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Published: Jan 17, 2024 15 min read

So you’ve decided to adopt a dog. Now what?

There are thousands of Fidos, Milos and Bellas waiting for a forever home in animal shelters nationwide. Read on to learn how to navigate every step of the adoption process.

Table of contents

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How to adopt a dog

Once you set your eyes on your new pet, you’ll probably want to take them home as soon as possible. Use this guide to plan ahead so the adoption process runs as smoothly as possible.

Identify what type of dog you'd like

Dogs are known to have a positive effect on our health and wellbeing. Not only are they loyal companions, but studies on the benefits of dog ownership show that they help reduce stress and loneliness. However, not every dog will be the right match.

Research is key to getting the best dog for your lifestyle, especially if you want to adopt a specific breed or crossbreed. "First and foremost, research the breed. Don't just run out and get the cutest thing you can think of." advises Dr. Karen Halligan, host of Collars and Cents and author of 'Doc Halligan's What Every Pet Owner Should Know'.

"[French Bulldogs] are genetic mutations and have so many abnormal health problems. They have a very short lifespan and a ton of medical problems" she adds. And then there's grooming and maintenance. "Do you want to get a dog like a Goldendoodle? They have to get groomed every six weeks. That's $120 bucks a pop… Figure out if you want a dog that requires high-maintenance grooming or not."

Before adopting any rescue dog, consider the following factors:

  • Age: Puppies demand a lot of attention and effort, requiring daily playtime and exercise as well as potty and obedience training. Older dogs need less attention and exercise, and most are content with lounging on the couch with you.
  • Size: Small dogs are easy to travel with and great for people who live in small apartments. Larger dogs will thrive in a house with a yard or a large apartment with plenty of outdoor spaces nearby, and they can keep up with an active lifestyle thanks to their high endurance.
  • Breed: Animal welfare organizations estimate that about 25% of shelter dogs are purebred. If you're looking to adopt a specific breed, read up on its health profile, exercise and grooming needs before bringing the pooch home.
  • Personality and energy level: Playful and well-tempered dogs without a history of aggression are a good match for homes with young children, while energetic dogs are best matched with experienced dog owners. And if you live with an elderly family member, consider adopting a calm, older dog over a rambunctious, untrained one.

We encourage you to adopt a senior shelter dog if you don’t have the time to care for a puppy. You get to enjoy canine companionship without the commitment of raising a puppy, while a deserving dog gets the chance to live its golden years in a family home. It’s a win-win.

Set up a budget

Dogs bring priceless joy to our lives, but alas, they’re not free. There’s no way around it — your new canine best friend will also come with some new expenses. Here’s a list of the major ones.

  • Adoption fee: Shelter adoption fees range from about $50 to $300. This fee usually covers vet exams, spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations, deworming, tags, collar and a microchip implant.
  • Accessories: Your new dog will need a collar or harness, leash and ID tag right off the bat. If you’re bringing home a new pup, you’ll also need a replacement collar once it grows to its full size.
  • Grooming supplies: Grooming routines vary by dog breed, but most owners will want to invest in a doggie toothbrush, nail clippers and shampoo. Medium to long-haired dogs and dogs that shed will also need a comb, a deshedder brush and grooming clippers.
  • Routine vet expenses: All dogs need annual checkups. Expect to pay $242 a year for a vet exam, annual vaccinations, heartworm prevention, parasite screenings and pet dental care. Consider a small dog if you want to keep these expenses low, as the cost of some of these services is determined by weight.
  • Pet sitting or boarding: You might need a dog sitter if you work long hours away from home or don't have anyone to care for your pup while you travel. Luckily, it's easy to find these services on apps like Rover and Wag. Rates will vary according to the sitter's experience, location and whether it's the holidays.

Many dog owners purchase pet insurance to help cover the costs of unexpected accidents and illnesses. Before purchasing a plan, look into what pet insurance covers and what pet insurance won't cover. Our guide on how to buy pet insurance can help you through the next steps if you decide to enroll your pet.

Another alternative is to establish an emergency fund (ideally in a high-yield savings account), especially for adult dogs that may be too expensive to insure.

