Adopting a Dog – Shelter, Breed Rescue, Newspaper Ads…

by Jonni

There are a number of places where you can adopt a good older dog.

  • Free dogs from friends and family

The easy way (but not always the best way) to get a good older dog is to receive a dog as a gift – or to take a friend’s dog when they can’t keep it any longer. Most people don’t give adult dogs as gifts (because puppies are cuter) so this probably doesn’t happen too often. But many of us are petitioned by friends, relatives and coworkers to take their dog when they can no longer keep it.

If you aren’t lucky enough to know someone who is giving away your perfect pet, there are still plenty of options. The local Humane Society or animal control shelter always has adult dogs that are ready for a new home. In addition, your city’s newspaper will have advertisements in the pet section – most of them will be puppies for sale, but occasionally an adult dog is listed. There are also hundreds of breed rescue organizations around the country, and many cities have private “no-kill” shelters. And breeders are a source of adult dogs as well as puppies.

  • Adopt a dog from Humane Societies and animal control shelters

One excellent reason for shopping for your older dog at an animal control shelter or Humane Society is that most shelters test the incoming dogs for behavior and temperament before they’re released for adoption. These tests are necessary for the protection of the volunteers who work around the animals in the shelter, and for the protection of the people who come to the shelter to visit the dogs and take them home.

According to Lora Goode, an animal care technician at the Multnomah County Animal Control shelter in Portland, Oregon, these standardized tests can’t guarantee that your new dog will be safe – but every care is taken to release only sound, calm, people-oriented dogs that will not nip or bite at the slightest cause.
People who work in animal shelters are there because they love animals. They want every dog that walks out their front door with its new owner to be happy and content in its new home.

However, they know that some dogs are brought to the pound because of temperament or behavioral problems that are too dangerous for most pet-owners to handle, and these animals must be put down. Other animals have been mistreated or neglected, and have learned behaviors that make them unadoptable. Still others have characteristics that may be appropriate for a working dog or guard dog, but which are unacceptable in a home.

For this reason, they use behavioral assessment tests, such as the Assess-A-Pet™ test created by Sue Sternberg, to measure a dog’s adaptability and temperament. These tests are not perfect, but they help match families with pets that can become lifelong companions

There is, admittedly, some controversy over the use of assessment tests by animal shelters. Some breed rescue organizations believe that generalized tests don’t take specific breed characteristics into account, and they believe that perfectly sound dogs are put down because they exhibit the aggressive or dominating characteristics of the breed. Other people believe that the tests are too demanding, or may believe that the dogs are put through some sort of torture (this is not the case, but rumors persist). To see the many opinions about this issue, simply do a search on for “shelter dog temperament assessment” (without the quotes).

In spite of the occasional objection, these assessments give potential owners more peace of mind than they could have any other way. The dogs are tested to see if they bite or snap when someone approaches their food bowl (an important issue if you have small children). The shelter tests the dog’s ability to tolerate handling, brushing, and holding (an important issue if you ever want to hug your dog, or take him to be groomed). They test his behavior around other dogs (an important issue if you have an older dog at home or if you ever want to take your new dog for a walk in the park).

Unfortunately, they probably don’t test the behavior of the dog around cats, but the previous owner may have given the history of the dog when it was released to the animal shelter.

If the shelter does testing, they may include a test for the dog’s interest in people. Some dogs don’t have any interest in people at all. Dogs who inherit this extreme independence may be beautiful, and may even be safe, but they won’t offer the love and affection that most pet-owners are looking for. Other dogs may have lost their genetic potential to be people-oriented by being housed in a kennel all its life, without socialization during the critical weeks of puppyhood. If the dog can’t ever love you, isn’t it far better to know this before you take him home?

Please don’t assume that an animal shelter does temperament testing – ask! Also ask what they do with the results of the test. Some shelters will note that a dog is aggressive or assertive, and then simply put “not good around kids” on the dog’s kennel papers. What neighborhood is completely barren of kids?

If the shelter doesn’t do any temperament testing (or even if it does) you will want to do at least rudimentary testing on your own. This is also true even if you find your pet through a newspaper ad or adopt one from a breed rescue group. Sue Sternberg, the creator of the shelter temperament test called Assess-A-Pet™ outlines the testing you can do on your own in great detail in her book Successful Dog Adoption.

