What to Look for When Adopting a Dog from a Shelter (Choosing a Rescue Dog)

In this guide I asked a lady I know who owns shelter dogs to put together some tips for choosing a rescue dog. By reading this, you should get a better idea on what questions you should ask when adopting a dog, and how to make your final decision when choosing a rescue dog.

If you don’t know what to look for and how to evaluate the shelter dogs you will be seeing, these tips will help, and let you avoid any red flags.

Tips for choosing a rescue dog

You have made the wise decision to rescue a dog – I applaud you! There are so many dogs and puppies of all breeds, sizes, and backgrounds ready to settle into a new life. In fact, the ASPCA estimates that 3.3 million dogs enter U.S dog shelters every year.

Choosing the right rescue dog for you is paramount to establishing a beautiful long-term friendship from the beginning.

The right rescue dog aligns with your lifestyle, comes from a supportive professional shelter, and loves your whole family.

But what to look for when adopting a dog from a shelter is one of the things people often get confused with, so I want to help you today.

Finding your perfect dog is easily done in these 5 steps.

how to evaluate a shelter dog
Know what to look for when adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue. (Image licensed via storyblocks.com)

1. Review your lifestyle

Before you even begin the hunt for to choose a rescue dog, you need to fully analyze your life.

How would a dog fit into your routine? What can they expect when they come to live with you?

Let’s say you are a single millennial in a high-rise apartment. You have convinced your property manager to let you keep a dog on the condition that they don’t destroy furniture and you can control the fur. You have a nearby dog park for exercise but no garden.

In this case you would ideally be looking for a small dog with minimal shedding and relatively low-energy levels. An older dog is better as they are less likely to destroy your apartment.

In terms of breeds a Bichon Frise, Miniature Schnauzer or Shih Tzu could be the perfect rescue dog for you to choose.

Contrast this with the stay-at-home mom in a detached house in the suburbs with two young children. You have a yard and plenty of space for your new dog to roam. A puppy of any breed could work for you.

If you would like an older dog, you are looking for known people pleasers. You want them to be naturally friendly, energetic, and gentle. Some breeds that fit this profile could be Labrador retrievers, Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands, and, of course, the friendly neighborhood mutt.

Focus more on what your current lifestyle is like and the type of dog that would thrive in that environment.

Searching for the dog you find cute before considering your way of life is a recipe for disaster.

2. Choose the right dog shelter

Now you have a clear view of your lifestyle and the qualities you are looking for in a dog, you need to find a shelter. You may be spoilt for choice with many local shelters. This is great as it widens your pool of potential pups.

Visit each one to review their processes and living conditions.

Here are some important questions you should you ask when adopting a dog and deciding which rescue center or shelter to adopt from:

  • Are the dogs regularly walked and socialized?
  • Do they euthanize strays when they are above capacity or do they have a network of capable foster parents in the area?
  • Are the living conditions for the rescue dogs clean?
  • Do they keep good records of the dogs’ family and medical history?
  • What support do they give after you have completed your adoption?
  • Does the rescue shelter have any adoption fees? Is this within budget for you?
  • Is there an option to purchase food or toys from the shelter?

Handy Hint: I’ve put together a more detailed guide on what questions you should be asking before you adopt a rescue dog. Read those before you even considering getting a shelter dog.

The best animal shelters go beyond simply abiding by animal welfare laws.

They get to know their dogs as individuals. They take great care to match their adoptees with capable owners. They will also keep fully detailed records and are organized.

Be sure to support and choose a rescue or dog shelter that supports the animals in their care.

3. Meet several types of dogs of all sizes, ages, and breeds

In step one, I encouraged you to review your lifestyle and gave some example breeds that could work in your unique situation. You’ve probably done a few online quizzes to match you with your perfect dog breed, right?

Yep, I did that too before my first rescue.

questions should you ask when adopting a dog
Choose the breed, size, and age of your shelter dog carefully. (Image licensed via StoryBlocks.com)

I had my heart set on the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. A ginger-haired, medium coat, blue-eyed beauty from Nova Scotia, Canada. Surely the perfect dog for me and my way of life at the time.

The problem was, I lived on the rural West Coast of Ireland. Finding this oh-so-perfect dog in the local shelter would be like finding Kim Kardashian in a K-Mart in Kentucky.

Technically possible.

Highly unlikely.

You must keep an open mind when it comes to choosing your perfect rescue dog.

Tell your chosen shelter the temperament, age, and size of dog you are looking for. The breed is not nearly as important as you may think. There are gentle, loving Dobermans. There are grumpy, lazy Jack Russell Terriers.

It all depends on their experiences, health, and individual personality.

Meet lots of dogs. Take them for a walk. Play with them. Give them cuddles. Choosing the right rescue dog is a surprising journey.

It will often be the one you least expect.

4. Ensure that your entire family meets your chosen rescue dog

You know what to look for when adopting a dog from a shelter, and have now found a dog that ticks all, or most of your boxes.

You get on like a house on fire. That’s great. Now you need to introduce them to the rest of your house, so things don’t catch on fire!

If you are single, you have less of an obligation here. I would still recommend bringing a close friend that visits your home often to meet your potential new pet.

Things can get very awkward if your best friend and your new rescue dog become sworn enemies. House parties will never be the same.

Handy Hint: I’ve written a guide to help new owners help socialize their rescue dog in situations like this with new people, children, and other animals.

If you have housemates, a partner, and/or children, it is extremely important that all members of your household meet your new rescue dog. You want to eliminate the chance of any nasty surprises when taking them home.

When choosing a relatively shy shelter dog, the best way to get to know them in a group setting is to play a game or go for a walk together. A quick game of fetch can loosen things up, allowing your potential rescue dog to relax around you.

It’s good practice for the family members you invite to bring treats with them so they can make friends from the very beginning.

5. Make the transition as smooth as possible

You find the perfect rescue dog for you. A shaggy mixed-breed mutt with floppy ears and a heart of gold. You and your loved ones then brainstorm names you could call them (yes, you can rename rescue dogs depending on their age and mental faculties).

Your local delivery person has never visited so often because you are ordering so many toys, treats, and trinkets for your dog to enjoy.

Here is a quick checklist of what you need to do when preparing to take your rescue dog home:

  1. Make sure you have any documentation you need from the shelter.
  2. Check with your shelter that all vaccinations are up to date.
  3. Sign up to a local veterinarian. Have your rescue dog checked by your chosen veterinarian before taking them home.
  4. Consider buying pet insurance.
  5. Discover the safest dog walking routes in your neighborhood.
  6. Order a supply of food – you may be able to get this from the shelter to keep things consistent. Ask the shelter about their eating habits.
  7. Confirm any adoption fees with the rescue center.
  8. Make sure you are fully stocked with basic equipment e.g. walking lead, dog bed, poop bags, grooming kit, puppy crate, dog carrier, water bowl and food bowls, etc.
  9. Prepare your house to avoid accidents. For example, don’t leave dangerous wires or clutter around. Install baby gates in areas of the house you don’t want your dog to access.
  10. Shop around for professionals who will support your dog long-term. This could be dog groomers, dog walkers, dog trainers, overnight kennels, etc.

Once you are fully prepared, set a move in date with your rescue center to take your new pooch home.

Welcome to the world of adopted parenthood!


I hope this guest content and tips have helped you understand better what to look for when adopting a dog from a shelter. It really is not a decision you should take lightly.

If you do decide to go ahead, you might also find the following guides useful.

You might also like…

Image in header licensed via StoryBlocks.com.

Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

Recent Posts