How to Choose a Rescue Dog: Picking the Right Dog for You


Woman looking up at senior dog
Danil Nevsky / Stocksy
Choosing which adoptable pup is the right fit for you is the first of many important decisions you’re going to make as a new pet parent. Rescue dogs come from a variety of backgrounds, and some may have experienced trauma or neglect. When choosing a rescue dog, consider your lifestyle, visit the shelter or rescue organization, ask questions about the dog’s history, take the dog for a walk or play session, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

By choosing to adopt a rescue dog, you are giving them a loving home and a chance to heal. Not only that, but by adopting a dog from the shelter, you’re also helping to reduce pet overpopulation and support animal welfare organizations.

What factors should I consider before choosing a rescue dog?

If you’re planning on becoming a pet parent or are hoping to add another doggo to the pack, here are the top questions to ask yourself before adopting a dog

  • Is my lifestyle a good fit for a dog? Consider your job, vacation plans, and daily schedule. Do you have the time to train and exercise a dog?
  • Can I afford the cost of a dog? This includes food, vet care, a dog sitter and/or walker, grooming, and other supplies.
  • Is everyone in my household on board with getting a dog? This includes any current pets, who should be properly socialized and trained to ensure a smooth transition.
  • Am I willing to commit to the dog for its entire life? Be sure you’re ready for a long-term commitment.  
  • Is my living situation suitable for a dog? Consider whether your landlord allows pets and how many, the size of your home or apartment, and access to green space for exercise. Lastly, review your lease or homeowners insurance for breed restrictions. 

How to choose the right rescue dog for me

Considering adopting a pet is a big step and if you’ve answered yes to all of the pre-adoption questions above, it’s time to consider what sort of pup might be the best fit. Here are some things to consider as you begin your dog adoption journey: 

Consider their age

Among the many factors that you’ll consider is what age of dog you want to adopt. Shelters and rescues have all sorts of dogs, who range from puppies to seniors. “Each stage of a pet’s life presents different medical or training needs,” says Stephanie Filer, executive director at Shelter Animals Count, a source for animal sheltering data.

For instance, puppies require dedication to housetraining and socialization. They’ll need frequent potty breaks and meals throughout the day. On the other hand, senior or adult dogs may have basic housetraining down and their personalities be fully developed. The exception may be a pup who comes from hardship and needs extra special attention to adjust to a secure forever home.

While puppies require puppy-proofing your home and scheduling core vaccinations, senior dogs may require ramps or non-slip mats and, perhaps, a special diet or medication. 

Consider their full-grown size

Filer says she finds it surprising how many people get large-breed dogs and later want to give them up because they’re too big. It may sound silly, but it’s easy to forget how big a puppy will grow when you’re swooned by paws that are much too large for their body. 

Be flexible

Don’t get too hung up on breed. While each dog breed may have some general characteristics, such as size and coat type, an individual dog’s personality, history, and interaction with potential adopters are far more important. “If you’re looking for a certain breed because of how you think it will behave, you may be disappointed,” Filer says. Besides, she adds, “shelters and rescues are full of a surprising variety of desirable breeds, mixes, and hybrids of every age, color, and size.”

Assess their personality, temperament, and energy level

Focusing on a dog’s temperament — rather than looks or breed alone — allows adopters to find a dog that suits their lifestyle, energy level, and personality, says Susan Nilson, a cat and dog training and behavior expert and founder of The Cat and Dog House, an online educational platform helping cat and dog owners better understand their pet’s behavior, body language, and emotions.

But all too often, she says, “many dogs in shelter and rescue situations are highly stressed, so their behavior does not necessarily reflect how they will behave in a home environment.” She adds that the time it takes for a dog to settle into their new home and show their true personality could take days, weeks, or even months.

Nilson provides these tips for gaining a more accurate understanding of a dog’s personality:

  • Spend time with the dog. Visit the shelter multiple times, aiming to observe or spend time with the dog you’re considering during different times of the day and in different situations. Filer also mentions that many shelters offer foster-to-adopt programs, Dogs’ Day Out, sleepovers, and other trial programs to help people get to know a potential pet before adopting.
  • Ask to walk the dog. Even when the above opportunities for one-on-one time with your potential pooch aren’t an option, most shelters and rescues allow prospective pet parents to walk dogs outside the shelter environment. Take note of their reactions to various stimuli, like other dogs, people, and the environment, says Nilson, paying close attention to body language cues such as ear position, tail, and eye contact.

