Everything to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog, According to a Veterinarian and a Dog Mama

Are you ready for the hospital bills?

Everything you need to know about adopting a rescue dog
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I didn’t have a dog growing up. So when I found myself canoodling in the backseat of an Uber with an 8-week-old rescue puppy, I should have known I was in over my head. I’ve made worse decisions after a lazy Sunday brunch with bottomless mimosas, but not as many had this lasting of an impact. I had no idea what I was doing. What food do I give this furry gal? Should she be licking that potted plant?  I didn’t even know what a Kong was. Funny? Maybe. In reality, I wish I had had some pointers ahead of time to set us all up for success—especially because of a major $7,000 curveball that came our way. (More on that below.) But that doesn’t mean you should follow in my footsteps. On the contrary! If you’re considering adopting a rescue dog, here’s everything you need to know ahead of time, according to me, a now self-proclaimed expert dog mama and the much more useful tips from an expert veterinarian. 

My adopted rescue dog the day we brought her home.
Oakley, the day we brought her home (Photo by Lincoln Boehm)

Meet the Expert

Dr. Stacey Bone brings over 16 years of expertise to his role as a small animal veterinarian, where he currently serves both as a relief veterinarian and as a senior brand manager at Hill's Pet Nutrition. Within Hill's, he is part of the Prescription Diet marketing team, driving the company's strategic vision in the U.S. market. With a heartfelt commitment to geriatric pet care, Dr. Bone focuses on areas critical to the health of senior pets, including advanced nutrition, comprehensive disease management, and the importance of preventive care. That passion led him to found a company dedicated to creating products that address the unique issues of senior pets. His work is characterized by a deep understanding of veterinary science, coupled with genuine care for his animal patients. 

Why Should You Adopt a Rescue Dog? 

The question should really be why shouldn’t you adopt a rescue dog! I kid, but if you’re looking to bring a forever pet home, choosing the rescue route has so many benefits for everyone involved—the dog (first and foremost), the forever owner and the animal shelters.  

For the dog, they get a second chance at life in a home where they are loved, can experience security and are cared for. They’re called rescue dogs because they’re often rescued from bad situations—abusive owners, abandonment, food insecurity and health issues.  

As an owner, you gain a loyal companion—and often at a much lower cost than buying from a breeder. In fact, as Forbes reports, many expenses like vaccinations, spaying or neutering and microchipping are taken care of by the rescue organization.  And, you’ll be helping to open up more space in rescue shelters while also supporting expenses and saving more pups! There’s also an instant community when you work with a rescue organization. Quick story (as promised above): when we adopted our dog Oakley from Badass Animal Rescue, we found ourselves in a unique situation: Oakley had been exposed to Parvo at some point between being rescued from the kill shelter and being adopted by us. Only a few hours into bringing her home did we realize that she was very sick and needed to be hospitalized with 24/7-care…for a week.

Adopted rescue dog in the hospital, recovering from Parvo.
Oakley in her hospital crate (Photo by Lincoln Boehm)

We were so scared that the vet bill would put us into debt indefinitely—and at nearly $7,000, it would have! But the rescue community fundraised for the entire bill and our little pup became somewhat of a local celebrity (along with her three sisters!) as fellow rescue lovers rallied for her recovery.

Three adopted rescue dogs, sisters.
A healthy Oakley with 3 of her 4 sisters (Photo by Lincoln Boehm)

Even though it was a crummy situation, it made us instantly realize how many resources were at the tips of our fingers through the strong animal rescue community. On that note, adopting from a rescue shelter frees up more space to take in more dogs in need. Their fees also support the efforts of rescuers and volunteers.  

What to Know Before Adopting a Rescue Dog 

Before adopting a rescue dog, you should consider your own dog-readiness first and foremost. You might eagerly reply, “yes!” to the question “are you ready to bring home fluffy, cuddly four-legged ball of adorableness?” Adorable they may be, but dogs aren’t just fun projects. They’re major responsibilities—financially, emotionally and physically. Can you provide a safe home for a dog? Pay for steep vet bills? Provide food? You should consider that there may be a chance they require special dietary food. Are you up to invest the time in training your rescue pup and navigating past traumas and temperament issues? Are there facilities nearby like dog parks, pet stores and veterinarians? There is so much to consider and it’s not easy, which is why Dr. Bone warns that one of the biggest mistakes people make when adopting rescue dogs is not being patient and understanding. “This is a massive change for a dog that has already gone through a lot. It takes time for them to adjust and ‘come out of their shells.’ It can take weeks for a dog to truly be their best version of themselves after being brought into a new home.” On that note, it’s better to realize you might not be prepared than to jump in without understanding the scope of things (and say, a $7,000 vet bill that you’re on the hook for). 

Where to Adopt a Rescue Dog 

To adopt a rescue dog, you can start by exploring the reputable sites with comprehensive databases of animals in need of homes. These are three major ones: 

  • Petfinder: An online, searchable database of animals who need homes. It is also a directory of nearly 11,000 animal shelters and adoption organizations across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. 
  • Adopt-a-Pet: Where over 15,000 animal shelters, humane societies, SPCAs, pet rescue groups, and pet adoption agencies advertise their homeless pets to millions of adopters a month, all for free.  
  • ASPCA: Lists animals available for adoption through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 
  • Hills Pet Shelters Locator: Find a shelter near you.

