Lessons in adopting second-hand dogs: What I wish I had known

Guest post by Kathryn Welch
Biscuit says: Here are some things you should know about bringing home my fellow adoptable mates. By the way, my buddies and I are available for adoption from where Offbeat Megan got her dogs: Los Angeles’ Downtown Dog Rescue!

In what feels like a different lifetime, but in reality was a mere two weeks ago, we adopted our black Labrador Ruaridh (pronounced “Rory” — it’s Gaelic) from a rehoming centre. Specifically, from the Dogs Trust — a UK charity that takes in dogs from the stray pound and from owners who can’t look after them anymore, and finds them new “forever homes.”

Almost without exception, the adoption centre staff were kind, practical and helpful in supporting us to find our ideal dog. Ruaridh’s an absolute dream, and we wouldn’t be without him for the world. What I found, however, was that dog owning manuals almost exclusively talked about “choosing your puppy from a litter,” and “bringing your new puppy home.” They were of little help in preparing us to visit a hectic, deafening kennel, adopting an almost-fully-grown, bouncy adolescent who’s almost as strong as me, and dealing with two years worth of ingrained good and not-so-good habits. Here’s what I wish I’d known…

1. Be realistic, and go prepared

Every dog you’ll see at a rehoming centre has a “heart-strings” story. Some have been abandoned, some neglected, some separated from a lifelong owner. Without doubt, some of them will be hugely troubled, high-maintenance, badly damaged dogs. Unless you’re super-experienced, have all the time in the world, or are Mother Teresa, many of the dogs you’ll see will simply not be suitable for your lives. You owe it to yourself to adopt the right dog for you, not just the one with the saddest eyes.

We spent a lot of time thinking about the type of dog we wanted (how old, how active, how big), which enabled us to be quite logical amongst the emotion-overload of the adoption centre. Walking down rows of kennels reciting “too old, too small, too bitey” feels like the cruellest thing in the world, but was actually invaluable in narrowing down an almost overwhelming number of dogs.

And, if you don’t see the dog for you… walk away. It will almost certainly take a number of visits before you find “the one.” We found the kennels busy and hectic at the weekends — visiting midweek might give you a wider choice and a calmer environment.

2. Don’t be shy (and don’t expect privacy)

The job of the centre staff is to find the right sort of home for each of their dogs — ultimately, to stop the dogs being placed with unsuitable owners and ending up back at the centre.

As such, prepare to be quizzed. We were asked about our home, our working habits, our plans to have children in future… things you don’t necessarily expect to be asked by a complete stranger. They also came to check out our house and garden. (Tip: Don’t lie — we were sorely tempted to exaggerate the height of our garden fence to make it sound more secure than it was — you’ll be pleased you told the truth when the inspection man gets the tape measure out).

Equally, they expect you to ask questions of them. Try to think ahead and take advantage of the opportunity; it’s pretty much the only chance you’ll get to spot potential problems before you get your new dog home. Ask how your potential new dog behaves around people, other dogs, cats, kids, when being left alone, ask whether they’re house-trained, and ask to see a copy of the vet check report. Forewarned is forearmed, and better to be aware your new dog hates small furry things before it pounces on next door’s cat.

3. Give it time

When you’ve found a potential new member of your family, try to see them away from the noisy, stressful environment of the kennels. We found that incredibly loud and bouncy dogs would calm down almost instantly when you got them out of the kennel environment. We were able to walk Ruaridh for an hour or so on our own, and to sit with him in a summerhouse room where he (and we) could relax in a more normal environment. It helped enormously in getting a sense of how he’d behave at home.

And when you get home with your new dog, give it time. Whilst we fell in love with Ruaridh on day one (and, we like to think, him with us), it took us a while to get to know each other and understand how to get the best out of our relationship. And, on that note…

4. Get help

Obedience classes, without doubt, were the key to Ruaridh’s happiness and our sanity. You may have more experience with dog ownership than we did (which was, precisely, none). But we found training classes an absolute lifesaver in socialising Ruaridh with other dogs, learning how to get the best out of each other and, perhaps most vitally, to realise that we absolutely weren’t unique. The trainer could not have been less fazed by the issues we had, and it was beyond reassuring to meet lots of other owners going through the same stages with their dogs. Try not to feel guilty if your dog barks, pulls on the lead, steals your food and ignores your commands — just seek help and you’ll more than likely find it available in abundance.

Thinking about a new best friend? Do it, and absolutely do it with a rehoming centre. Places like the Dogs Trust save thousands of beautiful dogs from being destroyed, and may well have the perfect dog for you. But it’s not your standard “buying a puppy” experience.

So fellow dog adopters, what else do you wish you’d known in advance?

Comments on Lessons in adopting second-hand dogs: What I wish I had known

  1. I just found this post, and I’m surprised it took me so long.

    When my parents and I were looking for a dog, our only real requirement was that it had to be midsize. We had a German Shepard when I was younger, and he was just too big to handle for us, and my dad refused to get a toy breed dog.

    We found a beagle at our local shelter and the volunteers told us he was vicious and ate babies, etc. He was a little scary around the other dogs, but once it was just the 3 of us, he was fine. Even though they were scared to let us have him, we got to bring him home.

    The night before we picked him up, we went on shopping spree to get all sorts of toys for my 3 year old beagle. We had SO many toys for that dog to play with. We figured since he was vicious (haha), that he’d love to chew on things.

    Dog came home, found his favorite spot on the couch, and sleeps there like 22 hours a day. He wakes up for naps, and doesn’t mind when we play with his ears.

    We also found out that he was crated 20ish hours a day in his old home and abused in the home before that. So he gets very aggressive when he’s near a crate (like his home in the shelter). One of the homes had other dogs that they spent more time with while abusing my dog (so he doesn’t like most other dogs).

    He still doesn’t like other dogs (when he can find them, he isn’t the smartest/I think he’s going deaf/only has one eye), but he doesn’t eat babies. He does have severe separation anxiety, so we schedule things so he doesn’t have to spend too much time alone (I go into work late, my mom comes home for lunch every day, dad comes home early). In general though, he’s a very chill dog who sleeps all day.

    Point is, dogs can be very different at home than at a shelter.

  2. I’ll add another tip, and I’m not trying to sound like a jerk with this one- for an article from a 1st time dog owner a lot of this was solid advice. I always tell clients to make a list of musts and must-nots. ie: if you need something housebroken and under 15lbs and you’re lazy…don’t walk out of the shelter with a German Shepherd puppy because it ‘needed a home’…
    But as someone who works with animals- skip the unique (unpronounceable) name spellings. Your dog can’t read, the only people who’ll need to know your pet’s name are the animal professionals in their life (vets, groomers, trainers, etc), especially in an emergency- you want them to be able to look up your file and call your dog by name immediately. It sucks if they can’t find your chart because the receptionist is looking for something else entirely.

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