A new pet is on your radar, and with all the abandoned dogs out there looking for a home you’ve decided to save a shelter hopeful instead of going through a breeder. That’s excellent. Millions of dogs in shelters everywhere anxiously await someone just like you. Luckily, shelters aren’t depressing places like the dog pounds of yore. But how do you choose the right shelter dog?

First off: is a dog, whether from a shelter or a breeder, the right pet for you?
Bringing a new dog into your home is a major undertaking and commitment. Training, socialization, play, exercise, and simple camaraderie are essentials for such a group-minded, gregarious animal that doesn’t fare well left on his own. If work keeps you away from home for long periods and if your family keeps similar hours, bringing a new dog into the home might be difficult. Cost should also be considered. Veterinary and food costs, beds, crates, leashes, toys and other essentials add up over a dog’s lifetime. The initial adoption fee can range anywhere from $50 to well over $250, depending on the dog and the shelter and whether or not vaccinations and a spay/neuter are included—a steal really as these rates are often subsidized to encourage adoption and as such are less than the shelter’s actual costs.

Puppy? Young adult? Senior? It’s all about your lifestyle
If you feel confident in taking on the challenge of a new dog, move on to the next step: determining what type of dog you are looking for. Do you want an eager, precocious puppy or are you open to adopting a young adult or even an older dog? Though adorable and quick to learn, puppies need lots of love and attention and must be housetrained and taught basic obedience. For at least a year, you’ll need to be a doting dog “parent.” A young adult dog, however, might already know some basics and have decent housetraining skills (though he will still need to be acclimated to your home). You’ll also have a better idea of what your new dog will look like as an adult and how large he will grow. You might even take a chance on an older rescue. These mature pets can be a great choice for those with less spare time on their hands. Personality and physical stature are set, so there are no surprises. Housetraining is often stable, and the energy of youth has abated into a more laid-back countenance. If they’ve made it this far, chances are they are good dogs simply dealt a tough break.

Breed Type
You can find both purebred dogs and mixed breed mysteries at a shelter, though many purebreds are plucked from shelters by breed-specific rescue groups to assist in their re-homing; if you have a specific breed in mind and there aren’t any currently housed by your local shelter, look up a local breed-specific rescue group dealing with your desired breed. They’ll likely have many adoption candidates for you to consider. Considering a mixed breed cutie? You can make fairly accurate determinations as to their personality by their appearance, size, demeanor, and what general “breed type” the dog is. Walk through any shelter and you’ll see Pit Bull and retriever mixes, shepherd and Rottweiler crosses, Chihuahua/terrier mixes, and other fairly identifiable blends of purebred animals. Want a big, energetic running pal, a couch potato, or a little foot warmer? If your home is small, for instance, or if you are a senior citizen, you might choose a lower energy older pet or a petite breed. But if you have a large home with a fenced yard (some shelters may insist on this) and you intend to take your dog on lots of walks or jogs, you could opt for a more athletic pet. As a general rule, choose a breed type that matches your own level of energy. If you are the athletic, lively type, pick an active dog, like a pit cross, terrier mix, or a herding or retriever mix. If you are more sedate, choose a calmer breed type, like a Greyhound or Whippet cross (yes, they are couch potatoes), Chihuahua mix, Mastiff or toy spaniel cross, or even a Maltese or Toy Poodle type. As you can see, size means less than breed type when it comes to energy levels.

Gimme Shelter
The next step is to find that special dog. That means searching local shelters and making a decision. Whether you use an online service like petfinder.org or adoptapet.com, think about finding shelters or rescue groups located reasonably close to your home to make multiple visits easier. Commit to visiting several before making a decision! This is often the hardest part of the process; we all have a soft spot for hard luck cases after all. Just do your best to remove emotion from the equation.

Any shelter you consider should have an adoption return policy, allowing you to bring a dog back. A thirty-day trial period is common. Some will refund your money should it not work out, while others will give a return voucher allowing you to adopt another animal. All should either spay/neuter the dog before you take him or her home or at least give you a discount neuter voucher for a local veterinarian. And all adopted dogs should receive appropriate vaccinations before they leave. Many shelters will hold a dog for you for at least a day or more if you need time to think it over.

