What to Know When You’re Getting an Older Dog

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It is wonderful when you can offer a good life to an older dog. (By: gammaman)

Many people feel that an older, grown dog is better for them. Older dogs don’t require as much attention as a growing puppy does. They are often easier to house-train, if not already so trained. They are past their chewing stage and have settled down from the usual adolescent boisterous behavior.

Adult dogs present no surprises in their final size and appearance. They may already have the traits you want in a dog.

With an adult dog you have a much better idea of what you’re going to end up with. A puppy can have the genetic heritage to be aggressive, a fear biter, etc., and you will not know until the dog is older. It’s also easy to make mistakes raising a puppy. With an older dog, the mistakes have already been made, and it’s generally not too hard to tell which problems will be easily correctable.

So an older dog’s previous history is actually an asset, not a detriment. Quite often, when a dog is put into a new situation, they are looking for leadership and will attach to you almost immediately. Even breeds known as “one-person” dogs will accept a new human rather easily.

For example, observe the relationship between a blind person and a German Shepherd guide dog. These dogs have been through at least three homes before they’re matched with their blind people.

The research on bonding that is most often quoted (Clarence Pfaffenberger’s New Knowledge of Dog Behavior) is almost always misrepresented: The puppies in those studies were deprived of all human contact until they were older. The research had nothing to do with how well dogs who have bonded with some human or humans transferred those bonds later.

An additional benefit to adopting an older dog is the truly wonderful feeling you get when the dog comes out of their shell and bonds with you. The bond feels special, particularly when we’re talking about an older dog no one wanted. The rescue and subsequent bond with that dog is strong, lasting, and special.

Older dogs are often not adopted from shelters because many people want puppies. It is wonderful when someone can come in and offer a good life to the older dogs.

Where Do I Find One?

There are a good many places you can find a grown dog. Besides the obvious, like shelters, there are other sources.

For example, breed rescue organizations have many suitable adult dogs. Breeders often have dogs they have retired from the show circuit and are not breeding. They also have younger dogs who simply never fulfilled the potential that they showed as puppies and thus cannot be shown or bred. Both are otherwise perfectly good dogs.

Sometimes people give up their dogs because of death or divorce or other personal upheaval. Perhaps the dog was intended for work but was injured and rendered unfit. An adult dog in need of a home is not necessarily an abused dog with an unknown background.

Ask local veterinarians. They often know of dogs who need adoption.


Shelters, of course, are an obvious place to get adult dogs, but it can be hard to get an idea of the dog’s true behavior and potential.

Some breeds, like Shelties, may shut down in a shelter and will appear to have behavior problems when they really don’t. Find out how much time and about the physical space your local shelter is prepared to give you for evaluating dogs — beware of shelters that won’t even let you take the dog out of the kennel run to see them.

If the shelter will let you take the dog out on a lead and spend some time playing with them, you can generally get a good idea of the dog’s potential. Count on spending some time working with the shelter staff to find the right dog for you.

Keep in mind that many dogs are at the shelter because their people couldn’t or wouldn’t keep the commitment they had made by getting the dog in the first place, not that the dog was at fault.

Reasons include:

  • “Not enough time for the dog”
  • “Moving to another place”
  • “Dogs not allowed where living”
  • “Divorce”
  • “Not enough space.”

Frequently, dogs with behavior that the previous caretakers could not handle are fine in new homes. As long as you scrutinize your potential dog carefully and are prepared for the work of caring for a dog, you are not likely to wind up with a problem dog or a problem situation.

About 25 percent of the dogs at shelters are purebred. If you have a specific breed in mind, you can check your shelters regularly in case one comes in.

Keep in mind that even if the dog arrives at the shelter with papers, many shelters will withhold the papers because they don’t want to see people take such a dog and then breed them. You might get the pedigree without the registration, but even that’s uncertain. Many shelters will take down your name and the breed you are interested in and call you when one comes in.

If you don’t care about the breed, you can check your local shelters for a dog you want. You should have some idea of what size and coat type you prefer before going in.

Breed rescue

You can contact a local breed rescue organization. These organizations will scout shelters for dogs of their breed, take them in, evaluate them, and put the adoptable ones up for placement. They can give you a good idea of the dog’s temperament and known background.

Most major breeds are represented in major cities. You can always contact AKC for the address of the national breed club, which you can in turn ask about local addresses.


Or, you can contact local breeders and see if they have older dogs they are trying to place.

  • Sometimes a puppy kept as a show prospect does not fulfill their earlier promise and is subsequently placed.
  • Sometimes a brood breeding dog is retired and the breeder looks for a suitable home.
  • Some breeders do keep their older pets, but in many cases they find that a loving home for the dog is in the dog’s best interests.
  • And breeders, too, have dogs who are returned to them for any number of reasons.

Go to dog shows and ask around, or contact a breed club. (Note: For some clubs, referrals to “rescue” dogs are handled by one volunteer, whereas the puppy referral service also handles dogs who were returned to their breeder — so when contacting a breed club, make sure you’ve made contact with all the appropriate people.)

Other places

Vets and kennels sometimes have abandoned dogs they are happy to place into good homes; call around.

People sometimes give away or sell dogs through the newspaper: ask carefully about why the dog is being given up. Many people are not very knowledgable about dog behavior and will not be aware of if problems are the result of heredity or the result of their own mishandling. There is an advantage here of being able to see how the dog was kept and get an idea of relationship between previous owner and the dog. Sometimes the family is moving, or has lost some income, or there have been deaths or other upheavals where the dog’s behavior is not an issue. Do make sure you don’t feel pressured into taking the dog just because the person wants you to take it.

How Do I Select a Suitable One?

