Getting a rescue dog? Here's how to find a great match for your family

From where to look to what to do if things don’t go so well — read this when you’re starting your search.

From where to look to what to do if things don’t go so well — read this when you’re starting your search

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

With so many pets out there needing homes, more and more families are choosing to adopt a dog rather than buy from a breeder. It's a decision that while good for the conscience, can also feel incredibly daunting. Fears of falling in love with a dog and bringing it home... only to discover that it can't be left alone or that it wants to eat the cat, are very real!

So what's the best way to go about choosing the right dog? Are there ways to check for deal-breakers, like serious aggression?

If you've made the decision to get a dog, and the only thing you know for sure is that you'd like to give a rescue a second chance, don't worry. We asked Marlo Hiltz, dog trainer, volunteer and owner of Ontario-based Welfare of our Furry Friends to help us with what comes next. The good news is there's a lot you can do to mitigate risk and, thankfully, there are a lot of amazing rescues out there that can help you find the dog of your dreams.

Where to begin?

Hiltz said that priority number one should be finding a rescue organization that you can trust. Be careful about listings you see in online marketplaces and, moreover, be aware of the fact that many puppy mills will often use buzzwords like "adoption" to make you feel as though you're getting a rescue dog when, in fact, you're not.

A reputable rescue will be a registered not-for-profit or charitable organization, said Hiltz, and will also check all the right boxes, such as having a board of directors and an established group of volunteers. Plus, a good all-breed rescue will have a wide variety of dogs available, both young and senior dogs — if a rescue asks for an "adoption fee," but they only have puppies, consider that a red flag.

Also, they should want to know as much about you as you do about them, so expect a very thorough screening process; we're talking vet references, visits to your home, contracts that include expectations about animal care and an exclusive promise to bring the dog back to the rescue organization if the adoption isn't a good match. Look for a rescue that has volunteer foster parents. This is crucial and it's the main difference between a rescue and shelter, according to Hiltz. After the organization completes its initial vetting process, the volunteer foster parent will typically take over and continue to gather information about how the dog handles living in a home.

How do you tell if a dog has a good temperament?

For the best early indication of a dog's temperament, be sure to visit the dog where it is and where it spends its time. According to Hiltz, if you take a dog out of its immediate environment, you might not get a good picture of what the dog is truly like. Spend a good amount of time with the dog; Hiltz recommends at least an hour. Sit down on the floor with the dog, give it some treats, take it for a walk, bring a toy and be sure to take your time.

"The best thing you can do is to educate yourself on dog body language," said Hiltz. "The dog might be displaying initial signs of fear or hesitation, but recognizing them isn't always easy." Learn to recognize signs of aggression, friendliness, fear and 'calming signals' (subtle signs that a dog isn't comfortable), so that you can feel confident in your ability to read the situation. A fearful dog might not want to approach, or it may create distance through avoidance. An aggressive dog might freeze, stare, lunge, growl, snap or even bite. If you see either of these types of tendencies, the dog may not be the right fit for you as a first-timer.

The early days

You're pretty sure you've found the right dog, it's time to bring it home, just be aware that there's always an adjustment period. Those first few weeks can be pretty uncertain, and it will take time to get to know your new dog. Sometimes problem behaviours can take a while to reveal themselves, and many people are just so elated with their new pet that they tend to be a bit more forgiving. What might seem cute or funny at first can quickly evolve into a potential challenge. Conversely, dogs that seem shy and fearful in the beginning may blossom into a fabulous pet.

Hiltz says you should treat every new rescue dog as though it's a brand new puppy. Implement a good routine, give them lots of personal space, set boundaries and start the housetraining process from the beginning. Even though a dog may be housetrained in one house, doesn't mean that will carry over into a new home. As the dog becomes more adjusted, you can slowly allow more freedom and flexibility with routines.

Integrating the dog safely: What to watch out for

Even if you've found a seemingly great dog, you may not  be entirely sure how safe you feel having the dog around the cat and the kids. Could you be missing something that might eventually become dangerous?

Some rescues are reluctant to adopt dogs out to families with children under 12 years old because they often don't have a robust history when it comes to the dog's behaviour. If you're sure you want to make the commitment, it's important to remember that interactions should always be supervised. Flags to watch for are: excessive interest in the children or the cat — wanting to constantly sit near them, lick them, follow them or crying when they're separated from them; and excessive avoidance of the children or the cat — constantly hiding when they're around, turning away, walking away, moving to another room or freezing.

What if something just isn't right?

It can be hard to know what to do if things don't seem to be going well, once you have your dog at home, but if you've used a good rescue service, you're not alone. A reputable rescue will have an alliance with a group of trainers that use reward-based, positive reinforcement techniques to address issues. The trick is to call the organization right away — problems don't go away on their own. "Don't give up right away," Hiltz says. If you've completed a plan with a certified trainer and you still feel that your home isn't the right one for the dog, then again, be sure to contact the rescue; the good ones will always stand behind their dogs and help them find a more suitable home.

Danielle Hodges is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator for dog, baby and toddler safety. She is co-owner of Follow the Leader Inc Dog Training School with locations in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont.