Adopting a dog is one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences. Whether you are about to adopt your first or fifth rescue dog, the dog adoption process can be confusing, scary, and even frustrating. 

My husband and I have adopted 8 dogs since we’ve been married. Each time the process was a little different and we learned something new. 

This How to Adopt a Rescue Dog Step-by-Step Guide and Checklist will walk you through the various stages of dog adoptions, so you know what to expect, ensuring a smooth transition for both you and your new rescue dog.

This adoption guide and checklist include:

two puppies sitting behind bars of a shelter

Preparing for Adopting a Dog

Preparing yourself and your home to adopt a dog will be your first step. Make sure you are ready for the physical and financial responsibility of a dog.

1. WHY do you want a dog?

Take some time to evaluate WHY you want a dog. The answer will help you decide what kind of dog you want. Do you want a dog as a running partner or to just chill on the couch with you? 

Dogs require time, attention, care, and money. Consider factors such as your budget, work schedule, living situation, and activity level. 

2. Decide on what type of dog you want.

Do you have your heart set on a certain breed? There are plenty of adoptable purebred dogs or mixed-breed dogs. Research different dog breeds and choose ones that align with your preferences and lifestyle. 

For the most part, shelters post the breed they think the dog most looks like. And because Labrador Retrievers are the most popular breed, many times they will list the dog as a “lab mix”. Be open to any breed combination

Factors such as energy levels, grooming requirements, and temperament should influence your decision. Whether you’re an avid runner or prefer a more laid-back lifestyle, there’s a dog breed suited to your unique situation.

3. Create a Dog-Friendly Home

Getting your home ready for a dog before adoption day will help you feel less stressed when the big day comes. Puppy-proof or dog-proof your living spaces by removing potential hazards. Things like chargers, electrical cords, kids’ toys, and shoes all need to be put away and out of the reach of your dog. You would be surprised at what dogs will find to chew on. 

Baby gates and playpens are helpful to keep your dog safe in the first few months while they are getting to know their new home. 

Purchase essential items such as food and water bowls, a comfortable bed, a crate, and appropriate chews and toys. This will help your new dog feel secure and comfortable from day one. 

📖 READ: Puppy Proofing Checklist

brown puppy laying on dog bed in a shelter

Finding a Reputable Dog Rescue or Local Shelter 

Choosing where to adopt your future dog is a very important step in finding the right dog. The key word is reputable. Make sure whomever you choose, they are a nonprofit organization. 

You have many options such as: 

  • Local shelter
  • Local humane society
  • All-breed dog rescue
  • Breed-specific rescue
  • Pet adoption website

Shelters and rescue organizations often have a variety of adoptable dogs seeking loving homes. Visit shelters in your area, attend adoption events, and explore online resources.

If you have your heart set on a purebred dog, then find a rescue that specializes in that breed. They will be your best resource and a great place to find your new best friend.

📖 READ: The 4 Best Adoption Websites for Dogs

📖 READ: What’s the Difference Between a Dog Rescue and Humane Society or Shelter

4. Warning: sick dogs, pet stores, and puppy mills 

Some states have laws in place that make it illegal for pet stores to sell puppy mill dogs. The laws are supposed to help prevent puppy mills, but I just read a story that the puppy mills are now registering themselves as a non-profit rescue as a way around the law. Ask the pet store where the puppy came from and do your research on the rescue they use to get their puppies.

It’s unfortunate but there are rescues out there that are in it just for the money and not for the welfare of the dog. They may have an easier adoption process, but they also adopt sick dogs and dogs that have not been assessed for behavioral issues.

How do I know? Inside our Facebook group, I read stories every day about people adopting a shelter dog and quickly finding out that the dog is sick and has parvo, is leash aggressive, or has other serious behavior issues. This is not to scare you from adopting a dog, it’s to inform you that you need to do your research!

Look for a rescue that shares the same values as you do. The welfare of the dog should be the number one priority. Matching the dog with the right family is crucial to a happy dog and a happy adopter.

Watch for any red flags when adopting a dog. Trust your gut, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t adopt the dog just because you feel sorry for them. In the long run, you nor the dog will be happy.

