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

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)
Published On: February 26th, 2014Categories: Dog Training, Dog Training Tips, dog whisperer


  1. Vince December 16 at 12:46 PM

    Simple fact is, if you want a well-trained, well-mannered, predictable dog who knows you inside and out, a dog you can trust absolutely around other dogs and other people–a pup from a responsible breeder is the only way to go. Most people who talk up shelter dogs have simply never been around truly great dogs. If you just want a little fluffy thing instead of a companion, sure go to a shelter.

    And most shelter dogs are pit bulls. I’m ok euthanizing en masse animals that make up 80% of all dog fatalities.

    Also, how to dare parents have their own kids when there are plenty of good ones in orphanages!

    • Bill May 16 at 7:38 PM

      100% agree. Predictability is the number 1 reason I choose to buy from a responsible breeder. It’s a guessing game as to the lineage of a shelter dog and I prefer to know the personality of the breed that I’m going to be dealing with before hand, especially if children or other pets are involved.

  2. Vince December 16 at 12:49 PM

    This is also full of outright lies. Anyone who has spent ANY time around both shelter and bred dogs recognizes–if they’re not acting in bad faith, as your bleeding heart is–that the shelter ones are WAYYY more likely to have SEVERE behavioral problems. I won’t bother backing this up with statistics, since you didn’t either.

    • Anthony December 19 at 5:31 AM

      Well . . . !

      First of all I begin AND end with facts. Check the American Humane Association and the U.S. Humane Society for the facts I mention plus others — such as that the top reasons for dogs being surrendered have nothing to do with behavior issues (but instead with owners not having enough money, time, or space) — along with related publications, research studies, surveys, and reports.

      Second of all: you say “Anyone who has spent ANY time around both shelter and bred dogs” will agree with you and know that I am “lying”. However, I believe I qualify as someone who’s spent “some” such time? Actually, a bit more. I see and work intensively and personally with between 200-300 dogs a year, of all breeds, ages, sizes, shapes, personality types, AND both shelter/rescues and purchased/bred. Each year. Every year. For the past 9 years as Calm Energy, and many more before that. I am speaking from my own, quite qualified experience. Perhaps you have experience with more dogs than I. Perhaps I’ve just witnessed and interacted with a small, unrepresentiative percentage. Perhaps. :)

  3. Ginny and Joe Deriggi May 7 at 4:47 AM

    We just lost our rescue that we had for only a year. He died of congestive heart failure and blood clot on the lungs. He went downhill in 1 week. We had him at animal hospital and they did all they could to save him. It was heartbreaking. We are an older couple and will probably get another rescue in a few months. We loved this little guy more than you can imagine, but giving love to a pup that is starving for affection is what we need to do. I have had dogs all my life from mutts to pure breeds and last year a rescue. It’s about giving them all the love you have and they will love you back. I do have one suggestion for these shelters. Don’t lie to people about the dog’s age and health. Tell the truth and there will be someone who will want that dog no matter what. Rest In Peace little Eddie, we love you to the moon and back

    • Anthony May 9 at 10:12 AM

      I’m so sorry for your loss! I’ve adopted rescues my entire life, and saying goodbye to each and every one has been a tear-soaked process affair that never ends. But we know we gave them the best lives they ever could’ve had. If I could cuddle little Eddie and give him a bellyrub right now, I would. :)

  4. Neil September 20 at 4:00 AM

    I recently adopted a 7 month old puppy name Tobey from the local shelter. He is my first dog so I was worried he would see through my inexperience as a trainer and become troublesome. He ended up being the sweetest most obedient dog I’ve encountered. Many of my friends own dogs that they have purchased from breeders. They all wish their dog had the same calm yet playful temperament as mine. Tobey doesn’t bark, doesn’t bite, and doesn’t potty in the house. He was already housebroken and in good health when I brought him home. I am very happy to have adopted him and would encourage more people to consider rescuing before buying a pet.

    • Anthony September 28 at 7:44 PM

      Such a great story Neil! Kudos to you, keep spreading the word!