Finding the specific breed you want at the Humane Society may take patience, especially if you want a smaller breed, or if you want a breed that’s fairly rare. Here in Portland Oregon and in many other large cities around the country the Humane Society always has Labrador retrievers, pit bulls, chow chows, Rottweilers, Australian shepherds, Border collies, and various mixes of these breeds. You sometimes find a golden retriever, and very occasionally an expensive purebred, such as an English bulldog or West Highland terrier. During a recent trip to the local animal shelter I saw a Boston terrier mix that looked just like Henry J, the mutt I grew up with – I would have taken him home, but someone beat me to him.

Labs and Lab crosses are one of the most common dogs in America, and it stands to reason that the shelters will have lots of black dogs. The pit bulls, chow chows, Rottweilers and Akitas appear to be over-bred in cities by the sort of owner who doesn’t pay much attention to the steady stream of advertising asking people to spay and neuter their pets. A dog raised by a drug dealer is not necessarily a bad dog, but extra care should always be taken to assess the temperament of a guard dog before taking him home. And in spite of those adorable wrinkles, be sure to include the Shar Pei and any Shar Pei cross in this category of potentially unsafe dog.

Shelter personnel are well aware of the prejudices against pit bulls, so they may “inadvertently” label the pit bull crosses “Dalmatian cross” or “boxer cross.” I once made the mistake of buying an adorable “boxer cross” puppy from a pet store. At nine months his hormones kicked in and this huge pit bull became a holy terror with the urge to kill any dog within ten miles. The kennel we used when we needed a weekend away from home refused to accept him after puberty – and they accused us of not knowing how to train this aggressive dog to ignore his instincts.

They were right – we weren’t professional dog handlers, and couldn’t trust the dog to not jump our back fence and kill our neighbor’s dog.

Even more frightening would be the possibility of the neighbor’s child standing in the way when the dog was in attack mode. The only reasonable choice, in my opinion, was to get rid of the dog.

To avoid repeating our mistake, assume that any dog that looks vaguely like a pit bull is a pit bull, and take extra care with your own temperament assessment before taking him home. And buy him as an adult, after his hormones have already done their work on his personality.

Australian shepherds and Border collies have become overly popular in the last 20 years, and have been over-bred because of it. These traditional farm dogs can make wonderful pets (they happen to be my favorite, and my own dog is a 9-year-old Border collie from the local Humane Society) but for many people too much smarts in a dog is too much dog. I would personally never take a young Border collie because previous experience has shown me that my lifestyle is simply not interesting enough for them, and they don’t want to live with me. Think of a Border collie as Lassie on methamphetamines.

My Pepper has been lying at my feet for several hours as I write this chapter, but don’t expect a young Border collie to put up with this type of inactivity or you will both be sorely disappointed.

Some individual Australian shepherds are overly shy and fearful, creating a fear biter – but a dog with this dangerous temperament should never be released for adoption from a responsible shelter. Aussies can also be overprotective of your children, but can make wonderful one-man or –woman dogs if you have the time to train them. Unfortunately the beautiful blue-merle genes are sometimes associated with genetic blindness.

The Australian shepherd/Border collie cross is the preferred dog for Frisbee competition, so remember – some Frisbee champs can leap as high as 10 feet off the ground and land with the Frisbee in their mouths. Now go back outside and look at the height of your fence…

The length of time an animal spends at the local animal shelter can affect its behavior, especially if the shelter is understaffed or untrained in maintaining the dogs’ connection to people. The close proximity to other animals can raise the adrenaline level of any dog, and the excess stress can, over time, result in a depressed dog, or a dog that loses some of its training. If the dog has been in the kennel too long this temporary depression can change their behavior enough to make it difficult for them to express their personality, and you could discover after a few days in your safe, loving home that you’ve adopted a very different dog than you thought you did.

When you visit the shelter ask how the volunteers maintain human contact, or simply watch them as they interact with the dogs. Some shelters don’t have enough money to maintain large kennels or outside exercise runs, but don’t assume that the animals are being mistreated due to the lack of money. It’s the quality of the people, not the housing, that matters.

If you go to the pound with an open heart, and keep your needs and the generalized breed characteristics in mind, you may come home with a dog who will love you for years.

  • Adopt a dog from a breed rescue organization

If you have your heart set on a small dog, or if you need a specific breed for hunting or other work, you may want to find your dog through a breed rescue organization. This is also where you are may find a dog that has specialized training.

