How to adopt the perfect rescue dog

There is no limit to the joy the right dog can bring to your life

So you're a dog person — or you'd like to be one. And it's time to add a new canine companion to your life. You could certainly contact a reputable breeder and arrange to purchase a puppy. Many happy human/dog relationships start this way. But that's hardly your only option.

Why not adopt a rescue dog?

"When you adopt a dog, you save two lives — the one that you adopt and the one who takes her place in a shelter or foster home," says Kristin Waters, co-founder and director of Project Blue Collar, a global grassroots movement dedicated to promoting dog adoption and elevating the status of rescue dogs by portraying them as prized pets.

Dogs are rescued from all kinds of situations. A "rescue" may be the beloved purebred companion of someone who has passed away or become unable to care for an animal for health or financial reasons. A rescue might be a healthy, good-natured young dog abandoned because his or her original family did not look past the fun of having a cute puppy, or even one of a mixed-breed litter born from a surprise (and unwanted) mating. Rescue dogs are all breeds, all ages, and all temperaments. The thing they all have in common is the need for a new human caretaker and the gratitude they express when they are placed in their new "forever" home.

Unfortunately, there are not as many homes available to rescue dogs as there are dogs in need of adoption. Many are euthanized — not because they aren't perfectly healthy, well-behaved animals — but because rescue dogs are unfortunately stereotyped as damaged and undesirable. People hear "rescue" and they think of a dog that has been abused to the point of psychosis, or a beast so vicious or incorrigible that no one wants him. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Project Blue Collar's Waters.

"Rescue dogs make superb pets! There's something unique about rescue dogs that pulls us in and offers us a whole new type of love."

Interested humans just need to make sure they go about finding and adopting the right dog, in the right way. We asked Waters, an expert in dog adoption, to outline the steps to finding your perfect canine rescue match.

1. Evaluate your lifestyle

"Being realistic about what you can and can't take on will help both your search for a dog and the rescue group representatives who will help you find the right match," Waters says. "Think about your life as a whole — the place you live, your family or the people you interact with, your travel schedule, your budget, your activity level, and whether you have other pets. This may take some time, but it's worth serious consideration. First time dog owners really need to evaluate their willingness to educate themselves about living with dogs as well as the their commitment to training their dog … especially if they get a puppy."

2. Do your homework

"Websites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-A-Pet are basically search engines for rescue pets and have useful criteria like location, breed, gender, age, and size. The mobile app BarkBuddy is another handy, on-the-go tool that can geolocate rescue groups to visit through your phone."

But don't underestimate the power of word-of-mouth, either.

"Ask your friends, coworkers, family members, or visitors to the dog park where they adopted their dogs, and if they found the experience positive," Waters suggests.

3. Be patient

The right dog, like the right life partner, can take some time to find.

If your online research leads to a dog whose profile interests you, contact the rescue organization to ask any questions you might have about background, temperament, and energy level, and see if the dog is still available. Don't be frustrated, though, if you don't hear back immediately. Waters explains:

"It's important to understand that the majority of people involved with rescue groups are volunteers or employees who are very pressed for time. Have patience throughout the adoption process. The people on the front lines of rescue are busy folks with hearts of gold, but they may not be as responsive as most service organizations we're used to."

Once you've made contact and think an available dog might be a good fit for you, or if you think a particular shelter may be a good resource, get ready to go visiting.

4. Be prepared

Rescue organizations vary a great deal. Some are small groups whose adoptable dogs are presented at mobile adoption events; others have facilities for you to walk through. Not all will have the same protocols for adoption, but all will require you to do some paperwork and other preparation.

"Just make sure to check the organization's website, Facebook page, or online pet profile ahead of your visit. If the organization offers you a chance to submit your application online, make sure you get that in ahead of time," Waters advises.

