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Adopting a shelter dog will be one of the most life-changing, rewarding experience for you and your family. 

Whether you are about to adopt your first rescue dog or your fifth, the dog adoption process can be confusing, scary, and even frustrating. 

I’ve been through the process of adopting a dog seven times over the past two decades and I’ve learned something new each time. 

And as a foster home for rescue dogs, we’ve been on the other side of the adoption process too.

It doesn’t have to be scary or complicated, which is why I want to help you on your journey of adopting a shelter dog!

Adopting a dog checklist and tips

Below are the steps you will go through when adopting a dog. Every shelter or rescue will have their own requirements and processes, so use this as a guideline. 

  1. Prepare to adopt a dog
  2. Search for a reputable shelter or rescue
  3. Fill out an adoption application
  4. Receive a home visit approval
  5. Wait to be approved to adopt a dog
  6. Search and wait for your perfect dog you want to adopt
  7. Meet the dog and ask questions
  8. Fill out the adoption contract
  9. Bring your dog home
  10. Be patient while your dog adjusts to his new home
two puppies sitting behind bars of a shelter

Prepare to adopt a dog

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

Expect the worse, hope for the best. 

The expense of a dog doesn’t stop at the adoption fees. You will have monthly expenses for food, treats, bones, training and health care. A dog can cost thousands of dollars every single year for the next 10+ years.

Dogs need a lot of your time and attention. Can you be home to let them outside and take walks every single day? 

What will happen if you need to move to an apartment that does not accept dogs, where will the dog go? 

What will you do if the dog has separation anxiety

Most rescued dogs need time to adjust to a new home. Are you willing to be patient and wait several months or even years for your new dog to trust and bond with you?

Here are 18 Things to Know Before Adopting a Dog

Search for a reputable shelter or rescue

The big question… does the dog or shelter come first? 

If you use a website like PetFinder, then searching for a dog will come before researching the shelter. Which is fine, but don’t fall in love with that dog before ensuring the shelter or rescue is reputable.

The word reputable is key in finding a shelter or rescue to adopt your dog. 

It’s unfortunate but puppy mills still exist and have been known to be passing themselves off as a “rescue”. I’ve walked into many pet stores that say “adopt”, when it’s clear they got it from a puppy mill.

Ask friends, family, and neighbors where they adopted their dog. Ask what their experience was with the shelter. Look up reviews online using Google and Facebook. 

Visit the shelter if possible. Is it clean, will they allow you to walk through the kennels?

Ask more questions than you think necessary. The more questions the better. 

What to avoid when adopting a dog

Here are some red flags to watch for when adopting a dog. If any of these situations occur, turn away and find another rescue.

  • The rescue won’t let you meet the dog before adopting
  • The rescue hasn’t interviewed you
  • The dog looks sick… check ears, mouth, and paws
  • The dog looks overly calm… could be medicated
  • The shelter worker is pressuring you to adopt immediately
  • The rescue doesn’t have a contract
  • The shelter says the dog is perfect… no dog is ever perfect
  • The dog has not been seen by a vet and has no medical records/history
  • The dog can’t be approached, and won’t stop barking or growling 

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.

Fill out an adoption application

Every reputable shelter or rescue will have some sort of application process. Some applications are more detailed and have more requirements than others. 

What Are the Most Common Dog Adoption Requirements?

The adoption requirements will vary depending on the shelter, humane society, or rescue. Check with them directly. Most will have their requirements listed on the website.

· Most animal adoption agencies require you to be 18-21 years old.

· Either own a home or have approval from your landlord to have a dog

· Assume responsibility for proper food, water, shelter, regular exercise, and veterinary care.

· Proof current pets are up to date on vaccinations and health care.

· Some rescues require you to have a fence or experience with specific breeds.

If you run into a rescue that has very strict rules, that will not allow you to adopt, then I recommend keep searching. Don’t give up, there are so many dogs needing a home… the right one is out there for you!

Adoption Application Tips

First and foremost, always tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Never lie on a dog adoption application. Even if you want to adopt a particular dog from a rescue that requires a fence and you don’t have a fence. 

Trust me… that rescue is going to perform a home visit and will soon find out that you do not have a fence. Then you wasted your and the shleters valuable time. 

The application process can be tedious, but it’s there so the shelter can match you with the best dog for your family.

Be open and honest with all of your answers. If it was meant to be, then it will happen. Don’t get caught up in the excitement of adopting a particular dog and say or do anything to get that dog.

Pet Adoption Love Letter

I first learned about the lover letter when we purchased our home a few years ago. The housing market exploded, and sellers were receiving multiple offers on open house day! Adding a love letter to our offer helped us get the home we wanted.

If there is a particular dog you want to adopt, consider writing a letter to the shelter or foster home. 

The letter should describe why you feel you would make a great home for this dog. What type of life you can offer, and how you will give everything the dog could ever need or want. How you will take this dog for walks every day, play his favorite game of ball… you get the idea.

Including references from friends, your vet, and your dog trainer. Do you belong to any groups, taken courses? You are reading this blog… you could mention you’ve done extensive research before deciding on adopting this dog.

Put your heart into this love letter, but always be honest, and don’t get too attached to a dog. There could be many more people wanting the same dog, or the dog could already be in the adoption process.

