About 6.5 million dogs will be adopted from U.S. shelters this year. If you’re one of these lucky families, congrats—no one loves you like a rescue dog. Not only did you save a life, but you made a friend for life.
“Some people believe that shelter animals are damaged goods, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Dr. Brian A. DiGangi, senior director of shelter medicine and shelter outreach at the ASPCA. “Animals often end up in shelters through no fault of their own—many animals enter shelters because an owner has had to give them up due to relocation, financial hardships, or health problems.”
As with any new roommate, there are some things to keep in mind about shelter dogs. Here’s what you should expect from your new pet.
Unless your dog was in foster care, he likely spent the past few days, weeks, or even months in a crowded shelter and may have been exposed to infectious diseases such as kennel cough. “Every dog has a unique medical health history and may have been affected by various conditions, regardless of whether you get them from a shelter or not,” says DiGangi. “However, much like children in a daycare center, bringing lots of dogs together in a shelter or kennel setting does increase the risk of spreading illness.”
The good news is that, unlike pet stores or breeders—where conditions are similarly crowded—shelters provide preventative care including vaccinations, deworming, flea treatment, heartworm prevention, and spay-neuter procedures. So while you should be on the lookout for any symptoms of illness, know that your pet was in good, watchful hands before she curls up on your couch.
Mutts, it should be noted, tend to be the healthiest of the bunch. Many purebred dogs have genetic disorders and predispositions to certain medical issues, so buying from a breeder could mean more expensive vet bills down the line.
Depending on his past, your newly adopted dog could be fearful or have separation anxiety. However, shelter staffers know their animals and will work with you to select a dog that meets your expectations and experience level. “Shelters are motivated to save lives and make strong matches,” says DiGangi. “Some use science and sophisticated tools to appropriately pair up animals and owners, and are happy to share everything they know about each animal.”
If problems do arise post-adoption, most shelters will offer training support and guidance. And fortunately, with a little work, the vast majority of behavioral issues are easy to troubleshoot.
“Common concerns of new dog owners—whether the dog came from a shelter or not—include things like barking, chewing, and anxiety,” says Rachel Maso, an animal behavior associate at the ASPCA. “With a little guidance from your veterinarian and animal-behavior professional, all of these things can be managed. Ensuring proper nutrition, exercise, mental stimulation, and a loving environment are important first steps to make your new dog’s transition to home life a success.”
You wouldn’t expect your new human roommate to put down her bags and snuggle up with you on the couch. Similarly, dogs need time to adjust to their new environment—while being home is a relief, it’s still new.
“Every dog has a unique personality and will settle in at their own pace,” says Maso. “While some dogs are social butterflies in new environments and welcome the attention of new people, others may need time to adapt to their new surroundings. Learning how to read dog body language will allow the whole family to know when your new dog or puppy is having fun or is in need of some quiet time.”
If you’re worried about surprises down the line, consider adopting an older dog instead of a puppy. What you see is what you get with more mature pups. “Oftentimes adult dogs have established personalities, manageable energy levels, have mastered basic commands, and only require, if anything, a little basic obedience training or a house-training refresher,” says Maso.
Some people believe that raising a dog from puppyhood will strengthen the bond. If your heart is set on a puppy, you can still adopt—contrary to popular belief, shelters have plenty of young dogs in need of homes, including purebreds.
However, in reality, older dogs are more than ready to connect. If you adopt a senior, be prepared to cozy up. “Age is not a determining factor in an animal’s affection toward humans or its ability to bond with adopters,” says DiGangi. “Just ask anyone who’s adopted an older pet, visit a shelter and ask to see their older animals, or simply look into the face of an older dog or cat.”