How to Adopt a Dog: Step-by-Step Guide

An animal sheter employee sits with a dog and a couple ready to adopt

There’s nothing quite like the excitement of adopting a dog. A new furry family member can bring so much love and warmth to a home. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the joy of it all. You might be buzzing with questions like:

The reality, though, is that when you adopt a dog, there are more important questions to ask yourself before you jump to where and how to adopt. Adopting a dog is a lifetime commitment, so finding a pet that best fits your home, family and lifestyle is critical.

This step-by-step guide will address all the steps you should take before, during and after the dog adoption process as well as what to know before adopting a dog and questions to ask when adopting a dog.

Step 1: Finding a Dog to Adopt

Adopting a dog is a big decision – one that shouldn’t be taken lightly and should involve everyone in the household. Before you start researching where to adopt a dog, a good overarching question to think about is: Should I adopt a dog? Here are a few questions and conversation starters to consider when deciding whether to welcome a new dog into your home.

1. What is the Makeup of Your Family and Home Life?

Whether you live in a quiet home or a bustling one, the family dynamic and homelife is an important factor to consider when adopting a dog. This includes human family members as well as animal companions you currently have in your home. Finding a dog that gets along well with the humans and pets in the house is the ultimate goal.

2. What Are Relationships Like in Your Home?

This may seem like an odd question to ask when considering dog adoption, but if there are tense relationships in a home, dogs can sense them. This can, in turn, cause stress on your pet which can later lead to health problems. If there’s tension in the home in any way, it’s best to resolve it before bringing a new pet home.

3. Which Dog Breeds Are Best Suited for Your Family, Home and Lifestyle?

Carefully considering breeds and whether they’re suited for you and your family is an important pre-adoption exercise – because every dog breed has unique characteristics. If you’re looking for a dog to snuggle and lounge with, a high-energy Jack Russell Terrier may be a lot to handle. However, if you enjoy getting outdoor exercise or plan to make the dog park a regular spot for you and your dog, a Jack Russell Terrier may be a great fit. You may also consider a mixed breed dog. Many of them embody unique personality traits from the individual breed characteristics they inherit.

4. Is Your Home Fit to Keep a Dog Safe and Secure?

Whatever your living situation may be, ensuring that your home can safely secure a pet is another necessary consideration when thinking about dog adoption. Are you able to keep your dog from wandering off your property? Can you keep your dog away from high traffic areas and avoid run-ins with roaming animals, wild or owned? Or if you live in an apartment, condo or neighborhood run by a homeowner’s association, are there rules that may prevent you from bringing a dog home?

5. Are There People Who Can Provide Care for Your Dog in Your Absence?

It’s wise to start thinking about who might be the primary caretaker for your pet. Is there someone in your home who is willing to be the designated caretaker? Will it be a team effort amongst you and other family members? Who would care for the dog in the event you and your family leave town on vacation? Keeping a dog sitter in mind for these types of situations is a proactive step that’s worth thinking through as well.

Step 2: Preparing for Dog Adoption

At this stage, you’ve decided to adopt a dog. Maybe you’ve even found a dog to adopt. The next step is to start thinking through the reality of bringing a dog home. Here are a few questions to consider as you’re preparing.

1. Have You Puppy- or Dog-Proofed Your Home?

You’ll want to make sure all items you don’t want your dog to get ahold of are safely put away. Invest in a pet gate if you need to keep certain areas enclosed or off limits. Think about safeguarding the backyard as well.

2. Do You Have All the Necessary Items for Welcoming a Dog Into Your Home?

A collar, leash, tag, food and water bowls, crate, dog food and toys are all items to put on your shopping list to purchase before your dog comes home.

3. Are You Prepared for the Costs Associated With Adopting a Dog?

Dog adoption isn’t typically free. Most shelters and rescues have adoption fees in place. Moreover, once you bring a puppy home, taking them to the veterinarian for regular visits is important to maintain their health. Be sure you’re prepared for annual vet bills as well as the costs associated with grooming, boarding, monthly flea/tick and heartworm treatments and emergency vet care. These are all important financial aspects of pet care.

Step 3: Going Through the Dog Adoption Process

Shelters or rescues are arguably the best place to adopt a dog. There are many quality dog adoption agencies and rescue organizations where you can find a lifelong companion. And the best part is that when you adopt a rescued dog, you save a life.

When you adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue, know that each one is different, but most have a process for meeting and vetting potential adopters. Sometimes you’ll walk into a shelter, express interest in a dog and go through an application process to be properly vetted. Other shelters and rescues may operate differently with no clear process or steps to adoption, however. If you find that the process is difficult to understand, there are questions you can initiate to get a better understanding of the dog you’re interested in and what an organization’s adoption process entails.

  1. Has the dog received any kind of medical care?
  2. Does the dog have special medical needs?
  3. What policies are in place for adopting or rescuing this dog?
  4. Are there policies in place in the event I need to relinquish the pet?
  5. Are there support resources I can access after adopting?

As previously mentioned, it’s important to know that adopting a puppy or dog isn’t free. There are often adoption fees which are associated with the costs of caring for the dog while in the shelter or rescue. These fees can go toward food and nutrition, lifesaving vaccines, spay or neuter surgery or other forms of medical care.

Step 4: Bringing Your New Dog Home

Bringing home a new dog can be an exciting experience, but for the dog, it may be a time of fear and confusion. They’re encountering a completely new environment for the first time, so it’s crucial to give them the proper care and attention during those first few days. Here are a few tips for a smooth transition.

Develop a clear structure with your family members so that you have a plan, that at minimum addresses:

  1. Who will feed the dog and how often?
  2. Who will let the dog out to relieve itself and how often?
  3. Who will play with the dog or take them for a walk – and how often?
  4. Where will the dog sleep?

Also remember to dog- or puppy-proof your home. Much like childproofing a home, you’ll want to secure any loose cords or wires, household chemicals or breakable items. Some of this can also be managed by setting up a crate or baby gate for moments when you can’t keep a watchful eye on your new pet.

Make sure you’ve purchased all the new items your pet will need in their new home. Food and water bowls, a leash, collar and tag, and crate are common essentials. Play items, such as squeaky toys and chew toys, are also good to have on hand. However, supervised play is important during the early stages to determine how destructive your new dog can be. You’ll eventually find that certain types of toys may be off limit for safety reasons.

Post-Adoption Support

All these steps may feel overwhelming, but they’re key to ensuring you’ve properly planned and prepared for how to adopt a dog. Taking these necessary steps can make all the difference as you welcome a new pet home, but that’s not to say the road will always be easy. While preparation is important and can help you spot red flags when adopting a dog, the process isn’t foolproof.

As another way to safeguard and make the experience as seamless as possible, be sure to ask the shelter or rescue for post-adoption support resources before you part ways. Most shelters and rescues are happy to help you navigate your options if you’re seeking expertise during those initial first weeks. It’s a big benefit to their rescue dogs that you’d take the time to proactively obtain resources in the event you need extra help or a voice of reason.

Learn more about adopting dogs with Petfinder.