Are There Disadvantages to Adopting a “Shelter Dog”? (NO!)

I recently contributed my opinion to an article on the pros and cons of adopting “shelter dogs”. It amazes me how frequently new owners I meet attribute particular problems or characteristics of their dogs to the fact that they were rescued from a shelter. If the dog is hyper, it’s because they’re a rescue. If instead they’re wary and reserved, it’s because they’re a rescue as well. If they have anxiety, it’s because they’re a rescue. If they’re leash-reactive, it’s because they’re a rescue. And so on. I’ve never seen any legitimate generalizations that apply to shelter dogs as a whole any more than to dogs adopted or purchased from a breeder. Below is my opinion and some interesting facts about shelters and shelter dogs.

It is widely believed that so-called “shelter dogs”, or “rescues”, have inherent problems that dogs purchased from a pet store or breeder do not. For years I’ve worked day in and day out with both purchased dogs and dogs adopted from shelters, and I have never found the shelter dogs to be worse. Some of the most problematic dogs with the worst behavior I’ve worked with came from expensive breeders, while some of the sweetest, smartest, most loyal and obedient family pets were adopted after being bounced around among many shelters and foster families.

Why then does this misapprehension persist? First of all people think that shelter dogs must have been given up for a good reason. However, many shelter dogs are taken in as strays. And even most of the ones that were voluntarily relinquished by previous owners don’t have behavior problems that render them unadoptable. The number one reason for relinquishing a dog is “moving”. Other top reasons given are “not enough time,” cannot afford care,” “allergic,” and “new baby.” (From AHA)

Even more common is the thought that the shelter environment, and bouncing around from one to another, leads to behavior problems. True, shelter dogs are often starved of adequate exercise, socialization, and leadership. However, give them the things they need to be fulfilled, and most dogs make a full recovery and make perfectly adoptable, happy, social, friendly, calm family pets. By the same token, if you don’t fulfill those needs for a dog you buy from a breeder, you’ll run into just as many problems.

Why, you might wonder, AREN’T shelter dogs more aggressive, resentful, depressed, anti-social, and overall more problematic? Toss a human child into the streets alone, then bounce him from home to home every six months, housing him in loud spaces packed with other screaming kids, and deprive him of physical, mental, and social stimulation, and you’re bound to have a “problem child” on your hands. Why ISN’T this the case with dogs? The reason is that dogs live in the moment, they live in the now. They don’t pine over their missed opportunities like humans do; they don’t wallow in self-pity; they don’t hold grudges against the people and forces that kept them down for so long; and they don’t have egos that keep them from settling down and becoming just normal, calm, happy social creatures, as soon as they’re shown how and given the chance to be.

In short, then, what are the pros and cons of adopting shelter dogs? Here is my take:

Pro #1: You don’t kill a dog. Instead you save a dog’s life. Every dog purchased from a breeder signs the death warrant of some fully adoptable, friendly, social, loving dog in a shelter just dying to join some family happy.

Pro #2: There is often lots of information available about the dog’s temperament, likes and dislikes, and suitability for various living situations. Unlike with dogs from pet stores – and even from breeders, especially for puppies – many shelters have performed temperament tests on all of their dogs, and know from previous owners what a good fit will be for them.

Pro #3: Dogs that have had a rough life can be the most loyal and appreciative of simple pleasures and a stable home. There is no joy more heartwarming than watching my twelve-year-old rescued Italian Greyhound – who was locked in a cage for nine years and all of whose teeth had to be removed due to painful infection – manically gum a bully stick for hours in sheer bliss.

Pro #4: Almost always cheaper than buying from a breeder or pet shop.

Cons: none. Well, maybe not. If money truly is the root of all evil, then since adopting a shelter dog will save you money, adopting a shelter dog will leave you with more money and so will cause you more problems. Somehow, though, I think that is a problem that most people won’t mind having.  😉



Because I don’t see any inherent difference between so-called “shelter dogs” and dogs that never set foot in a shelter, my tips to anyone adopting a shelter dog are the same as my tips to anyone taking stewardship of any dog at all. These tips are to provide three main essentials, every day, and as abundantly and consistently as possible:
1. Exercise. Every dog needs to get tired out, usually in the morning and then again in the afternoon/evening. This is best accomplished by offleash running and playing.
2. Socialization. Dogs, like humans, are social animals. Every dog should romp every day offleash with other, unknown dogs. Offleash is important because only then can dogs communicate most naturally and feel least threatened. Unknown dogs are important because becoming social means learning to deal with, communicate properly to, and properly interpret the body language of hyper dogs, dominant dogs, fearful dogs, old dogs, young puppies, and so on.
3. Leadership. All dogs are “working” dogs; over the course of thirty-thousand years, humans literally genetically engineered dogs to do as we ask – and to to WANT to do it. Dogs crave assignments, and follow your lead. Work regular obedience rituals in your home, out on leashed walks, and offleash in the dog park every day.


Over the past forty years, the number of shelter dogs put to death has been chopped by nearly three-quarters. Great strides have been made in my lifetime, thanks in large part to the rise of online resources and a heightened global awareness of the need to “adopt not shop”. This heartwarming statistic is dangerous, however, because still over two million perfectly healthy and friendly dogs remain unadopted every year – whether sentenced to death or simply to life behind bars. At the same time, around eighty percent of dog owners – almost seventy million – choose to leave those fully adoptable shelter dogs for dead, and instead contribute even further to the problem by purchasing their family pet from a breeder. (From HSUS)