24th Aug, 2021

Written by Scotty Valadao – Canine Behaviour Consultant (ABC of SA); Founder of www.friendsofthedog.co.za – the website for dog owners that care!

Strange question? Not really – in fact, it’s a really important one, and yet so few people actually consider it. Why? Simple: we have just not thought about it!

It is a big responsibility
We spend hours, sometimes days and weeks, thinking about and investigating what kind of car would suit our families. But when it comes to dogs – which could be with us for well over a decade, have sharp teeth, share our homes, interact with our children – we allow ourselves to rush into a decision with little thought.

This is partly the fault of us professionals: we haven’t educated enough or asked you to think in this manner. The responsibility of adopting or purchasing a dog should be a combined effort between you and the animal welfare organisation from whom you are adopting. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and the responsibility then falls squarely on your shoulders.

What is important to bear in mind is that there’s also a responsibility towards the dog in question. Each and every time a dog is surrendered or returned to a shelter or similar (which can happen if new pets aren’t thought through), there’s tremendous physiological damage and stress involved for the dog, and the chances of a future successful adoption are reduced. We aren’t even going into the subject of the guilt and heartbreak that the family that adopted and returned the dog goes through! That’s why choosing carefully is crucial.  
Why should adoption be your option?
Our number one choice when getting a pup or adult dog is to adopt from a shelter, rescue, or breed-specific rescue organisation. There are literally hundreds of thousands of incredible dogs with much to offer in these organisations – all they want is love and a good home. Contrary to popular belief, most aren’t there because there’s something wrong with them; the only “sin” they’ve committed is to be born.

What you may not know is that many young animals that end up in shelters, rescues, etc. have been dumped by so-called unethical breeders, pet shops and so on simply because they’re no longer at the “cute” age and therefore cannot be sold for a profit; or they’re too old to breed and are thus no longer useful. Tragically, as dog ownership has grown dramatically over the past decade or so, the number of unethical breeders has also increased dramatically as they’ve cottoned on to this lucrative way of bringing in the bucks without taking care of the dogs in their possession or caring where the puppies go. Each time a pup is purchased from them, we’re inadvertently reinforcing the breeding and potential neglect (and dumping) of these poor animals.  

The number of animals rescued from terrible situations or surrendered due to health or behavioural issues (thoughts that often put people off adoption) is actually relatively small. The reality is that a large proportion end up homeless because their owners could no longer afford to care for them or had to move to homes where pets aren’t allowed. Others were bought as puppies, and when they grew older, the owners couldn’t cope with them or wanted a younger animal. Still others are animals that got lost and were never reunited with their families. Or they’re from “accidental” litters. Many are wonderful family pets surrendered by owners who dearly love them but just can’t keep them for any number of reasons, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with the animal itself. In other words: being a homeless animal doesn’t mean that they’re a “bad” animal and, therefore, it shouldn’t put you off adopting them.
But what about the cost? Some people consider the price that shelters charge (known as an adoption fee) as exorbitant. This is simply not true – in fact, they charge far too little, which is why many of them are always short of funds. The fees simply don’t cover the costs involved. Consider that you’re actually not paying for the animal – what you are paying for is all the care for it, such as feeding, sterilisation, vaccination, deworming, veterinary care, staff to look after them, etc. Check the fee and inclusions and then give a private veterinary practice a call: chances are you’ll find that it will cost you way more to do all those things privately than the fee the animal welfare is charging. Find out more about animal adoption fees and what the costs cover: https://www.friendsofthedog.co.za/why-are-pet-adoption-fees-so-expensive.html

What’s next?
If you go the adoption route, ensure that you’re choosing a good organisation; unfortunately, one cannot guarantee that all shelters are what they should be. Ensure that the premises are in a good condition, as well as the animals themselves. Ask about the veterinary care, where the animals come from, who looks after them, what they eat, if there’s a quarantine for new animals, and how their health and temperament are assessed.

It’s always a good idea to speak to the local vet and ask them which organisations they recommend. The odds are that the vet will know about local organisations that they don’t feel are up to par and those they’ll happily give a thumbs-up to. If not, do a thorough internet search and ask others who have adopted for suggestions.

After you’ve applied, the next step is that the shelter will do a home check. Many people are nervous about this, but it benefits both the animal and you. Not only does it allow the organisation to ensure that your home’s a safe, suitable place for the dog, but it’s also a good way of checking that the dog will fit in with you so as to ensure that you’ll be happy with the adoption. If there’s an existing dog, they’ll ask you questions to establish if it would be a match for the new dog.

Note that dogs should always be introduced before adopting, and the shelter should ideally offer to do the introductions at the shelter to confirm same. Introductions should always be done in a neutral environment, and most good shelters will have an area for this to occur. Organisations that use private foster homes will usually arrange the meeting at a park or similar venue.

Making a match
Shelters can be distressing places for animal lovers. It really is hard to walk past all those beautiful eyes that only want a home and your love. Even if you find your dog by looking on the organisation’s website, it’s still tough to scroll past the others. When we take a dog into our homes, it’s often an emotional decision, but it should be a sensible one.