Many breed rescue organizations are made up of a network of foster homes, and the dogs are not kept in a kennel. This helps to prevent the shock and emotional trauma that is experienced by almost all dogs at the local shelter.

Rescue organizations are often fiercely protective of their chosen breed, and may seem far more concerned with the dog’s welfare than they are in yours. When you consider the abusive and neglectful situations that they sometimes rescue their dogs from, this attitude is understandable and should be respected.

Although many dogs really are rescued by these organizations, many others are brought to them by people who gave their dogs loving homes but who can no longer care for them. They also inherit dogs whose owners have died. Many people who must give up a dog they love prefer to give them to an organization that will allow them to live in a foster situation until a home is found, rather than sending them to the pound.

Many rescue organizations have a walth of information about their individual dog’s temperament, behavior and previous training. The foster-owners will have a good feel for the personality of the dog, and will do whatever they can to find a home that is suitable. Some will even require lengthy applications and a home visit before you even have a chance to visit with the dogs. One local rescue organization in Oregon requires two home visits – one to look at your yard and fence, and one to check out your children.

Some people find this process somewhat invasive, and prefer to not have strangers passing judgment on the suitability of their homes. Others welcome the care and attention that is given to finding exactly the right match.

One thing to remember is that the volunteers who operate breed rescue organizations are just that – volunteers who give their time, energy and money to a breed they love. Although they do everything they can to match the right dog to the right owner, it is still ultimately up to you to make the final choice. They are part of the organization because they love a particular breed of dog, and not necessarily because they have specialized training or talent.

These dogs are living with people who care for them, so the adoption process can be much more personal than the experience at the local pound. This can actually have both good and bad points.

For instance, the volunteers may be so enamored by the breed that they overlook temperament problems that make a dog a poor candidate for a family dog. In the minds of some rescue volunteers, any poor behavior in a dog is the owner’s fault. This may be true for some issues, but you need to make your own assessment and be aware of any potential problems that you are not equipped to handle. You are the only one who knows how much time or energy you can spend on training, and you are the one who is responsible for the safety of your children and other pets. For these reasons, do your own temperament testing before you agree to take a dog home, and find out if they will accept the dog back if the adoption doesn’t work out. Don’t leave all decisions to the rescue volunteers.

The organization will try to help you decide if the breed is really right for you, and may advise you to find a different breed if they really don’t think you have the situation or experience for their particular breed. They may also ask probing questions to find out if you can accept any problem behaviors caused by previous owners and any breed characteristics that may be somewhat challenging.

If the animal has behavioral problems such as chewing or submissive piddling when confronted by a stranger, they may be able to give you advice on how to deal with it once the dog is in your home. And if the animal has medical problems they will give you information about the illness and the necessary care.
Expect the entire adoption process, from original application to the day you bring your new dog home, to take weeks or even months, while the organization finds the right dog for your household.

  • Adopt a dog from private and no-kill shelters

Because private shelters are private, it is difficult to make generalizations about them. Even the term “no-kill” can mean different things to different shelter owners. The level of financing may vary drastically, depending on the owner’s ability to locate funds through grants and donations. And the way the animals are housed and cared for can run the gamut from both good and bad extremes. As with government-funded shelters, it is best to ask as many questions as you can.

Some no-kill shelters have long waiting lists before any dog can be given to them, due to lack of space – and much of the space they do have is being occupied by animals that have been there for months, or even years. If the animals have been kept kenneled, and are not properly socialized, their stay may become permanent. Always ask why an animal has been at any shelter longer than three weeks, and ask if it has ever been adopted and returned.

Some no-kill shelters manage to house only sound, adoptable dogs because they temperament test the dogs before they accept them. If the dogs don’t pass the test, they are turned away.

You may want to call the shelter before your visit and ask some friendly questions that will give you an idea of their philosophy. Some private shelters do a wonderful job of matching good dogs to the right owners. Others are run by people who have no training in animal behavior, do no temperament testing, and assume that any problem behavior can be overcome by a devoted owner. A shelter run by people who really believe that “there are no bad dogs” may be a good shelter to avoid if you aren’t experienced with assessing a dog’s personality and temperament on your own.