Look up local shelters and rescue groups

There are tons of different avenues for adopting a dog: city-run shelters, non-profit shelters, animal rescue groups, breed-specific shelters and more. Most pet adoption centers have online databases and social media pages that let you browse all the pets in their care.

Use our guide to find the best place to adopt a dog, which ranks the top pet adoption centers in the country based on customer reviews. You can also search thousands of shelters on Petfinder, an online database of adoptable dogs nationwide.

Many shelters, like the Humane Society, follow a no-kill philosophy. To be considered a no-kill, the shelter has to find placement for 90% of the animals in their care. (The other 10% are typically animals with severe, incurable illnesses or behavioral issues that warrant euthanasia as a last resort.)

Also, consider supporting a senior dog rescue or sanctuary near you. Older dogs are often overlooked in favor of puppies and may even be euthanized if the shelter is overcrowded. Fortunately, many organizations across the country focus on finding loving homes for sweet, elderly dogs.

Submit an adoption application

Your application must be as detailed (and truthful) as possible, and will usually require you to disclose the following information:

  • Household size and age of its members
  • Whether anyone in your home has pet allergies
  • Number of additional pets
  • Experience caring for other pets
  • Housing situation — do you own or rent?
  • Outdoor space — is there a fenced yard?
  • Contact info for the vet you plan to use
  • Available budget for supplies, routine animal care and emergencies
  • How much time the dog will spend alone each day
  • Expected exercise and playtime routine

You may need your landlord’s permission to bring a dog into the premises if you rent your home. Some shelters may also require a home visit as part of the adoption process.

Failure to meet these requirements doesn’t necessarily mean you’d make a bad dog owner, but it could extend your search. Shelters prioritize forever homes, so keep looking if you’re confident that you can give a dog a happy, healthy lifestyle.

Prepare your home

Your home probably needs some additional furnishings to make it canine-friendly. That includes bowls for food and water, a kennel, crate or dog bed, and some toys. Budget for a baby gate as well, if you want to keep certain rooms like the kitchen off-limits.

Next, pet-proof your house before bringing a dog home. Ensure there aren't any common household toxins or hazards within reach, including over-the-counter drugs, poisonous plants or potential escape routes. Use ASPCA's list of the top ten pet toxins as a starting point.

Identify vets in your area

"Definitely establish a relationship with a veterinarian in your area," says Dr. Lindsay Butzer, DVM at Clint Moore Animal Hospital. "Let them know you're a first-time pet owner because there are so many things that you need to know. Like their vaccine schedules, deworming, their spay and neuter surgery [and when to do these things]."

Finding a vet early on also makes it easy to address any emergency in the future. "If your pet gets into [the wrong] food, gets sick or is vomiting, you want to be able to trust the vet that you're going to and be able to call them quickly to make an appointment and have your pet seen. You also want to know the style of that veterinary practice, if they're open on weekends or if you have to go to an emergency hospital. Every vet is different depending on where you are."

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Adopting VS buying a dog

Dog adoption gives thousands of incredible animals a second chance at a forever home. For people dead set on a specific breed, however, breed-specific shelters or buying from a pet store or breeder might be the more appealing option.

We’ve outlined the pros and cons of adopting and buying below.

Adopting a dog

  • More affordable
  • Gives homeless pets a second chance
  • Lots of options to choose from
  • Great way to find adult dogs
  • Supports animal welfare work
  • Disempowers the puppy mill industry
  • There may be a strict screening process
  • Dog breed history is unclear
  • Puppies are harder to find
  • Specific breeds may be harder to find

Buying a dog

  • Suitable for people looking for a specific breed
  • Access to puppies of all breeds
  • Access to genetic testing
  • More information about temperament and illness predisposition
  • Increased risk of scams
  • More expensive than adopting
  • May involve puppy mills
  • May involve irresponsible breeders

Dog scams are not uncommon, especially in the purebred dog market. Every year, more and more people get fooled into thinking they just bought the dog of their dreams when they’ve actually just paid a scammer hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.

