Adopting your new dog from the wrong place can turn your dream of the perfect dog into a nightmare. Here are the pros and cons of choosing your new family member from the four most common places that offer dogs for sale or adoption.
Craigslist is the last place I would recommend people look for a new dog. Dogs on Craigslist are most likely to come from one of three places: backyard breeders, owner surrenders, or dog nappers.
You can spot the stolen dogs pretty easily: the seller doesn’t have much information on the dog and can’t provide any of the dog’s records or papers or answer even basic questions; the seller’s description of the dog doesn’t match the behavior you see when you bring the dog home (but by then it’s too late; if you want to return the dog, you’ll never find them again), and the number one way to spot a stolen dog: If you are at all ambivalent, the seller quickly offers to cut their price if you buy today and bring cash, no questions asked.
If it sounds like someone has inadvertently purchased a stolen dog, I ask them to first check if the dog is microchipped, then check with shelters and lost dog sites to see if anyone has reported a similar dog as lost or stolen.
For people have their heart set on a specific breed, I strongly recommend reputable breed-specific rescues. Rescues are run by volunteers who are committed to the breed, understand the dogs’ needs, and take many of the steps good breeders take to make sure they place their dogs in good homes, such as requiring adopters to fill out lengthy applications and provide personal and veterinary references. They interview you, check your references, and do home visits to make sure your home will provide a healthy environment for the dog.
When they accept a dog into their rescue, they first place it with a volunteer foster family who has or had other dogs of the same breed. The role of the foster family in rescues is to assess the dog’s physical and behavioral health, make sure the dog’s house trained and has good manners, and if the dog doesn’t, to start training so the dog will have a better chance of finding a good home. Responsible rescues are very upfront about any issues their dogs may have and they make sure the adopting family is equipped to address those issues.
Not all rescues are created equal, though. Do your homework to make sure your rescue is an established, 501(c)3 that follows best practices rather than a well meaning but overwhelmed person who lacks the resources to provide basic medical care for the dogs they have rescued. Some “rescues” are hoarders; some are con artists who raise money that dogs never see. Hallmarks of a good rescue are the following: it has a board of directors, is a registered charity, has insurance, has an organizational structure with oversight of foster parents, vetting, etc., and it uses up-to-date, science-based training methods.
Unless you’re planning to show or compete with your dog, I don’t often recommend breeders for family dogs. Most dogs available for purchase come either from a puppy mill or a backyard breeder. These dogs are poorly socialized and often have significant health and behavior problems that you don’t discover until you bring your puppy home. (I’ve noticed that some of the really big puppy mills give you a list of approved vets and you have to agree to only take your dog to one of those vets.)
No one ever intentionally buys a puppy mill puppy, but the industry (and it’s definitely an industry) has gotten quite sophisticated in its marketing. Here’s how you can spot them:
First of all, any puppy sold in a retail store is by definition a puppy mill puppy. Responsible breeders require a detailed application and an in-person interview so they can screen people to make sure their personality, home and lifestyle will provide a nurturing environment for their puppies. Responsible breeders ask for personal references and vet references, and they check them. Anyone who will sell you a puppy over the phone or the Internet, on the spot, sight unseen, is not someone who has raised that puppy with the love and attention that puppies need to be healthy.
In addition, responsible breeders require you to sign a contract committing to returning the puppy to the breeder if for any reason, at any time, you no longer want to keep the dog. Puppy mills will sell their puppies to anyone who will pay them.
According to the ASPCA, more than 1.2 million dogs are euthanized every year. Many of these dogs would make great family additions but will never get that chance.
There are two types of shelters: open admission and limited admission. Open admission shelters like BARCS are required to accept all incoming animals, whether they are surrendered by owners or found as strays. They have no choice but to euthanize healthy dogs to make room for additional dogs that are brought in every single day.
BARCS changed from a city agency to a nonprofit organization several years ago, changed management, and has made many improvements to their shelter program. They are now able to save more than 90 percent of animals that come in to the shelter, which is a huge improvement over the past. BARCS also has behavior staff and volunteers that run play groups for the dogs in the shelter.
SPCA is a limited admission shelter. They rescue as many animals as they can and when their cages are full, they refer people to BARCS and other open admission shelters. SPCA has a behavioral department that assesses dogs when they come in, comes up with behavioral plans to address any issues, and provides the dogs in the shelter with training and enrichment to lessen their stress and make them more adoptable. They provide as much information as they have and offer support to adopters. They also have a 30-day return policy. If there’s a bad fit, it hurts both the dog and the family to keep the dog.
Both BARCS and SPCA require adopters to provide references (and they check city records to make sure adopters either own their home or have permission from the landlord to have a dog). They also require potential adopters to take a class before they take the dog home. Both shelters recommend positive reinforcement training for basic obedience. Based on the needs of the dogs and the experience of the adopter, they require some adopters to commit to taking their new dog to training classes.
Long story short, there are a lot of reasons to adopt from a shelter and far fewer reasons not to than there used to be. I definitely recommend people adopt from a shelter over most breeders. At a minimum, if you adopt from SPCA or BARCS you know your dog is healthy and free of parasites and diseases that can be detected in a veterinary exam, that their dog has passed a behavioral assessment specifically designed to detect aggression tendencies, and that their dog is spayed or neutered.
You won’t get any of these benefits from backyard breeders or puppy mills, which is why I recommend adopting from a shelter over a breeder in most cases.