10 Questions to Ask When Getting a Dog From a Rescue or Shelter

Almost daily we get calls from frantic new dog owners that recently adopted a dog from a rescue and they quickly realized they didn’t do their homework or ask the right questions. This article should give you a starting point of what to ask when you want to add a new dog to your family. 

Rescuing a dog is exciting but can also be intimidating. Whether you’re looking at the local shelter or using a private rescue organization, there can be many dogs to choose from. Although you might be tempted to pick the first cute face you see, it’s essential to make an informed choice. Your goal is to provide this dog with a forever home, so know exactly what you’re getting into. The following list of questions will help you choose the dog that’s the best fit for you and your lifestyle.

1. Where did the dog come from?

Dogs end up in shelters and rescues for many different reasons, but each dog’s specific story can provide valuable insight into the challenges you might face. For example, a dog picked up as a stray might have no obedience training whereas a dog surrendered by their owner might already have great manners. Ask for the dog’s detailed history. How long have they been at the shelter or rescue? Why were they surrendered? Were they rescued from an abusive situation? There are no right or wrong answers. It’s all dependent on your experience with dogs and the time and effort you’re prepared to give.

2. How many homes has this dog already had?

Unfortunately, some dogs have a history of being rehomed. If it’s based on behavior issues, you need to be sure you can handle them. However, sometimes dogs go through multiple homes through no fault of their own. For example, an overly energetic dog might be too much for some families but just right for you. Whatever the reason, a dog who has been through several homes might need more patience and longer to adjust.

3. What is the dog’s health status?

It’s important to know what level of veterinary care the dog has received from the shelter or rescue. For example, are the dog’s vaccinations up to date and has the dog been spayed or neutered? Ask for copies of the records. You want to know what kind of care you will need to initially provide. But think long-termtoo. Ask if there are any known health conditions. That will increase the cost of care and may impact the activities the dog can participate in. But of course, your new rescue will repay you tenfold in love.

rescue dog at shelter waiting to go home

4. What breed or mix of breeds is the dog?

If you’re looking for a specific breed there are many rescues that specialize in purebred dogs. However, mixed breeds can be wonderful companions too. Either way, knowing the breed or likely mix of breeds can help you predict the dog’s personality and better meet their needs. A Border Collie is going to be smart but will also need to be kept active and mentally engaged. A Chihuahua might not be the best choice for your new Flyball partner. If you know what to expect, such as energy level and exercise needs, you can make a better assessment of suitability.

5. What is the dog’s personality?

Although breed can tell you a lot, every dog is unique. Ask the shelter or rescue staff what they’ve learned about a particular dog’s likes and dislikes, traits and quirks. For example, are they happiest with a ball in their mouth? Are they food motivated? Do they like alone time or are they a social butterfly? Be aware, if a dog has been in a foster home, more will be known about their temperament than if they have been housed in a shelter.

6. Is the dog potty trained?

All dogs can have accidents when they first move to a new home. But if a dog isn’t housetrained, you need to be prepared for the time and effort required to teach this basic skill. Don’t assume a dog is potty trained just because they’re an adult. Some dogs were simply never taught proper toilet behavior. With the right potty training approach, even a senior dog can be potty trained.

7. Does this dog get along well with children or strangers?

If a dog has been properly socialized, they will usually be comfortable around people of any age or appearance. But many rescue dogs missed out on critical socialization as puppies and therefore feel frightened or anxious around children or strangers. If you have children in your life, a dog with these issues is likely not the right choice. But if you have the expertise and time to work with the dog, you can turn an anxious dog into one who is comfortable around anybody.

8. Does this dog get along with other dogs or other pets?

Again, missing out on socialization can mean a dog isn’t friendly with other animals. This might not be an issue if you live in the country. But if you’ll be walking your new dog in a neighborhood with other dogs, it’s important your dog isn’t reactive or stressed. Are you prepared to put in the effort to countercondition and desensitize your dog to other dogs? And if you have other pets at home, will your new dog fit in? Is the dog comfortable with cats, for example?

A red and white mixed breed dog lying in the grass and receiving a belly rub


9. Does the dog have basic good manners?

It’s unlikely you’ll rescue an Obedience superstar, but dogs in rescues and shelters can vary from fully trained to no training at all. Ask the rescue or shelter staff what behaviors the dog understands, such as sit or stay. Find out the specific verbal cues and hand signals the dog already knows so you can use them at home for a smoother transition. Also ask how well the dog walks on leash. Loose leash walking is tricky for most dogs, so you want to know how much training you’ll need to do. See if you can take the dog for a few walks before you make your decision.

10. Does the dog have any behavior problems?

Ask about problem behaviors. This could be as simple as jumping on people or as serious as resource guarding. Also ask if there are any indications the dog might have separation anxiety. Most importantly, ask if the dog has a bite history. Pretty much any problem behavior can be improved with training and effort, but some will never go away entirely. You may not want the extra responsibility of a dog with issues.

BONUS: 11. Will the shelter or rescue take the dog back if the rescue doesn’t work out?

Although the goal is finding the dog a forever home, rescues don’t always work out. You might find the dog requires more training than you had anticipated or perhaps the new dog doesn’t get along with your current dog. Reputable rescue organizations should take the dog back at any time for any reason. If not, and you have any reservations, then this might not the be the right rescue opportunity for you. Keep in mind there are different types of rescues and shelters.

Remember, these questions aren’t designed for finding the perfect dog. They’re for finding the perfect dog for you. For example, a dog with behavior issues can become a loving companion if you have the experience and time to turn that dog’s life around. Or maybe your new dog sport partner is that ball of energy somebody else couldn’t care for. The point is to learn all you can about a potential rescue dog so you can ensure they fit into your life for the rest of their life.

Get Your Rescue Dog Involved With AKC

All dogs — including rescue dogs and mixed breed dogs — can participate in AKC programs, sports, and events such as Agility, Fast CAT, Obedience, and more! If you have a purebred rescue, you’ll need to enroll as a Purebred Alternative Listing (PAL). If you have a mixed breed rescue, you’ll need to enroll as a Canine Partner. Enrolling will give your dog the opportunity to start earning  titles!

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