Some key items to bring along on your first visit to an adoption event or shelter are:

1) A list of all the dogs you would like to see from that group

2) Your current veterinarian's contact information (if you have one)

3) Your landlord's contact information in case you rent (Make sure you have permission to have a dog and find out if there are any weight/breed restrictions.)

4) The contact information for two references in case you're asked to list them

5) Your driver's license

6) A check or credit card. All rescue organizations will charge a fee. The amount varies. You can find out in advance how much you will be asked to pay by visiting the organization's website or calling ahead.

Be ready to be interviewed and asked a few questions. Some organizations will do same-day adoptions, while others might require a home visit to inspect your home or fence ahead of releasing a dog. Some may request that you bring any current dogs in for introduction to the dog you wish to adopt.

Waters explains the reason for this kind of diligence.

"All of the hoops you might feel you're jumping through are because these organizations really care about where their dogs end up. They've seen their share of heartbreak on the front lines when dogs come in. It only makes sense that they'd be vigilant about adopting those dogs out."

5. Get to know your dog

As with first dates, you may not feel love at first sight when you first meet an adoptable dog. As with potential partners, cut the creature you're meeting some slack during the course of your first encounter.

"Consider how the stress of the shelter environment or the bustle of the mobile adoption event may make a dog apprehensive," Waters reminds us. Give the dog time and space to get comfortable with you.

"Be careful not to be too much 'in a dog's face,' or too hands-on during your initial meeting. Let the dog come around on her own terms. Some dogs like lots of affection right away, but others need time to feel safe interacting. Make sure to convey this approach to any children accompanying you."

And don't be hesitant to arrange a second meeting, or a third.

"Sometimes multiple visits give you a better sense of a dog's personality," Waters says.

Don't be frustrated if you don't meet "the one" right away … but do listen to suggestions from shelter staff or volunteers. Once they've learned more about you and your lifestyle, these folks (who know the dogs in their care very well) might recommend you meet a dog you hadn't previously considered. According to Waters:

"This is the best time to stay open-minded, because you may end up finding a better match than the dogs whose profiles you were drawn to!"

6. Get the house ready

Once you do find your canine soul mate — and you've met all the requirements of the organization that rescued her — it's time to bring her back to her forever home. Besides appropriately sized water and food dishes, a bed, and some toys, what will your new pooch need to succeed?

A routine.

"The more closely a routine is followed during your dog's first days and weeks in your home, the better he'll adapt," Waters suggests. If your pup has not yet been housebroken, "Following a routine will greatly help with potty training, too."

Waters is also a big fan of dog crates.

"Crates are very good training tools if used with positive reinforcement and for short periods of time initially. They also offer a place for your new dog to have some very important downtime. There is a lot of information online about successful crating techniques and their benefits, especially for puppies."

Whatever you do, make sure Fido or Fluffy gets plenty of exercise. Waters explains:

'There's a saying: 'A tired dog is a good dog.' Exercise is not only beneficial for your dog's health and mood, but it also provides an ideal opportunity for you to bond with him. Daily walks help you both experience the sights, smells, and sounds of your neighborhood together."

If you already have another dog or dogs in residence, start off with a walk around the neighborhood together for them to get used to each other and then progress to a confined area where they can interact together on their own terms. Give them space to figure each other out, but be ready to intervene should one or both dogs seem anxious or overwhelmed. Waters suggests leaving their leashes on initially, even inside the house. Remind both dogs with lots of pats and training treats how much you love them both.

"Above all," says Waters, "Recognize that your newly adopted dog needs time to settle in. Some dogs will adjust faster than others. Don't wait until it's too late to get help with any behavioral issues that might arise. Consult a trainer or contact the rescue group for advice and resources."

After all, everyone — the rescue group, you, and your dog — wants this to be a successful partnership. And when that happens?

"You can't put a price on all that love," Waters asserts.

Finding and adopting a lifetime companion can take some time and effort. But if you are willing to do some research and have some patience, the perfect rescue dog for you is out there. Have fun finding her!


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