How to Adopt a Dog

a black and white spotted dog with his paws up on the bars of a cage

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If you’re dreaming of walkies and games of fetch lately, get in line. Adoption rates grew exponentially through spring at many animal shelters, as people across the country prepared to shelter in place and wanted a dog to give them an excuse to see the sunshine a couple of times a day (and a new pal, of course). On Petfinder.com, for example, adoption inquiries jumped 122 percent between March 15 and April 15, compared to the previous four weeks. Foster applications went up as well, as more people suddenly found themselves with lots more puppy time on their hands.

Depending on your location, that could mean your adoption or fostering journey could require some patience. Small or independent shelters and rescue organizations specifically don’t always have the infrastructure to process applications quickly. Not to mention, all shelters, rescues, and pup foster parents have had to ramp up new protocols for screening and meeting would-be pet parents. But you don’t have to twiddle your thumbs while you wait for your application to go through. Here’s what the experts say you’re going to need before bringing Fido to his fur-ever home.

Compile a list of options

Let’s get real, many diehard dog-lovers already have a tidy handful of adoption agencies bookmarked online or in their social media queues. But if you spend less time scrolling through furry faces online than the rest of us, compile a list of 8–10 shelters or rescue organizations near you. Look for those registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, and do your due diligence on their website, social media, and any media mentions you can find to ensure your pup comes from a spot that treats their animals well and sources them ethically. Websites like PetFinder and Adopt-a-Pet can help connect you with lists of pets at nearby shelters and rescue organizations.

In addition to giving unhomed animals a fresh start, shelters and rescue organizers can offer better insight into your new friend and how they’ll fit into your home says Rena Lafaille, director of administration at the ASPCA Adoption Center. “A huge benefit of adopting animals from a shelter is that shelter staff know the animals well and can provide detailed information about an animal’s history, medical needs, behavior, and temperament,” Lafaille notes. “They also consider a potential adopter’s lifestyle, home environment, and the animal’s potential compatibility with children and other animals in the home in order to make matches that are a good fit.”

Go into it with your eyes open

Before you even fill out applications for your new Fluffy or Fido, call a house meeting. Even if you live with roommates or plan to take care of her solo, everyone who lives with you will need to get ready for bringing an animal home. Setting expectations now — like planning mealtime, cleanup, and play schedules — can get everyone on the same page. Then, it’s time to start scrolling.

Because many shelter pups have a mix of breeds in their family tree, Homeward Trails Animal Rescue founder Sue Bell encourages adopters to focus less on breed than a few key characteristics. The most important factors to consider are:

  • energy level
  • size when full grown
  • tolerance of other animals and children
  • noise level, especially if you live in an apartment

    Lafaille advises adopters to ask shelter staff plenty of questions, since they know their animal population best. “Shelter staff have expertise in making successful matches and can help prospective adopters decide whether an animal is a good personality and lifestyle fit. They also consider each animal’s background and energy level, as well as how the animal might get along with other people and pets in the home,” she says.

    Bell also notes that shelters are a stressful place for many dogs, so they may be shy or temperamental at first. And don’t judge a pet by their initial impression — my pit bull knocked me down in the snow the first time we met, but now he’s the gentlest giant you’d ever want to meet.

    Get the right gear

    Even before bringing home your new pup, Bell recommends having a few essentials on hand. First, ensure your home is dog-proofed, especially if you’re welcoming a puppy. Make sure your cabinets and any outdoor escape routes are secure, and move any cords or wires toys, decorative items, or shoes out of chewing distance. You’ll also want to get a veterinarian for your pet; the rescue or foster can often recommend one. A vet can also recommend a good food that fits your pet’s developmental level, nutritional needs, and lifestyle.

    Start them off with a Kong or other chewable, but don’t go too ape in the toy aisle until you get a sense of what kind of playthings your pup prefers. Bell also recommends bringing them home on a harness or martingdale collar, which tightens around their neck without the “choke” effect of the chain kind. That will keep them from slipping out of a standard collar, if they decide to make a break for it.

    Prepare for the long-term

    Even if you decided to adopt a dog because you’re home more right now, remember that won’t always be the case. Bell recommends crate training so they have a safe and secure place to chill out both while you’re away and whenever they need some me time. “We suggest leaving your pet alone for several times during the day for varying lengths of time,” says Bell. “Dogs pick up on habits very quickly so put the dog in the crate at many different times, for durations ranging from 5 minutes to a few hours, when they can see you, when they cannot see you — and always put a favorite toy or safe chew toy in there with them.”

    And if you’re looking for a pet now but aren’t sure if you can pull the forever trigger, consider fostering. “Fostering can give you the opportunity to single-handedly change an animal’s life for the better and is a rewarding experience for those who choose to become caregivers,” Lafaille explains. “There’s no place like a loving home to get a dog or cat used to the sights, sounds, and experiences that will set them up for a successful future adoption.”

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