📖 READ: Red Flags When Adopting a Dog

5. Checking Reviews and Testimonials

To ensure a positive adoption experience, it’s best to check reviews and testimonials about the shelters or rescue groups you’re considering. Previous adopters often share their experiences, providing valuable insights into the organization’s professionalism, transparency, and the overall well-being of the adopted dogs. 

As you navigate the process of finding the right shelter or rescue organization, remember that patience is key. Take the time to ask questions, and gather information. There are plenty of great dogs looking for a new home. Your goal is to find a good match for you, your family, and the new rescue dog.

6. Understanding the Adoption Process and Requirements

Each shelter or rescue organization will have its own adoption process and requirements. Familiarize yourself with the specific steps involved with your chosen organization, including the adoption application process, fees, and any prerequisites. 

Some organizations may require references, proof of residence, or information about your living situation. Be honest and thorough in your responses to ensure a successful adoption process.

You may even need to have a home visit performed. This is an opportunity for them to assess your living environment and ensure it’s safe and suitable for the dog. 

Understanding these requirements helps streamline the adoption process and keep your expectations in check.

📖 READ: How long does it take to adopt a dog? 

📖 READ: Why is it so hard to adopt a dog from a rescue?

brown shelter dog laying on blue blanket

Meeting Adoptable Dogs

Once you’ve chosen where you want to adopt your dog, check their website often, visit their facilities, and attend adoption events. These options will depend on the organization. 

Local animal shelters and human societies usually have open visitation hours. Some keep their website up to date with adoptable dogs, but be aware many puppies get adopted quickly and may not be available once you arrive. 

Small rescues may not have a physical location, because their dogs are living in a foster home. You will need to work with your adoption coordinator to meet each dog that you are interested in. 

Adoption events provide an opportunity to interact with multiple dogs in a controlled environment. Shelters allow you to spend time with individual dogs, observing their behavior and temperament. Take note of the dogs that capture your interest.

7. Asking a Lot of Questions

When meeting adoptable dogs, it’s crucial to ask relevant questions to gather information about their history, behavior, and specific needs. Inquire about their age, any known medical conditions, and whether they have received vaccinations or spaying/neutering. Understanding a dog’s background helps you make an informed decision and ensures that the dog is a good fit for your lifestyle.

📖 READ: 74 Questions You MUST Ask the Shelter BEFORE Adopting a Dog

8. Observing the Dog’s Temperament

Observe the dog’s temperament and behavior during your interactions. Pay attention to how the dog responds to different stimuli, such as meeting new people, encountering other dogs, or reacting to specific sounds. A well-adjusted dog is likely to display friendly behavior, curiosity, and a willingness to engage with you. 

Consider whether the dog’s energy level matches your own and if their personality aligns with what you’re looking for in a dog.

Take your time to connect with different dogs and different breeds, and don’t hesitate to ask for additional information from the adoption counselor. 

📖 READ: Dog temperament testing

white and black dog sitting behind bars of a shelter

Completing the Adoption Process

9. Filling Out the Adoption Contract

Once you’ve found a dog that you want to bring home, the next step is to complete the adoption contract and pay the adoption fees. 

Read the contract in detail, this is not one of those cases you can just sign on the line and not worry about what it says. You want to make sure you are protected in case of an unexpected incident. 

The adoption fees may include vaccinations, spaying/neutering, microchipping, and initial veterinary care. 

Once these steps are completed, you’ll be ready to bring your new dog home.

📖 READ: Dog adoption cost (chart)

black dog laying on deck

Bringing Your New Dog Home

Hooray!!!! The moment you’ve been waiting for! Today is the day all your hard work researching and waiting patiently pays off. 

10. The First Day

Make sure to go shopping for all the supplies you need BEFORE you bring home your dog. Do NOT take your new dog to the pet store on the way home.

Keep the first day low-key. Create a designated space where your new dog can decompress and feel comfortable. Gradually introduce them to different areas of your home, allowing them to explore at their own pace. This helps them feel safe and minimizes stress during the transition. Avoid overwhelming them with too much activity or attention initially.

Never leave the dog alone with kids, ever. 

If you have other pets, introduce them slowly and under controlled circumstances. Follow the second dog protocol.

📖 READ: Why Do Family Dogs Bite Kids?

📖 READ: How to introduce your dog to your current dog.