If you’re buying a dog from a breeder, particularly one you’ve found online, look out for any red flags that may signal a scam. Some of these include:

  • Reluctance to show you the dog in person
  • Demanding upfront payment in cash
  • Displaying photos of pups that are sourced from other websites

Working dogs available for adoption

Dogs that are up for adoption come from all sorts of places and have different life experiences. Retired service dogs — military, police or TSA — usually age out of their job or are deemed unfit to work for a specific reason. Eligible caretakers can apply to adopt a retired service dog if the original handler can’t keep it.

From hardworking dogs ready to retire to sweet puppies that failed K9 training, these are the three types of service dogs usually up for adoption.

Retired police dogs

Police dogs are trained to aid in a wide range of police work, but they’re retired after they reach a certain age or are deemed unable to work.

Police dogs may develop work-related anxiety, stress and even aggression due to the high-pressure situations they encounter. The new caretakers must know how to manage these behavioral issues and provide a calm environment, free of any triggers and free of work.

To adopt a police dog, contact your local police department, police training schools or organizations that specialize in retired working dogs, such as Mission K9. Look over the eligibility requirements before submitting your application.

Retired military dogs

Military working dogs (MWD) are trained to detect explosives, patrol, track, rescue and attract. As they age, they may be retired due to medical or age reasons. Many military dogs retire with their handlers, but a small percentage of dogs are put up for adoption. The most popular military dog breed in the U.S. is the German Shepherd, followed by the Belgian Malinois.

Military dogs often retire with high levels of stress and anxiety, meaning they need to retire in a peaceful environment. To apply for adoption, contact military dog adoption centers nearby or a representative of the U.S. Air Force. Due to high demand and a limited number of adoptable dogs, some centers may not take more applicants.

When the time comes, you’ll also have to meet the following requirements:

  • Have U.S. citizenship
  • Meet a six-foot yard fence minimum
  • Have no household members under five
  • Commit to providing appropriate veterinary care, training and playtime
  • Bring a leash, collar, muzzle and crate on pick-up day

TSA dogs

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) puts dogs up for adoption through its Canine Adoption Program. These dogs are deemed unfit for government work mainly because they’re highly active, but that doesn’t mean they're untrainable or unfit for dog parents.

An experienced pet owner can provide the necessary care a TSA dog needs. This includes obedience and house training, playtime, exercises and gradual exposure to children and animals. To apply, send an email to TSA’s adoption coordinator at adoptatsacanine@tsa.dhs.gov.

As with military and police dogs, prospective applicants must meet all eligibility requirements. Currently, the TSA is only accepting applications for canines with medical conditions, but you can find more details on the TSA’s Canine Adoption Program page.

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How to adopt a dog FAQs

How much does it cost to adopt a dog?

Adopting a dog can cost up to $350 in fees alone, depending on the shelter and the services included in the adoption fee. Once you're out of the shelter, additional expenses include food, toys, crates or beds and routine veterinary care.

How old do you have to be to adopt a dog?

You have to be 18 years or older to adopt a dog through most shelters and rescue organizations.

How long does it take to adopt a dog?

It depends on where you're adopting from. Many animal shelters have a screening process that can take several weeks, if not months, and they're often understaffed. Animal rescue groups may take less time, especially if the organization operates on a smaller scale than other shelters.

Why is it so hard to adopt a dog from a rescue?

Adopting a dog from a rescue or a shelter may be difficult because of their strict screening process. Shelters may reject an applicant for reasons including being a renter, having an unfenced yard or working too many hours. There's also a backlog of applications, and prospective pet owners may be placed on a waitlist in the meantime.

Summary of Money’s how to adopt a dog

  • Identify what type of dog you want — think about the dog's temperament and personality and whether you want a purebred or a mixed-breed dog.
  • Set up a budget — consider everything the dog might need on top of medical care.
  • Consider the size of your home and the members of your household.
  • Look up dog shelters, rescue groups and other adopting options like retired military dogs.
  • Establish a relationship with a local veterinarian early on.
  • Pet-proof your home.
  • Make sure you meet all eligibility requirements and submit your application.