apartment, you won’t want to choose a dog that barks excessively, for instance, and if you have a bustling, busy household with lots of activity, a timid dog who’s easily frightened may not be best. These are attributes that can’t be gauged by looks alone, so be sure to talk with the shelter volunteers or foster owners.

Let them know what you’re looking for — and what you’re definitely not looking for — and go from there. They may have a few dogs in mind that would make a good match — take time to get to know each of them before making a decision. It’s a good idea for every member of your household to be involved in, and present for, this process.

Remember That You’re in a Stressful Environment

A shelter environment is not an ideal one for pets, so it’s common for animals to be stressed out, anxious, shy or excited in this environment. A dog that’s shut down or timid in the shelter may come out of his shell once in your home, while a dog that appears overly rambunctious may calm down.

Jackie Maffucci, Ph.D., certified dog behavior consultant, told PetMD, “At the shelter, it's hard to know for sure what behaviors are a product of the environment and what are truly representative of the dog.”3

Dogs in foster care may more easily adjust to the home environment, and their foster owners may have a better idea of their true personality, but often shelter workers can also give you insights into the residents’ personalities, especially if they’ve been there for a while.

You’ll also want to ask about the dog’s medical history, if known, and how they came to the shelter. When it’s time to meet one-on-one, try to make the most of your meet-and-greet with your potential pet. You’ll be able to spend some time playing and petting, but it’s best to let the dog come over to you first.

Dogs who are happy to play and lay near their potential adopter are more likely to be adopted, but the space in which you’re having your meeting can influence this.4

For instance, if you’re meeting a dog for the first time outside, the dog is likely to run around and explore the outdoors, especially if he’s been cooped up in a kennel. If you’re in a small room, the dog is more likely to engage with you simply because there’s nothing else to distract him. So take this into consideration as well.

Either way, you may want to bring a toy or a treat to break the ice, and if you’re with a large group, introduce yourselves one or two at a time to avoid overwhelming your potential pup. Some animal shelters will even let you take a dog home with you for a trial run, after which the adopter can decide to keep the animal or bring him back to the shelter.

Once you’ve chosen your new forever friend (or as many pet owners say, once he’s chosen you), it’s time to start working on getting to know one another and building your unbreakable bond. Your rescued pet will need time to adjust, as will you. During this time, I recommend looking into A Sound Beginning, a step-by-step program to help transition your dog into his forever home over a period of 14 days.