To assist you in making an educated decision and choice, we have two great questionnaires which will cover all the points to be considered:

Print out the Meet Your Match questionnaire and show it to the organisation so that they can steer you in the right direction. If children are involved, we strongly suggest that you only bring them once a dog’s been chosen, as the odds are that they’ll want every dog they see.

The animal welfare’s staff should have done a full assessment on the dog to determine what kind of home will suit it best, if it gets on with all dogs, whether cats and children are an option, and so forth.

If you find a dog that you feel will suit, ask the shelter to bring it out of its kennel so that you can meet it. Spend some time with it – take it for a bit of a walk and see how it interacts with other dogs around and any people you meet on the way. And, of course, if there are children in the family, they should (under careful supervision) meet the dog as well.

What you should ask the animal welfare organisation

  • Are there any areas of the dog’s body it does not like touched, and if so, do they know why? If there is an area that the dog doesn’t like being touched, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a problem in that area and the dog is unadoptable. Rather, it may be a learned and remembered response from an old injury or even from being hit in the past. Some dogs are simply not used to being handled as much. If there’s no physical problem in that area, ask a behaviourist how to slowly get the dog used to being touched in that area.
  • Does the dog get on well with all other dogs? Some dogs only get on well with same- or opposite-sex dogs, and, interestingly enough, some dogs don’t get on well with dogs that are either bigger or smaller than themselves – this normally stems from an early life experience.
  • Are there any health problems you need to be aware of, and if there are, what are you looking at from the veterinary, financial, and time point of view? If there’s an existing concern, then before adopting, check with your vet what you may be looking at financially on a monthly basis. This shouldn’t make the dog unadoptable at all, but you need to look at the financial and time aspect this might involve. Find out if the shelter can assist with pre-existing conditions – most shelters will bring in a time period during which pre-existing conditions are covered. For example, if the dog has teeth that are in bad nick and need attention, will they be able to assist or cover the cost of same? (Note that many organisations can’t afford to do extensive veterinary work for free.) If the shelter has agreed to assist with an instance such as this, ask for it to be put into your contract with them.
  • What is the vaccination situation? Ask to see a copy of the vaccination certificate/card/booklet which should indicate vaccinations and deworming. Although it’s best to have this signed by the organisation’s local veterinarian, some shelters have the equivalent of a vet nurse and are allowed to give vaccinations if the vet has agreed to same. It would be very dangerous to adopt a dog from a shelter where the vaccinations aren’t up to date, especially if you have other dogs in the home. We always suggest that, as a safeguard, you take the dog to your own vet for a full health check and for them to inspect the vaccination book before taking it home.
  • Will the animal be sterilised (spayed or neutered)? Most organisations include this in their adoption fee – if the animal’s too young at time of adoption you will be asked to bring it in when it’s old enough (around four to six months old) to have it done at their vet. Some organisations lack the resources to include sterilisation, but their adoption contract will state that it must be done (you may be required to send proof thereof). If they don’t have anything stating that it’s mandatory, at the very least, they should discuss it with you and follow up. Considering how many animals flood into shelters every day, an organisation that doesn’t seem to care about sterilisation at all should raise questions. (Note that pet sterilisation averages between R1,000 and R4,000 if done privately, depending on sex, species and size, so if it’s not included in the fee, be sure to budget before adopting.)
  • Are there any known behaviour problems? If there are, it doesn’t mean that the dog is “not adoptable” (it can be something as simple as being nervous on car rides) – rather that you’ll need to do some work when you take it home or get professional help. Apart from actual aggression, the majority of shelter dogs can very easily be helped – you just have to know what you’re letting yourself in for, and also how to solve same. It’s also a good idea to check if the organisation has somebody that can assist you to overcome behavioural problems or someone to whom they can refer you.
  • Is there a contract or agreement of some kind? The shelter should ask you to sign an agreement with them regarding the care of the dog, vaccinations, etc. Please read through this carefully, ask any questions you may have, or discuss adding on any additions, such as the medical aspect mentioned above, if applicable.
  • What will happen if the dog ends up not suiting the family or you’ve had a change in circumstance? Can you bring it back or will it be your responsibility to find a home? Many organisations will have a clause in their contract that you cannot rehome the animal yourself or take it to another organisation, and that it must be returned to them for rehoming if you can no longer keep it.

As much as we wish that each and every dog in a shelter could be adopted, we’d rather the dog stayed in the shelter a bit longer than ending up going to the wrong home – heartbreak for the family, additional stress and psychological damage for the dog, and reduced chances of finding that perfect home each and every time the dog is returned. The goal is that everyone, both dog and family, should live happily ever after.

By choosing carefully, working with the animal welfare organisation, and putting in the effort once you bring your new dog home, you can greatly increase the chances of a happy homing with your new furry family member.

Knowledge is power. Aside from the above-mentioned questionnaires, you’ll also find a wealth of information and tips on choosing a canine family member on our website at www.friendsofthedog.co.za. This will help you to welcome a new furry friend to your home and improve the chances of a successful, happy adoption.