Young black man connecting with shelter dog and considering adoption

Questions to Ask Before Adopting a Rescue or Shelter Dog

If you have ever gone to a shelter looking for a dog to adopt, it may have felt overwhelming. Shelters often house many dogs who all need a home and are very eager for some friendly attention from visitors. You can probably adopt only one dog, two at the most. So how do you decide? Which one will be the perfect dog for your family?

If you are like me, you probably want to adopt every dog in the shelter! But you have to choose, so asking the right questions will help you make an informed decision. The key is to know what to ask! The shelter staff or rescue group will definitely have questions, they will ask about you and your reason for adopting. So, you should also be prepared to learn more as well.

The primary questions to ask before adopting a dog should center on a dog’s background, health, behavior, levels of training, special needs, energy level, barking frequency, and prior owners if known. If you can get the dog’s full back story, that will be helpful. But more importantly, what the dog is like now and how he or she relates to people and other animals will be critical things to know.

Important Questions to Ask About a Shelter or Rescue Dog

Finding out as much as you can about a dog before you adopt is an important part of the selection. You may be attracted to a certain breed or type of dog and that is fine as long as you also have some information or background. In other words, adopt with both your head and your heart! It is much more heartbreaking to return a dog that didn’t fit within your lifestyle then to pass him up to begin with.

General Questions to Ask About A Dog’s Background

Try to find out as much as you can about how the dog ended up in the shelter or rescue group. Was he a stray dog or one that was surrendered by his prior owner and if so why? How many past owners has he had? If he was rescued, what were the circumstances and reasons for the rescue? Was he subjected to abuse or neglect?

Basic Questions to Always Ask:

  • How did the dog end up in the shelter
  • Does he/she have a known name
  • Breed
  • Age
  • General disposition
  • Who was his most recent owner
  • Any special needs

A post, Why Are Dogs Given Up, cites a study done by National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) listing the top ten reasons that dogs are relinquished. Number one on the list is moving. Therefore, a change in life circumstances is a common reason that a dog ends up in a shelter. It is also important to note, that biting was at the bottom of the list.

Dogs end up in shelters for a multitude of reasons including when an owner dies or it may have become lost and could not be reconnected to his family. So the staff may not always have a lot of information. But try to get as much information as you can to help determine if he is a fit for you and what kind of care he will need. You can learn more about rescue dogs from my extensive post, How to Comfort and Heal a Rescue Dog.

Inquire About a Dog’s General Health

Tan colored dog lying on table at vet with male and female volunteer staff petting him.

Most shelters and many rescue groups provide some basic medical care which may include vaccinations and spaying/neutering. Here is a list of questions you should always ask:

  • Has the dog had a recent medical exam?
  • Are there any known health problems or injuries?
  • Is the dog’s vaccinations up to date?
  • Has he been microchipped?
  • Can medical records be made available?
  • Does he have any special needs such as a special diet or care for a chronic condition?

Take a close look yourself and check the dog’s eyes, ears, skin, teeth (if you can), to get an idea of his health. Does he look pretty clean and healthy or does he have mucous in his eye or ears or sores/bald spots on his skin? Does he have any blackened teeth or red, sore gums?

Of course, you will want to take him to a vet yourself as soon as you can, if you do adopt a pooch from the shelter. But be as prepared as you can in the event he does have some medical problems. Be sure to see my two posts about vaccinations that dogs need and how to tell if a rescue dog is healthy before you adopt.

When I first adopted my two rescue dogs, one of them had a lot of problems with chronic diarrhea. Both dogs had been living in a kennel and daycare facility for several months while awaiting adoption. And, I am pretty sure the staff did not realize she had this problem. But I also did not think to ask. Fortunately, after a couple of visits to the vet and some antibiotic treatments, it cleared up and normalized. Three years later she remains very healthy. So, I was fortunate that her health issues were minor.

Find Out About the Dog’s Current Behavior

Cat and dog resting together on bed

First, it is important to understand that a shelter is not a normal environment for a dog to live in. A dog who is normally quiet and content, may howl or whine excessively after being placed into a shelter. Or a dog may become terrified and withdraw or bark aggressively if frightened. That is another reason you will find it helpful to gather as much background information as possible. However, there are still some key questions that you will want to ask:

  • Does he get along with other dogs and/or cats?
  • Has the dog bit anyone?
  • Is he aggressive toward strangers or children?
  • Does he have any obsessive behaviors like spinning or chewing at his tail or feet?
  • Is his barking or whining excessive considering that he is in a shelter?
  • How is he when walking on a leash? Does he need a special harness?
  • Does he seem to be housebroken/potty trained?
  • Is there evidence that he understands basic obedience commands?