Adopting a Dog Process application denied

What should I do if my dog adoption application is denied?

If your application was denied because you work 12 hours a day or because you have had to surrender a dog in the past. Then it’s time to reflect on why you want to adopt a dog. Are you truly ready to adopt a dog?

If your application was denied because you don’t have a fence or prior experience, keep searching for a rescue that will adapt to you. 

Most rescues are started by people with a love for animals and they just want them to have the best life possible. But sometimes that love clouds the reality that no person or family is perfect.

Receive a home visit approval

Some rescues will require a home visit before they approve your application. 

One of my volunteer positions is to perform home visits and ask four pages worth of adoption interview questions. 

Expect to be asked about the following:

  • Do you own or rent your home? If renting, do you have permission from your landlord?
  • Is your yard fenced?
  • Who all lives in the house and what are their ages?
  • Do you have any other pets in the house? Are they all up to date on their health care?
  • Why do you want to adopt a dog?
  • What experience do you have with dogs?
  • How many hours will the dog be home alone each day?
  • Where will the dog sleep?
  • What is your energy level? Will you be taking the dog for long walks or runs?
  • How do you plan on exercising the dog?
  • Have you ever taken a dog training course before?
  • What type of training methods have you used?

These are just the most common. Expect even more questions from rescues, and maybe less from a shelter.

Wait to be approved to adopt a dog

Many rescues are volunteer-run, so be patient. A shelter or humane society’s approval process is usually quicker and less detailed. 

The approval process can take a few minutes at a shelter or several weeks through a small rescue organization.

Jump below to How Long Does Dog Adoption Process Take?

brown puppy laying on dog bed in a shelter

Search and wait for the perfect dog you want to adopt

Now that you are approved to adopt a dog through a particular shelter or rescue, start searching for your perfect match.

Don’t rush this stage, will have this dog for 10-15 years or more!

What to look for when adopting a rescue dog

Look for a dog that matches your energy and personality. A higher-energy dog would be good for you if you live a very active life. But if you work 60-hour workdays, then you need a lazy dog… good luck with that, LOL.    

Find a dog that is healthy unless you are prepared to nurse the dog back to health and take on all the medical costs that come along with it.

If you have kids, adopting a rescue dog that has been proven around children is important.

Look for a dog that isn’t too clingy, as this could be a sign that the dog has separation anxiety.

Learn more about how to find your perfect dog.

white and black dog sitting behind bars of a shelter

Meet the dog and ask questions

Reading a dog’s bio online is a good start but meeting the dog in person allows you to get a much better feel about the dog’s health, demeanor, and personality.

It’s also important to remember when meeting a shelter dog that they are in a scary environment. And the way dog acts in a shelter or even a foster home will be very different from how they will be in your home.

If possible, ask to take the dog for a short walk outside and spend as much time together as you can.

Perform your own interview and ask a lot of questions about the dog you are interested in. These questions are going to ensure you find a reputable rescue and a healthy dog.

I have created a complete dog adoption questionnaire form just for you.

From rescue to home your survival checklist contents

Fill out the adoption contract

Once you found the perfect match and you are ready to adopt your dog, you will be asked to fill out the adoption contract.

The adoption contract should cover both you and the shelter in case the dog is not what you expected once you bring them home.

Many contracts will request you return the dog to the shelter/rescue if you decide not to keep the dog.

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.

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

Bring your dog home

Hooray!!!! It’s time to bring home your new rescue dog. The day you’ve been waiting for.

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.

Ensure the safety of your new dog and puppy-proof your home, even if you are adopting an adult dog.

Introduce your new dog to the outside before bringing them inside the house. Keep the first few days low-key to not overwhelm the dog.

Never leave the dog alone with kids, ever. Read Why Do Family Dogs Bite Kids?

If you are bringing your new dog home to an existing dog, then make sure to follow the second dog protocol.

  1. Be patient while your dog adjusts to his new home

Your dog has been through some traumatic life experiences. They need time to decompress and get to know YOU before anything else.

Your dog will go through phases of adjustment, sometimes referred to as the honeymoon phase or 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

How Long Does Dog Adoption Process Take?

Every shelter, humane society, and rescue will have its own adoption process. The time to adopt a dog can range from a couple of hours to weeks to months.

Adopting a dog from a Humane Society or Shelter

Hours to Days – When adopting from your local humane society or shelter, you can adopt a dog and bring him home within a couple of hours.

This option is great for those that want instant gratification and just cannot wait. But I will warn you, you will know much less about the dog you adopt than if you choose to go through a foster-based rescue.

Foster-Based Dog Rescue Adoption

Days to Weeks to Months – You can expect a volunteer-run rescue to take the longest, but they can also have the most benefits. It can take a day to weeks or even months.

To give an example, the rescue I volunteer for requires several steps before one can adopt a dog. Filling out an application, background checks, phone interviews, home visits, and a minimum of 24-hour waiting period before adoption. I know it sounds like a lot, but all these steps ensure that the dog is going to the right home.

You can learn more about the differences between a shelter, humane society, and rescue by reading What’s the Difference Between a Dog Rescue and Humane Society or Shelter.

What’s Next?

I recommend you head over to our adopting page next: Tips for Adopting a Rescue Dog. It’s full of all the information you need in your journey of adopting a dog.

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

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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