  5. Joey March 19 at 10:31 AM

    This is a one sided argument. Let’s take a REAL look at some of the real cons of adopting from a shelter or rescue agency:
    1. If there are no breeders then pure breds will eventually become a rarity. We do not want to see labs, huskies, shepherds etc all cease to exist because people only adopt. What people SHOULD do is support good breeders and not bad ones.
    2. Many times, buying a rescue dog is NOT cheaper. One rescue agency lied and did not disclose to me that their pup had mange. If I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out on my own it could have given my husky mange when I brought her home, costing me more money in vet bills than a purebred dog would cost to purchase. Additionally, if a dog has health problems that need addressing, that runs up your cost very quickly. So the $125 “rescue” fee can quickly turn into a $1,125 rescue fee.
    3. Training. If you get a dog from q shelter or rescue agency, they may have behavioral problems that are very difficult to break once the dog is fully grown. If they are victims of abuse it becomes even harder. If you purchase a puppy from a breeder, you get to train it from the moment it is a small pup. Note: there are also puppies at rescues and shelters you can adopt.
    Overall rescue agencies and shelters are great. I have owned pets from them…. but please please please do not feel guilty for purchasing from a breeder. We need purebred dogs just like we need non- pure breds. Do NOT be fooled by the claim that adopting a rescue dog will guarantee you a friendly warm family pet, or that it will be cheaper than a purebred… because many times it will not. And I speak from personal experience here.

    • Anthony April 7 at 9:04 PM

      Some valid points here, about financial costs at least. I disagree strongly with two points however:

      1) Why do “We need purebred dogs”?

      2) Although rescues can come from traumatic pasts, purebred puppies can have unknown innate tendencies that will only emerge when the dog reaches full maturity, typically around 1.5-2 years of age. E.g. resource guarding, prey drive, dominant aggression, herding behavior . . . Whereas if you adopt an adult dog, or even a young “teenage” 1yo, you can pretty well screen for these tendencies from the outset.

      • Jack Senden May 18 at 9:37 AM

        I learned the hard way when adopting, GO TO THE SHELTER and meet the dogs, interact with them, and pick one that similar to your wish list AND IS INTERESTED IN YOU and positive about you. I adopted based on a picture, description and phone call. The shelter only puts forth dogs they determine have good temperaments. But most of their volunteers are women. The first time I reached to pick up my 1 yr old rescue to take him outside—he was pooping in my dining room—he screamed (not barked, not howled) nd turned round and bit me. He adores my wife, follows her around. He’s friendly to me but occasionally will just run from me. And if I reach toward him he will bare his teeth and scream if I get near him. I wanted another dog; my wife didn’t. He now spends more time with her than with me. I just tell them to take him back, right? Can’t . My wife’s in love with the little guy

        • Anthony May 18 at 9:05 PM

          Yeah that’s a great point — go meet lots of dogs in person if you can, and learn about their personalities and see how you connect. If you haven’t had the dog for long though, lots can change . . . shower him with love, food, walks, play, bellyrubs . . . he very well could be a daddy’s boy in a few months!

  6. Rohit July 23 at 5:26 AM

    Hi. After contemplating for a while , we ( my wife and I) have finally decided to add a pet to our family. We do not want our pet to be on a leash and would obviously shower loads of love on it. There is a breeder near my home and i paid him a visit to enquire about husky puppies. I also came across some adoptions articles and would love to adopt but my fear is that would not a dog who has had a traumatic past show the traits of that trauma in its behaviour? Even though they live in the present but wouldn’t the past in some way effect their present?

    • Anthony July 23 at 8:25 AM

      First of all, not all — or even most — rescue dogs had traumatic pasts! Far and away the most common reason for dogs to be “surrendered” to shelters is the owners moving or not having the financial resources or time to take care of them adequately. Second of all, dogs bought from a breeder can grow to have innate behavior issues like fear/aggression around children, home guarding behavior, biting, resource guarding, prey drive and predatory drift . . . These are mostly issues you won’t know until the dog reaches around 1-2 years of age. Again, with rescue dogs you can go meet them and get to know them in their adult or at least post-puppy version! Best of luck either way — dogs are dogs and I wish you the best!

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