Looking to Rescue a Dog? Here’s How to Find the Perfect Fit

Thinking about getting a furry friend? Read here to find out some tips to make the best decision for you and your family!

The McGrew family of Ft. Hunt knew they wanted a big, fun dog for the kids to grow up with. It was an ideal time to get a puppy: one parent home a lot, kids beyond the toddler years, and a big fenced yard. They adopted Sequoia at eight weeks, and she’s now a wonderfully kid-friendly 75-pound gal! (Photo: McGrew Family)

Alexandria, VA – On the spur of the moment, you pop into the shelter. You walk along that poignant, bark-filled corridor, and suddenly lock eyes with The One. It’s utterly clear to both you and the dog that this is a once-in-a-lifetime connection. You head home together and live happily ever after.

Sure, that happens. But should you plan on it?

There’s another, more predictable way to get to the same delightful ending: Think it through and take your time. That’s how you give fate a hand.

The first step is to get clear on your parameters. That needs to happen before you get addicted to Petfinder.com (which is where virtually all shelters and rescues now list their dogs). Unless you have hours to kill and a heart that doesn’t mind a wild ride, decide ahead of time which dogs are a no-go for you. Establish a target age, size, and energy level.

Think about age

Going about your life with a young, active dog at your side is an entirely different from having a sweet old guy waiting for you on the couch. Puppyhood? That’s an experience of its own. Each age has its charms and its challenges. The trick is figuring out what age fits you and your household best.

See that face? Just say no. All kids want puppies, but it’s the adults who must turn their lives upside down to care for the little one. (But don’t worry. The adults in the Alexandria-area Boyle family were just as excited about puppyhood, so this sweet girl did get a pup that day!) (Photo: Kathy Callahan)

Think about size

Size does matter when it comes to behavior. When a tiny dog jumps on your great aunt, it might be cute. The same is not true for your 80-pound Labrador. Similarly, your animal-obsessed third-grader can have a wonderful time walking your little Yorkie around the block, but don’t even think about letting her do that with your big, young hound. While all dog/human teams can benefit enormously from training, it’s the big dogs that will make you realize you need it.

Normally, an 8-week-old puppy might not be a great choice for a family with an infant, not to mention a family with an infant, a toddler, and four more kids! But the incredible Howard clan works as a team, and lucky pup Otto is growing up joyfully right alongside his “twin” brother. “They are inseparable,” says mom Leah. (Photo: Howard Family)

Think about your energy level

Based on the applications that come in, most potential dog adopters are hikers. Alas, for the dogs, “hiking” turns out to be mostly aspirational. The folks are just super tired after work, and there are so many good shows on Netflix. Ah, well. At least the dog has guests to jump up on and furniture to chew.

My point: Be realistic. If you think aspirationally when you ponder the right energy match for your household, you will pay the price in dog behavior. Remember, somewhere there’s an overlooked middle-aged dog just waiting for someone to realize what great company she is.

Local yoga teacher Brigitte Pollio’s family had never had a pet before, so they wanted the odds stacked in their favor. They chose a smallish adult dog who’d been living in a foster home for more than a month — long enough to get a solid sense of temperament and behavioral quirks. The result? “She’s been wonderful.” (Photo: Kathy Callahan)

Think about breed—or don’t

Be aware that, while every rescue dog’s listing will include a breed, that is most likely a guess. It would be a shame to cross a dog off your list because of a guess, and a mistake to adopt a dog solely based on a guess. Look at the dog in front of you, listen to what the rescue folks say about the demonstrated temperament, and go from there.

Retiree Barbara Unkle and her husband knew exactly what they were after: a small, manageable adult dog who was well past the demands of puppyhood. Little Maddie fit the bill, and then some. “She’s the best dog we’ve ever had.” (Photo: Shelley Castle)

NOW go on Petfinder.com

Now that you’ve done your homework and have a realistic idea about the type of dog that’s a good match you and your household, it’s time for the fun part. Head over to Petfinder.com! Plug in your ZIP code, the distance you’re willing to travel to meet a dog, and your ideal doggy parameters. Then sit back and watch your potential pack members pop up.

(Kathy Callahan, CPDT-KA, has a dog training and puppy socialization business, PupStart in Alexandria, and you can find her online at Puppy Picks. Her family has fostered more than 150 rescue dogs, working largely with Homeward Trails Animal Rescue. You can follow her puppy adventures on Instagram @puppy.picks or on Facebook.)

ICYMI: January is National Train Your Dog Month – Let’s Get Started!