A First-Timer’s Guide to Adopting a Shelter Animal

Wondering how to adopt a shelter pet? This shelter volunteer and Dog-mom suggests these tips for bringing home your first shelter pet.
We’re at a time in life when a lot of people are making big changes. People are switching jobs, getting engaged, moving to new cities, getting married, buying houses, and so many other things. Another big decision you might be faced with is adding a furry family member to the mix.

Many people get settled into a job, a place, or a new lifestyle, and then realize something in their life has been missing. Getting a pet can be a big and wonderful life change.

As someone who has both adopted a dog from an animal shelter and worked for an animal shelter, I am a big advocate of adopting animals into your family. And as with those other life changes — most of which people don’t rush into without doing their research or building relationships — adding a pet to your family is not something into which I would suggest rushing.

First, I suggest asking yourself some basic questions:

  1. How often am I home?
  2. How much exercise do I get and can I include an animal in that? How often am I away from home?
  3. Will I have help to care for this pet?
  4. What kind of animal fits my lifestyle?

These are just some of the questions that are important to ask yourself before researching animals or walking into an animal shelter and being seduced by their furry little faces. When it comes to getting a pet, it’s easy to see their cute little faces and forget that this is a lifetime commitment.

For those of you who have answered some of those questions and have settled on getting an animal from an animal shelter instead of a breeder, this guide is for you.

Where to adopt

Before you go to adopt an animal, doing some research about what kind of shelters there are in your area can also be really helpful. In most areas, there are not only Humane Societies, but also breed-specific rescues and animal controls that do adoptions. There are multiple options!

So after all the research and preparation, then comes the actual adoption process.

How to adopt

When you go to the animal shelter, first make sure you learn how things work. I’ve found the most successful customers in a shelter are ones who figure out how it works and how to deal with the animals appropriately.

Ask the employees where to find the animals you’re interested in, if there’s information on the kennels about the animals, what the process is for getting an animal out of their room, kennel, etc.

Who to adopt

After all of these questions, all of the research, and all of the information that the ideal customer has gleaned, it is finally time for the best part: their furry little faces.

Take some time to wander around the shelter. Spend time reading bios of animals if they’re posted, seeing how the animals react to you in their kennels, or go into the community rooms that the cats are in. (But please follow shelter rules. Those rules are for the safety and comfort of all customers and the animals!) Once you have found that irresistible furry face that you cannot resist, there are a few things I suggest.

Follow these tips to adopt your first shelter animal.

Spend more time with that animal

If it’s a cat, go to the colony room or kennel it’s in and try to see how it likes receiving attention from you. Think about the things that will be important to you out of a cat — do you want it to really enjoy being petted? Do you want to be able to pick the cat up? If you can, try those in small amounts. Ask someone on the adoptions staff if they have any meet-and-greet rooms you can take the cat to to spend more time with it.

Pro tip: be cautious. Cats will tolerate a lot but don’t enjoy all the things humans want from them; pay attention to how the cat responds. It’s easy to forget that these animals are sentient beings, so finding a balance between seeing if this might be the pet for you and letting them have their feelings is always an important balance to find.

With dogs, there are several things I would recommend trying when still at the shelter. If you’re planning on taking the dog out a lot once you adopt it, make sure you pay attention to how the dog walks on a leash. You should be able to take it out on at least a short walk, and depending on the dog, see how it walks with you, how easy it is to get it on a leash, etc.

If a dog has particular problems with those things, hopefully the adoptions staff will let you know that ahead of time, but it’s good to see for yourself. It will give you a sense of how much training you might have to do on those things.

Similarly, there are fixes — if you’re willing to put in the effort — so not every behavior needs to be a deterrent from adopting. For instance, if a dog pulls on a leash a lot, a harness is always an option for them (I actually highly recommend it!). If there are behaviors you’re concerned about, talk to the shelter staff. Even if there isn’t a solution, they can point you toward resources. And if you don’t end up adopting that animal, it’s good for them to know.

Make sure you take time with the dog in the different settings — both inside and outside — that the shelter offers. You can always ask the employees if they have toys you can borrow to play with when you’re getting to know the dog, you can test playing fetch, getting the dog to give toys back, and other such things.

If you’re thinking about taking your dog to dog parks or hanging out with your friends’ dogs, ask if the dog has been around other dogs at the shelter. Some shelters, if they don’t know the answer, are willing to test that dog around other dogs before you adopt them.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask about the history of an animal. Worst case scenario, a shelter either won’t be able to share it with you or won’t have one if the animal was a stray or a transfer into the shelter.

A lot of times, however, these histories include information about whether or not a dog or cat is house-trained or litter-box trained, whether or not they are good with other animals, whether or not they are crate-trained, what kinds of things that they like or of which they are afraid.

This animal is becoming a part of your home, and this history could help you to have the smoothest transition possible.

The shelter staff is there to help

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to get help. Talk to the shelter staff about the best ways to transition a pet into a new home and introduce the pet to necessary training like using a litter box, crate-training, or housebreaking. If they don’t have the knowledge, they are likely able to point you to other resources that will.

Additionally, ask to see if they have any recommendations or references for positive-reinforcement trainers. It’s important when committing to have a pet that you also commit to continuing your education around caring for them.

If we spent half of the time, money, and intentionality on our pets as we did our other big life-decisions, it would be an easier transition for everyone. While we want to hope that every adopted animal will adjust right away to the new environment, it takes time, work, and commitment to integrate a new pet into our lives.

I hope that these tools help more people go into a shelter with confidence and adopt the perfect new furry member into their family.

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