Getting a dog is an exciting opportunity to expand your family and bring new energy into your home. Whether you want a muddy buddy to accompany you on long hikes, or a pampered and pedicured pooch to sit next to you on a sofa, you will have plenty of choices. There is no shortage of dogs to choose from.
Where should you go to get your dog? A shelter? A rescue organization? Or a breeder?
There is no doubt that shelters do the heaviest lifting in the animal rescue world. The ASPCA says that roughly three and a half million dogs enter shelters every year. That number can be staggering. Dogs are surrendered to shelters for many reasons: families can no longer afford to care for them, they've been aggressive towards another person or animal, the owner has moved to a home where dogs are not allowed, or maybe the dogs just barks too much. These are just a few of the stories that shelter-workers hear. Some reasons are very serious while others may seem trivial: it does not matter. Most city shelters are required to take in dogs.
A good shelter will be honest with potential adoptees about any issues with dogs, such as an illnesses or behavioral challenges. They want you to be prepared and know what you are signing up for. A good shelter also must be up front about the dog's breed. Some cities have BSL: breed-specific legislation which identifies dog breeds that the city has deemed too dangerous to live in their community. These dogs are often Pit Bull terriers, Bull Mastiffs, or even Rottweilers, but could include other breeds as well. While many veterinarians, trainers, and behaviorists dispute the data that goes into BSL decisions, the fact is that BSL cannot be ignored. Landlords will list dog breeds not allowed on their property, some pet stores will not allowed banned breeds inside, and sometimes even neighbors may call animal control on someone simply walking a dog that looks like a banned breed. It can be heartbreaking, and many advocacy groups work tirelessly to educate people and overturn these laws.
There is also the issue of no-kill shelters. These are shelters that do not euthanize healthy or treatable animals, reserving that option only for terminally ill or dangerous dogs. They work very hard to find homes for the animals that they have, but quite often they are filled to capacity. As a result, they cannot take in every dog. Generally they are privately funded and not contracted with a local government. In contrast, city shelters are almost always required to take in every dog who comes in. Unfortunately this means that dogs who are not adopted are often euthanized for the issue of space and resources. Many people take this issue into consideration.
Shelters will also not do DNA tests on dogs to determine breeds. Their primary concern is behavior and health of a dog. If you are not concerned about getting a particular breed and just want to find a canine companion, then a shelter would be a fantastic spot to go looking. Hopefully there is a meet-and-greet spot where you can get to know different dogs before choosing the one who is right for you. There will most likely be an adoption fee of around $200 (it varies from shelter to shelter), and this covers vaccinations (rabies and possibly bordetella), any spaying or neutering that was done, and hopefully a microchip implant that will be updated with your information.
Rescue organizations are also great places to find dogs. If you are in love with a certain breed (or even a size), there is a rescue for that breed somewhere near you. These places rely heavily on volunteers and fosters to keep them running. Quite often, dogs in rescues have been plucked from shelters where a dog-spotter has found them. Occasionally dogs in rescues have been found abandoned, while very rarely will the dog have been a direct-surrender from the owner, although it does happen. Rescues help keep shelter numbers down while providing safe places for these pups. Since many rescues keep dogs in foster homes, there will be a solid eye-witness record of how your potential pup interacts with others as well as information about any potential escape issues.
Rescue organizations also often do home checks - something shelters are not always in a position to do. A home check ensures that you have enough space for a dog, and that back yards are not easily escapable. Different organizations will have different standards: there is no official government-sanctioned checklist out there. Essentially it comes down to common sense: will the dog be safe and happy here? If so, then you should be good to go.
Dogs from either shelters or rescue organizations may transition very easily into your home, but there is a good chance that there will be some growing pains. Occasionally during a first night in a new home, a dog might pace out of nervousness or will cry if left alone. This behavior should definitely stop over time as your dog gets used to your new place. There may also be a some digestive issues if you are giving new food that the dog has never had. (You may want to roll up the very expensive Persian rug during this time.) Of course with any dog, chewing or counter surfing can occur, so make sure that your favorite shoes are put away and that your friend's awesome zucchini bread is safely stocked out of reach (I speak from experience, two loaves later).
With so much of today's talk centering on "adopt -don't shop" it is important to stress that responsible breeders are not horrible by any means. You want to avoid backyard breeders, or course who do not know much about maintaining a strong line and who tend to abdicate any responsibility for the puppy once you have paid for it. However, there are breeders who provide buyers with as much information as possible about the line of dog and the breed of dog. They also agree to take back the dog if there are any issues in the future in which the new owner cannot keep him (divorce, moving, etc). As the new dog owner, you agree not to breed the dog unless it is to another pedigreed dog of the same breed. Otherwise, you will be expected to spay or neuter the dog between the ages of six months to a year. All of this should be discussed during the time of purchase. It's important to note that these breeders will often charge several hundred dollars, if not a few thousand for one of their puppies.
Responsible breeders take very good care of their dogs, train them, provide them with all necessary veterinary care and are advocates for the breed. They provide invaluable information about dog health and behavior. Quite often they donate to rescue organizations as well since they know that great dogs can encounter tough times.
The places to avoid are pet stores who sell puppies from puppy mills. If a store cannot verify where a dog came from, or if they are not certified from a local shelter to place homeless dogs with families, then do not do business with that organization. In fact, if you suspect that a shop is helping a puppy-mill operation, then you can report them to both shelters and rescue organizations.
In my life I have lived with many dogs from both shelters and breeders, as well as two who were found abandoned. All of them became wonderful companions, but our lives were not without challenges. Consider what you want in a dog as well as the time and energy that is required. You may want a puppy, or you may want a senior dog. Whomever you choose, you are bound to be rewarded many times over.