Some “shelters” are no more than store-fronts or private back yards where the animals are housed in crowded, unclean conditions. This doesn’t mean that the animals are not good prospects for adoption, but it will mean that the dogs have not had medical check-ups and may have been exposed to viral and bacterial infections because of the crowded conditions. The people who own these private rescue “shelters,” for lack of a better word, have big hearts, but may not be truly acting in the dogs’ best interest. Don’t let your heart go out to these animals just because you want them to live in a better, cleaner home – unless the dog really is the kind of dog you want.

  • Adopt a dog through newspaper ads

People who can no longer care for their beloved pets will often sell them or give them away through newspaper ads. Ads are often the only way to find an older small dog, especially in large cities.

The reasons for letting a dog go to another home can be as varied as human experience –

  • The parents lost their jobs and the bank foreclosed on their home;
  • The children grew up and moved away, and their dog is miserable without kids;
  • The family can’t afford to feed the dog or take it for its checkups, and they care too much about the dog to keep it;
  • The dog nips at children, but seems loving and safe around older people;
  • The dog has chewed up all the linoleum on the kitchen floor, and is now starting in on the bedroom carpets;
  • The dog escapes from every fence, no matter how high or strong, and the owners are tired of paying the fees to animal control;
  • The dog has bitten one of their kids or the neighbor’s kid, and they want to get rid of him before they get sued;
  • The dog has grown into a dominating animal that cannot be controlled except by professional dog handlers.

In other words, the reasons for giving away a dog can be anything – really. Finding out the reason that a dog needs a new home is not always easy. “He needs more room to run” can mean he needs a more active household and his owners realize it isn’t fair to keep him in an environment where he isn’t happy. Or it can mean the dog is showing his frustration with the lack of exercise by digging up the owner’s prize roses. Or it can mean he needs a few thousand acres to run in because no fence can keep him in.

“He’s not good with kids” can mean his large, loving bulk is intimidating to the family’s small children who are not used to dogs; it can mean that the dog is capable of being trained to not jump on the kids he loves, but no one has taken the time to do it; it can mean he’s a herding dog who tries to keep the owner’s kids, and all the neighbor’s kids, rounded up in a corner of the yard; or it can mean that he bites or nips. Be sure and find out before you take him home. A dog that bites or nips kids will probably be just as willing to bite an adult if he feels like it – and you wouldn’t want him biting or nipping your grandchildren or the kids next door, even if you don’t have any kids of your own.

“He’s too big” can mean that the dog is a mutt born to a small mother, but who surprised his owners when he grew into a medium or large sized dog, like his dad. It can mean that he’s a giant lap dog living with a human who wants a lap dog – but who wants one that actually fits on her lap. Or it can mean that the dog is assertive or dominant, and his size makes it even harder to control him.

While you’re meeting your potential new dog, look around and see if there’s any evidence that he has lived inside the house, if you’re looking for a dog that can share your home with you.

Dog toys, dog beds, dishes and other paraphernalia will be scattered around most houses with house dogs. If the dog has been tied to a short chain in the back yard it doesn’t mean he isn’t a good dog – but it may mean he isn’t house trained, and it may mean he wasn’t played with and socialized when he was young. It also may mean he isn’t neutered (or spayed it it’s a bitch) and may not have his shots or recent medical checkup. Again, it may not mean it isn’t a good dog – the dog has no control over his humans. But if he is a strictly outside dog, find out why.

Some people don’t believe in having dogs inside their house. Others tie their dog as far away from the house as possible to keep them from biting the kids – and there are hundreds of variations in between. If it looks like the dog you want, find out as much as you can, and do your own temperament testing before you take him home.

If the family really is giving up a beloved pet because they can no longer keep him for reason outside their control, it may feel like you’re stealing their best friend. If, on the other hand, the family is showing only relief because someone has come to take this mutt off their hands, be sure to do some more research. You might even want to talk to the dog’s neighbors. You have either found a family that thought they wanted a dog, but discovered that they don’t actually like dogs – even the wonderful, well-behaved dog they are now finding a new home for. Or they could have a true problem dog that should be put down, but they don’t have the heart to do it. Make sure you know what you’re getting into.

  • Adopt a dog from breeders

Breeders with adult animals for sale can be puppy mills going out of business or professional, ethical businesses that raise specialized and trained animals to responsible owners only. And they can fall somewhere in between. Anyone who owns an intact bitch that becomes pregnant can be called a “breeder.”