11. Gradual Integration into Your Daily Routine

Integrate your new dog into your daily routine gradually. Establish a feeding schedule, regular walks, and playtime. Consistency is key in building trust and providing a sense of security for your dog. 

The first few weeks are critical in establishing a bond with your new companion. Be patient, observe their behavior, and offer reassurance. Positive interactions and a supportive environment contribute to a smooth transition for your new dog into their forever home.

📖 READ: The 3-3-3 Rule 

Learn about the 3-3-3 rule in-depth inside our Rescue to Home Survival Kit:

From rescue to home your survival checklist contents

Need more help? Check out The Rescue Dogs 101 Roadmap to adopting your perfect rescue dog in-depth course

Post-Adoption Care

12. Veterinary Care and Vaccinations

Even if your dog had an exam by the shelter vet, schedule a visit to your veterinarian for a thorough health check-up and to establish a baseline for their well-being. 

Keep up with vaccinationsflea and tick prevention, and dental care. Discuss spaying or neutering if it hasn’t been done already. 

Regular veterinary care is essential for maintaining your dog’s overall health and catching any potential issues early.

13. Feeding Your Dog For Health

Good nutrition is crucial for your dog’s energy levels, coat condition, and overall quality of life. If you are planning on changing your dog’s food, make sure to slowly transition so as to not make your dog sick. 

Many shelters and rescues get their dog food donated, and is not always of the highest quality. Feed your dog the best food you can afford. Some options to consider are fresh food, raw food, freeze-dried, or kibble. 

It’s important to provide a balanced and nutritious diet tailored to your dog’s age, size, and health requirements.

📖 READ: Dog Food Transition: A Quick Guide for Healthy Switches

14. Training and Socialization for a Well-Adjusted Dog

Invest time in training and socialization to ensure your dog becomes a well-behaved and socially adjusted member of the family. 

Basic obedience commands, leash training, and positive reinforcement techniques contribute to a positive relationship between you and your dog. Additionally, expose your dog to various environments, people, and other animals to foster socialization skills.

📖 READ: How to train a rescue dog (12 steps with 6 bonus tips) 

mixed breed dog smiling


The process of adopting a shelter dog involves careful consideration, preparation, and a lifetime commitment to providing a loving home. Let’s recap the key steps that have paved the way for a successful adoption:

  1. Preparing for Adopting a Dog: Assess your lifestyle, research breeds, and create a dog-friendly environment.
  2. Finding a Reputable Dog Rescue or Local Shelter: Explore local options, understand the adoption process, and check reviews.
  3. Meeting Adoptable Dogs: Attend events, ask relevant questions, and observe the dog’s temperament.
  4. Completing the Adoption Process: Fill out applications, understand fees, and be prepared for a home visit if required.
  5. Bringing Your New Dog Home: Prepare for the first day, provide a safe space, and integrate your dog into your routine.
  6. Post-Adoption Care: Prioritize veterinary care, nutrition, and training for a well-adjusted and healthy dog.

In adopting a rescue dog, you’ve not only saved a life, and gained a new family member but also become part of a community of dog lovers. 

As you embark on this new journey, remember the importance of responsible dog ownership. Your commitment to your dog’s well-being, ongoing care, and positive engagement fosters a lifelong companionship. Embrace the joys, navigate the challenges with patience, and savor the unique bond that only a dog can bring into your life.

Adopting Your Perfect Dog 101 Roadmap
About the Author

Debi McKee

Debi McKee is the expert behind Rescue Dogs 101 where she guides you in your journey of adopting and raising a rescue dog every step of the way. She is a mom of 3 human kids and 4 dogs and volunteers for a local dog rescue and Humane Society. Click here for more about Debi and her passion for helping you and your dog.

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    1. That depends on the dog and your situation. If the dog is comfortable in a crate and you need to leave them alone then a crate is a great solution. If the dog can not be left alone without getting into mischief, then a crate is a great way to keep them safe.

  1. My husband and I had filled out an application to adopt a dog from the Embrace a Discarded Animal society, and everything was going well until the next day when we brought our dog Ashley to meet the dog.After that when we were finalizing the adoption papers, they said they couldn’t continue as there was some kind of mix up. Then they told us that we could not adopt the dog we chose,for some undisclosed reason. It was Embrace a Discarded Animal society from Blaine Washington.

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