How to Choose the Right Rescue Dog

Pre-dog Preparation
choosing a rescue dogs

The short version:

Steps for Choosing a Rescue Dog:

  1. Figure out what type of companion you’re looking for
  2.  Be wary of breed stereotypes
  3. Keep an open mind, looks aren’t everything
  4. Age is important
  5. If you find a potential match, get as much information on the dog as possible
  6.  Take your time

Giving a dog a second chance at life is a super rewarding process, but what goes into choosing a rescue dog? Here are a few things to consider to help you meet your match.

Step 1: Figure out What Type of Companion You’re Looking For

Prior to searching for and choosing a rescue dog, consider what kind of environment and care you can offer. Do you plan on exercising your dog daily? Are you able to provide support for medical issues? Will you commit to regular training? Avoid compromising on these things!

Your new dog will most easily adapt to their home if their lifestyle matches yours. We recommend accepting the obvious advice not to adopt high energy breeds (e.g. Collies, kelpies, shepherds) if you don’t plan on providing the physical and mental stimulation these dogs deserve. In general, you should look for a breed type which matches your energy level. In saying that…

Step 2: Be Wary of Breed Stereotypes

You’ve probably heard that terriers like to chase, dachshunds bark a lot, staffies can be aggressive and greyhounds hate cats. But when you research the dog you’re considering adopting, put aside any major behaviour-related stereotypes you come across because temperament traits aren’t 100 percent hard-wired into animals. While breed and genetics do play a part in shaping behaviour, the dog’s previous environment and experiences are more influential in determining how a dog will behave in response to people, other animals, and novel situations. 

Any breed has the potential to thrive if given appropriate outlets for normal and natural behaviours, and if their life is enriched by regular exercise and mental stimulation.

Step 3: Keep an Open Mind, Looks Aren’t Everything When Choosing a Rescue Dog

You could miss your perfect match if you go to the shelter with an exact vision of what your dog will look like. Some short-coated dogs shed wayyy more than fluffy long-coated dogs and smaller isn’t always easier either. Little jack russell terriers can be higher maintenance than giant mastiffs!

Choosing a rescue dog

Step 4: Age Is Important

A plus side to adopting puppies (in addition to all the cuteness) is that their behaviour is still very malleable, but it’s true they require an intense amount of work. If you’re prepared for the challenge, go for it. 

Most dogs are relinquished to shelters between 8 to 18 months of age during their ‘boisterous’ teenage years. Teenage dogs are high energy and experience a hypersensitive period during adolescence which can lead to increased fearfulness and independence. Be prepared to help your dog through puberty if you’re considering adopting a teenager!

Dogs over two years of age are the best match for owners seeking a quieter companion. These dogs have reached social maturity, are more likely to be toilet trained and show more stable behaviour than puppies or adolescents.

Step 5: If You Find a Potential Match, Get as Much Information on the Dog as Possible

Talk to the staff at the shelter or organisation where you’re choosing a rescue dog about requirements, and cross match this information to the considerations you made prior to searching. Trust the deal-breakers–if the description says no cats or kids, abide by it. Sometimes the requirements shelters and rescues place on potential adopters can seem extreme, but they are only trying to find the best outcome for the dog. 

Taking the dog for a walk and spending some one-on-one time with them can help you vibe if they’re a good fit. Keep in mind that high noise exposure, a lack of human attention and forced close contact with other dogs means the shelter environment is extremely stress inducing. Dogs can act totally different in a relaxed home environment. 

If you don’t feel confident in your ability to judge the dog’s behaviour during the visit, take a trainer along with you! An experienced eye will notice if the dog appears quiet because they are calm, or quiet because they are totally overwhelmed by the conditions.

Step 6: Choosing a Rescue Dog Takes Time

With people spending more time at home than ever, demand for four-legged companions has sky-rocketed. Many shelters and rescues have been inundated with adoptions enquiries, often receiving hundreds of applications for a single dog. 

If you aren’t approved for the first few dogs you apply for, don’t despair. Someone just as great as you may have applied the day before and beaten you to the punch. If you’ve missed out a few times it can also really help to chat to the adoption staff about why, they could even give you some pointers on your application and help it move to the front of the pile.

Megan Hayes is a dog trainer at Bark in the Park and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre.

Getting ready for life with a rescue dog? Get more great advice here.

Images via FreePik.

Written by on for Off The Leash

Article last updated on March 4, 2021

Megan Hayes is a dog trainer at Bark in the Park and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • You’re saving a life.
  • You’re freeing a shelter space for another rescue.
  • Your money is going to support the rescue organisation. 
  • You don’t risk supporting a puppy farm or non-responsible breeder.
  • It’s usually much cheaper. 
  • Rescues are often older, giving you a sense of their personality.
  • Older rescues are often housebroken.
  • Rescues are usually mixed breeds with fewer health issues.

Rescuing a dog will generally have a fee of around $400-$600. This will get you a dog that has been vaccinated, wormed, microchipped, de-sexed and had a vet check to make sure they’re healthy.

Rescue dogs tend to be older, which means they are less impressionable than puppies. Some could also have traumatic pasts which present challenges. But all dogs are able to be trained. They might just take a bit more time and patience. 

On the other hand, many rescue dogs will already have a level of training from their previous owners.

A reputable shelter will not allow a dog to be adopted if they are concerned about safety or aggression. Rescue dogs need to pass several rounds of behaviour testing before becoming available. 

If there are any specific conditions you need to be aware of (not good with kids or other animals etc) they will make it clear to you. Saying that, many dogs benefit from additional training or working with a behaviourist.

Most centres have a window (usually two weeks) where you’re able to bring back the dog and receive a refund. Even after that period, they should take back the animal without judgement. 

Remember: If it’s not a good fit, it’s better for you and the dog for them to be returned to the shelter. That way they can be adopted by someone better suited to their needs.

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