Many responsible breeders of purebred dogs retire their breeding stock after a few years, out of respect for the dog. If these animals have been living in close proximity to people all their lives, rather than being kenneled, they can be wonderful companions for your family. The breeder will be knowledgeable about any genetic diseases that are common to the breed, and will have tested your dog before it was ever allowed to have puppies. Many breeders take their responsibility to their animals very seriously, and are picky about who they sell their dogs to.

You can also occasionally find breeders who have sound, healthy dogs for sale simply because they couldn’t find buyers for all the pups in a litter. Once they pass the cute 8 to 10 week stage, many people pass them by. These dogs, if they have been raised with their mothers and with the humans who own them, can make wonderful pets.

Some breeders, especially those specializing in hunting dogs, will sell adult animals that have already started their training. If you need or want a trained hunting partner, be prepared to pay a premium for him.

These breeders may also have “pet quality” dogs that have no talent for the job they were bred for. These dogs can be wonderful pets if they aren’t too high strung. Call around to the local breeders (you can find them in the Yellow Pages or over the Internet) and ask them if they ever sell their adult dogs for pets.

  • Other options

If you look high and low for your perfect dog and you can’t find him at the local shelters, breed rescue groups or through the newspaper, you may want to go online and expand your search.

If you need a smaller people-oriented dog but your local shelter has only Rottweilers, Akitas, Chows and Pit Bulls, you may have better luck in a rural shelter. People who live in small towns and on farms don’t tend to buy the big guard dogs, but they also don’t necessarily take their dogs to the vet as often as their big-city cousins, and many rural dogs aren’t spayed or neutered.

Although one would think that rural shelters would have only farm-type shepherds and collies, I did a simple search on the Internet and found that this isn’t the case at all.

I recently checked several rural animal shelters to see what type of dog they had available. The first shelter I looked at had terrier crosses, beagles, and a number of small mixes that defy easy categorization but would still make wonderful pets. Some shelters do not allow out-of-area adoptions, but many others are more than happy to find homes for their dogs, no matter where they’ll end up living.

Also search for breed rescue organizations in other cities and states. They may be willing to place a dog in your home, especially if you want a senior dog that may be more difficult for them to find a home for. Some will say no, so be sure to enter into a conversation, either by phone or email, before you make the trip.
You can also look closer to home by going back to and typing in the name of your city plus the breed of dog you’re looking for. If you want a mixed breed, just type in your city and the word “dog”.

Another good Internet source for dogs owned by private parties is Craig’s List, which you can find online at This non-profit Internet want-ad service started appears to have started in San Francisco, but is now a nationwide online community. A recent ad offered the following dog in Oregon:

We are looking for a home for our 2 year old Beagle, he is a wonderful, loving dog, we just don’t have the time to give him that he so rightly deserves. He is papered just not registered, we never sent the papers in because to us all he is, is a family pet. He is neutured, and partially blind in one eye, but don’t let that fool you in to thinking he can’t do the same things as any other dog. He has been raised around children of all ages considering we have 4, and also other animals from chickens, to cats and dogs, and does wonderful. We are asking $100.00 but are willing to talk about it, all we want is for him to go to a wonderful home, and get the attention that he deserves. Oh and also he is crate trained and house broken. If you would like to know more or see a picture please feel free to ask.

The nice thing about Craig’s List is that you can actually watch for a few days and see what happens to the dogs and cats that are sold or given away. This beagle, for instance, found a home within a day of the ad placement.

On the day that I found the beagle ad shown above, I also found a scathing post in the list from someone who believes strongly that no one should ever adopt a dog if they can’t keep it forever. This person was incensed that people advertise dogs that they can no longer keep because they have to move. She said “Don’t get an animal if you can’t truly take care of them for the rest of their life!” (She actually typed it in all caps, but we know that isn’t polite.)

Well, this person has obviously never found herself without a job because her company just hired an offshore firm to do her work for half the price. She hasn’t been divorced, and had the choice of feeding her kids or feeding her dog. She doesn’t realize that it isn’t always possible to predict the way your own life will turn out. Very few pet owners are so heatless that they willingly “dump” their pets (although one has to admit there are a few).

She must also not believe that some dogs would appreciate making a move to a home where their own personalities are better appreciated. Some dogs can really shine in someone else’s home, and giving it an opportunity to be somewhere else can sometimes be a compassionate thing to do.

Fortunately, there is often someone, perhaps someone like you, who is in a better position to love and care for the animal than its original owner.