When at the shelter, pay attention with all your senses. Does it look and smell reasonably clean? Ideally, shelter employees should be helpful, knowledgeable, and compassionate. The staff should properly vet you regarding your potential to provide a dog with a safe home but shouldn’t be rude or overly critical. A good shelter sets a balance between finding a capable new home for their dogs and knowing that, without that new home, a good dog could be euthanized.

The shelter should temperament-test all dogs before showing them to the public to weed out sick, aggressive or emotionally unstable animals. If you see significant behavioural problems, think about another shelter.

Find That Dog
On a first visit to a shelter, consider leaving your children home, if you have them. This initial visit should be unemotional and guilt-free; the “love at first sight” that happens to kids (and indeed some adults) can influence what should be all business.

Once you have interacted with a few potential winners, you can bring the children for a second visit. Do a “first run” through the kennel and watch how the dogs interact with people. Do the breed types you’re interested in show friendly interest and a desire to be petted, or are they slow to warm, skittish, or hiding in a corner? Do they appear healthy and fit, or are their coats dull and sparse and their bodies thin? (Keep in mind a good grooming can do wonders.) Are they interacting peaceably with their kennel mates, or growling at or shying away from the other dogs? Though barking is common among kennel hopefuls, incessant barking, especially toward human visitors, is not a good sign. Tails should be wagging and ears erect. Do keep in mind though that a shelter is a very stressful environment for dogs, and that their personality can change greatly once they’re out of their kennels.

Once you’ve made your first walk-through, focus in on dogs you found interesting and good-natured. Make eye contact and coax the dog over (no treats yet as it might prompt a food fight). Once given hands-on access, pet the head first, then casually move to the back and chest. Hopefully, the dogs will welcome the attention. Any skittishness, cowering, growling or nipping is a sign to move on. Stay calm and confident and avoid excess emotion or physicality.

After you’ve narrowed it down to two or three dogs, ask permission to take each out on a leash, to get a feel for their personalities outside of the chaotic kennel environment. Pulling is to be expected, but any wild over-the-top behaviour such as leaping, bucking, nipping, or lunging at people or other dogs should move you on to the next hopeful. If possible, see how each dog behaves around other leashed dogs. Look for friendly greetings, wagging tails, and a playful demeanor.

If all goes well, see how each dog takes a treat. Dogs older than a few months may know basic behaviours such as “sit” or “shake,” so ask for a quick sit and see what happens. Then, to check for food guarding issues, drop a few treats onto the ground near the dog then attempt to pick one up. If the dog stays calm and friendly, that’s great. But if it barks, growls, nips, or shows any hostility, move on to the next hopeful.

Second Visits
Ideally, you should visit at least two shelters and compare the dogs you have seen and liked. Keeping a log is a good idea. Then, it’s time to take your friends or family with you for a second look at the three or four hopefuls. Repeat the same on-leash walk and spend as much time as allowable. If you have an established, older dog at home, bring him with you on these visits to see if the two get along. Be sure to get the permission of shelter personnel before bringing your dog in, of course. If your resident dog has a history of dog aggression, though, it’s probably not prudent to obtain a second.

Going Home
The entire process can take over week so stay patient and avoid impulsive decisions. If you do decide to take a lucky dog home, you’ll need to purchase the appropriate equipment—leash, collar, ID tag, food and water bowls, a bed, a crate perhaps, and a few toys. The shelter will most likely provide you with enough food to last a week or so; you’ll need to decide if you’ll keep the dog on that same food or switch her over to one of your choosing. If so, make the change slowly, over a week or more, gradually adding more of the new food and reducing the old. The slow switchover will help prevent diarrhea, which often occurs when a dog switches food too quickly.

Schedule a visit to your veterinarian within a week or so to ensure good health. Shelter dogs can sometimes have worms, fleas, bordatella (“kennel cough”), or a host of other concerns, so don’t delay on this step (they should have been fully vet checked at the shelter, de-wormed and de-flea-ed but a check up is still a good idea). And be sure to enroll in a basic obedience class to start things off right. Some shelters even provide classes or will give you a discount coupon for a local training facility. If not, ask them or your veterinarian for a recommendation.

By doing your homework, staying unemotional, and being patient, you’ll end up with a loyal new friend, one who will appreciate the new lease on life you’ve provided more than you’ll ever know.