You can also search locally. For example, Badass Animal Rescue in Brooklyn, Sugar Mutts in the Poconos and PAWS in Chicago are just a few examples of local, awesome rescues. Google and word of mouth are your friends. It could also be hugely beneficial to volunteer at a rescue shelter and/or foster a dog (aka temporarily caring for one) before you bring one home for good.  

Red Flags to Look Out For When Rescuing a Dog 

  • Unclear History: Be wary of organizations that cannot provide clear medical and behavioral histories. 
  • High Fees: While adoption fees are standard, exorbitant charges can be a red flag. 
  • Lack of Transparency: Avoid organizations that are not transparent about their operations or the adoption process. 

What to Do Before Adopting a Rescue Dog 

Let’s face it: Just like a baby, you’ll never be perfectly prepared to bring a dog home. It’s just impossible to foresee every need, desire or quirk your future dog might bring with them. But, here are some basics for keeping a dog happy and healthy. 

Again, until you know which dog you’re bringing home, it might be hard to know what will be comfortable and suitable for your dog’s size and personality. For instance, you probably don’t want to buy a leash and collar until you know your dog’s size and needs (is she tiny and likes to pull or huge and won’t move a muscle?). And once you understand your adopted dog’s food needs, you can explore different options, like weighing human-grade dog food vs. affordable dog food brands

Preparing Your Home 

In all the excitement in bringing a new furry friend home, you might forget that even though your home is your safe space, it might not be adapted to a dog yet. For example, those fallen grapes that your toddler threw on the floor? Major hazard for canines! That crack in the fence from last month’s storm? Another danger that Fido can easily squeeze through.  Before adopting a rescue dog, walk through your home as if you are a dog (seriously). The point of view will give you a new perspective—maybe you shouldn’t keep meds so accessible and perhaps you should invest in a garbage can with a lid.  

What to Expect After Adopting a Rescue Dog 

While every adopted dog is different, with their own challenges and stories, I’ve found that most animal shelters abide by the 3/3/3 Rule as a roadmap for acclimating adopted dogs into their new homes. Here’s how it breaks down: 

First 3 Days: This is the adjustment period. French Toast (great name, btw) may feel overwhelmed and anxious (wouldn’t you?). This is an important time to let Toast explore the new environment at his own pace.  

  • Do: begin forming a routine to create a sense of security, provide a designated space for your pup that’s calm, quiet, and theirs 
  • Don’t: bring too much stimulation and new faces around—calmness and stability are key 

​​​First 3 Weeks: Now Toastie (he likes being called Toastie) is getting a bit more comfortable. He’s starting to understand the routine you’ve been sticking to, and it seems he can relax knowing what comes next. 

  • Do: ​​begin basic training, (ideally with an expert) and establishing care with a veterinary clinic as well as your own house rules 
  • Don't: expect your new buddy to be perfect, and still try to keep the overwhelming stimuli at bay (save the house party for down the road) 

First 3 Months: OK, at this point, you and Toastie are best buds. He’s fully acclimated to his new home and his personality is really coming out—he is quite stubborn and insists on cuddling up to your favorite pillow…hmmm. 

  • Do: continue consistent training and reinforce positive behaviors (like if you don’t want him on the pillow!) 
  • Don’t: ignore signs of distress (like if Toastie stops eating) or behavioral issues (like if Toastie snarled at the neighbor’s newborn) without seeking help 

Tips for Adopting a Rescue Dog 

  • Research Breeds: According to Forbes, “between 25% to 30% of dogs in shelters are purebreds, and about 75% are mixed breeds.” It’s kinda impossible to know for certain until you run a dog DNA test, but the professionals and volunteers at the shelter probably have a good idea as to what breed/s your dog might be. So if you have a good grasp on what characteristics of different breeds, you’ll be better able to find a solid match for your lifestyle.  
  • Be Patient: Remember the 3/3/3 Rules—your new pup won’t adjust to his new life overnight. This will take time. 
  • Stay Consistent: Create a routine and stick with it to help your dog feel secure. Says Dr. Bone: “Dogs thrive in regularity; make sure you establish feeding habits, bathroom, habits, and expected behaviors early and consistently.” 
  • Get Suggestions for Experts Before You Adopt: You’re gonna need a veterinarian and possibly a dog trainer. So have some suggestions for local vets, trainers and classes on hand before you’re knee deep in dog poop.  

Summary: Is Adopting a Rescue Dog a Good Idea for You?  

Adopting (over shopping) is almost always a great idea if you’re going to be bringing a dog home. Bringing a new pet home is not for the faint of heart—and adopting a rescue pet is no different, says Dr. Bone. When you bring a dog home, you’re playing the long game with your time, heart and wallet. Even the healthiest dog can bring on curveballs that cause you to dip into savings (like, say, eating an entire rotisserie chicken). But if you’re ready for an adventure and up for the commitment, there’s really nothing better.  

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Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...