If you adopt a dog from a rescue facility, he may have been assigned to a foster family as a lot of organizations do not have shelter facilities. If so, this can be a great advantage to you and your new pup. His foster parents can help decompress and condition him following an abusive or neglectful background. They can help him socialize with people and animals and correct behavioral and training issues. Additionally, a foster parent can give you a better picture of his behavior while living in a more normal home environment.

What Resources and Support Does the Shelter/Organization Provide?

Many shelters and rescue groups can provide support and resources to help you and your dog make a smooth transition after adoption. They may provide initial medical support even after adoption in some cases. Many shelters and rescues provide an initial bag of food and treats to help you get started. And if you have questions or problems, shelter staff can provide advice and educational resources to help you be successful in owning a new dog. Questions to ask include:

  • What are your adoption fees?
  • Do I need to sign an adoption contract?
  • Can I take a dog home on a trial basis?
  • Do you provide any obedience classes?
  • Is any medical care provided after I adopt?

After I adopted my dogs, Tiffanie, the owner of the daycare facility where they were awaiting adoption was extremely helpful. She was very eager to get them adopted as they had been returned to her when they were five years old when their owner had a change in life circumstances.

Tiffanie drove them over to my house for a 5-day trial run. She brought a large crate, two leashes, a small bag of kibble, and a couple of steel dog dishes. I fell in love with them, so the trial ended in a permanent adoption. She continued to be a resource and helped me with some hyperactivity issues and leash-walking suggestions. You can see our full story on our About Us page.

What Happens if it Does Not Work Out?

Brown and white dog destroying a pillow in living room.

Even after careful consideration, asking all of the right questions before adopting a dog, and doing a trial run, it still may not work out. Sometimes things just come up that you cannot plan for. Someone in your family may develop severe allergies. Or you may have another dog or cat and you cannot find a way to successfully integrate your new dog and avoid severe fighting.

Therefore, it is extremely important to find out what your options will be if you do need to return a dog. If you sign a contract, read the fine print! But also remember that the shelter staff can be a resource if you are having problems. So before you give up, ask them for their help.

Be sure to give your new dog a fair trial of at least 3 months. This initial period is usually the toughest part of the transition and the 3-month point is usually when a new dog starts to relax and blend in. So, just don’t give up too soon! See my post, I Can’t Cope With My New Rescue Dog. What Should I Do? for more information.

Final Thoughts About Asking the Right Questions Before Adopting Your Dog

Do your best to gather as much information as possible. Use both your heart and your head to make a decision. Just remember that there is no “perfect dog”. But there is that special dog you will fall in love with and that you have carefully considered by asking all of the right questions.

Just as in any relationship, there will be ups and downs. So, don’t be deterred if it is a little bumpy at first. There will be an adjustment period as you get to know one another and integrate your new pup into your family and lifestyle. You will both learn how to get along, and your pooch will eventually learn about expectations and rules. So, hang in there, get support, and look forward to the long-term benefits of being a new pet parent!

2 thoughts on “Questions to Ask Before Adopting a Rescue or Shelter Dog”

  1. I’d love to adopt a shelter dog because I think that rescue and rehabilitation are powerful forces. I’m helping the greater cause of eliminating pet overpopulation and ensuring these animals have a brighter future by providing a shelter dog with a loving and caring home. When you remarked that there is no such thing as a “perfect dog,” but rather a particular dog that you would fall in love with after carefully considering your options and making the appropriate inquiries, it brought tears to my eyes.

    1. Hi Lily, thank you for your comment. Yes, the “perfect dog” is the dog you fall in love with. Even if a shelter dog require some training and transition time, their loving spirit can still shine through. Thank you for the link to for dogs ready for adoption. What a wonderful organization in upper midwestern USA! I will be sure to add gigis to my adoption page for mixed breeds.
      All the best, Deanna, Charlotte, and Georgia

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