Ask questions

Ask the shelter or rescue staff questions to learn about the dog’s history, behavior, and needs. Use their expertise,” Filer stresses. “They want nothing more than the animals in their care to go to a wonderful, loving, permanent home.”  And while you’re chatting with them, be honest about your own lifestyle and what you’re looking for in a potential companion.

Questions to ask shelter staff before adopting a dog might include:

  • How did the dog end up at the shelter or rescue?
  • Is the dog housetrained?
  • Is the dog playful, energetic, or calm and laid-back?
  • Is the dog good with other dogs?
  • Does the dog have any known behavioral issues, such as barking, chewing, or separation anxiety?
  • What kind of exercise does the dog need?
  • How much grooming does the dog need?
  • Does the dog have any special dietary needs?
  • Does the dog have any known medical conditions?

Take your time

This is a tough one — especially for potential pet parents who already have the perfect dog name in mind and all the essential new dog gear ready for use. But it’s crucial to take your time when you’re making such a big decision.

“Visit different rescues or shelters, and if you don’t find a match on the first trip, that’s okay,” Filer ensures. To help slow down the decision process and take adoption at your own pace, she recommends checking out online pet profiles before visiting shelters in person. Online platforms, including Adopt A Pet, search local shelters and rescue organizations for dogs that match your search criteria, and display their essential information, such as special care needs, age, and breed, in easy-to-view profiles.

Why choose a rescue dog?

The current number of dogs being adopted remains flat, if not dipping below 2022 numbers, Filers reports. Meanwhile, the number of dogs coming into shelters and rescues is up by 14 percent, putting many animal welfare organizations at capacity. Adopting a pet provides space for another in need.

“When you adopt a rescue dog, you open your heart and home to a loving companion while also making a positive impact on the broader issue of pet homelessness,” Nilson says. Those who adopt a rescue pet often say their bond is unwavering, even going as far as saying that their pet seems to cherish their second chance at life.

The benefits of adopting a rescue dog are practical, too. Adopting a pet isn’t free. However, adoption fees are generally a fraction of the cost of purchasing a pet, and your new companion typically comes home with essential care such as being spayed or neutered, up-to-date on core vaccines, and microchipped. You may have access to after-adoption support as well.

How can I ensure that a rescue dog is healthy?

Shelters and rescues work hard to keep dogs in their care healthy. They typically vaccinate and give each dog a health exam before making them available for adoption. If they have any known health concerns, they’ll share that information and required care with prospective pet parents. That said, it’s still a good idea to schedule a follow-up exam with your chosen veterinarian soon after you adopt.

How can I assess a rescue dog’s personality before adoption?

The best way to get to know a dog before adoption is to spend quality time with them and ask the shelter staff and volunteers questions about their history and behaviors. Don’t hesitate to visit the dog multiple times or ask to spend one-on-one time with them, like going for a walk.

Commonly asked questions

Where can I find rescue dogs available for adoption?

You can start your adoption journey at Adopt A Pet, where you can search for available dogs in your area by age and breed. You can also visit your local shelter or rescue organization’s website. Most online adoption profiles include photos, descriptions, and information about each dog’s personality and any special needs.

Are there any adoption fees or requirements?

Most shelters and rescues charge adoption fees to help cover the cost of caring for the animals and running the shelter. Fees typically range from $50 to $350, but many shelters offer low-cost events throughout the year. Adopted pets typically go home vaccinated, spayed/neutered, and microchipped. Many shelters and rescues also offer low-cost or free training programs and other resources to help new pet parents get started.

Janelle Leeson is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer. Her work has been featured in magazines such as Inside Your Dog’s Mind, Inside Your Cat’s Mind, and Paw Print, as well online at Insider Reviews, NBC Select, Shop Today, PetMD, and Daily Paws. She has two adventure cats, a flock of urban chickens, and a soon-to-be-husband who doesn’t mind housing the occasional foster cat — or five.

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