Regardless of where you get your dog, you should make some effort to evaluate them before making your decision.

  • Do they follow you?
  • Watch you warily?
  • What happens if you sit down next to them?
  • How do they respond to a leash? A sudden noise or movement?
  • What is known about this dog’s background?
  • How does their health seem?
  • Is the dog lame?
  • Offer a treat and see what the dog’s reaction is.

If this is a dog through a rescue organization, chances are that a foster family has been taking care of this pet in the interim. Ask them to tell you what they’ve learned about the dog. If you have children or other pets, ask them how this dog would react to them.

If you’re looking at an animal shelter, you should have the opportunity to interact with the dog in a fenced-in enclosure rather than simply staring at it through the bars of it’s kennel. Many dogs are extremely shy or upset in the kennel and it’s difficult to tell what they are like. Bring some tidbits and see how it does outside the kennel. Walk it around on a leash if you can.

If you are getting a dog from a breeder, then you should be able to find out about all its background. Do ask all the questions you have.

You can evaluate it’s temperament to some extent. Remember that the dog may be anxious or disoriented and thus not behave as it would normally.

Evaluating temperament

  • Talk to the dog. What is their reaction? Do they look up at you? Ignore you? Cringe and move as far away from you as they can?
  • Stand up and move near them. How do they react to you? Do they come up and lick your hand? Crouch down with ears down, perhaps urinating? Back away? Back away with ears down and snarling?
  • Squat down, extend a hand and let them approach you (do not approach them). Do they come up (perhaps after some hesitation) and lick or sniff your hand? Do they move away?
  • If you have children, bring them along. How does the dog react to the sight of them? To them walking up to the dog? To them sitting down and waiting for the dog to approach?
  • If you want to know how this dog reacts to cats, ask for permission to walk the dog past the cat part of the shelter. You might be able to improvise something else if you’re not at a shelter: Walking the dog around the neighborhood past some cats, for example.
  • Bring along a friend of the opposite sex with you to determine if the dog is averse to the other sex or not. Some dogs have specific fears of men, for example, so it’s best to check this out, especially if this will be a family dog.
  • If you walk away from the dog, do they follow you? How do they react to various things when you take them on a walk?

Dogs who are obviously uncertain in their temperament (snarling and biting, etc.) are not generally up for adoption at shelters. Dogs who tend to whine or urinate or crouch down are generally submissive dogs (not a problem unless it’s severe or not what you want). Dogs who approach you, even cautiously, tend to be friendly.

This is obviously just a rough indication of the dog’s temperament. Stay away from dogs who seem to be too fearful, unless you feel you know enough about dealing with these dogs to help them overcome their fear. These dogs can turn into fear biters.

Watch for these things

  • Indications of friendliness: Ears relaxed or down. Tail level with body, moderate to fast rate of waving. Approaches and sniffs. Watches you but averts eyes if you look at it too long. Play bows (front legs lay down, but back legs are still standing).
  • Indications of submissiveness: Ears down. Eyes constantly averted. Dribbles a little urine. Rolls over on back. Licks your chin or anything near. Tail tucked between legs.
  • Indications of fearfulness: Ears down, eyes averted, tail tucked, runs away from you. Shivers in corner (some breeds shiver anyway). Cringes or yelps at sudden movements.
  • Indications of dominance/assertiveness: Ears erect or forward, tail up high and wagging stiffly (spitz-type breeds can be difficult to ascertain between friendly wagging and assertive wagging). Holds ground, stares at you. These are not necessarily bad things. If the dog eventually approaches you and is friendly, then they’re likely a reasonably self-confident, friendly dog. If they growl, then they’re probably more aggressive.
  • Indications of aggression: Growls at you with ears forward and a stiff-legged stance, tail still. Watchful and alert.
  • Indications of a fear biter: Growls or snaps at you, ears are folded flat back, posture is crouching or submissive even though the dog is growling or snapping.

Some dogs appear disinterested. They don’t respond one way or another to you. These dogs may be sick. They might be overstimulated or exhausted. Or they might just be very independent. Some dogs are more independent and less overtly affectionate than others.

A few more tips

Plan to make repeated trips to whatever agency/person has the dog for repeated evaluations. Let the dog dictate the speed at which you progress through these steps. For very shy dogs, it may take a full week of visits. If the agency/person with the dog will not allow you to remove the dog from their current environment for an evaluation, look elsewhere for a potential dog.

It is important to get the dog away from their current environment because it may be very shy and timid there, by association, but carefree and wonderful when alone with you, like on a walk. The only way to tell is to remove the dog from the environment. Stated another way, you should eliminate the current environment the dog is in from any potential problems you may see with the dog. You will be able to tell by comparing the dog’s reactions in the original environment and when they are outside of it.

The questions you ask during this process are often a function of the environment in which the dog will be placed should you decide to adopt. For example, if you have other dogs at home and the potential adoptee is housed with other dogs and seems to get along well with them, chances are better that you will be able to integrate the dog into your home, as opposed to a dog who is aggressive toward other dogs.

Ask the agency/person for all information they have about the dog’s background.

  • Just a stray they picked up?
  • Was this an abused dog?
  • How did the dog come to be here?

All of these things give you more information that can be used to evaluate the dog’s personality and suitability for adoption.

Also, look for any physical ailments: lameness, shortness of breath, lethargy, and so on.

Above all, evaluate the dog and how the dog reacts to you. It is important for you to feel confident that this is a dog you can nurture and spend time with and enjoy, and that will enrich your life. Do not feel bad if you must reject a potential adoptee. This is part of the adoption process, and it is important for you both to get off on the right foot.

If you decide to adopt the dog, you should always take them directly to the veterinarian before you even take them home. If there is something seriously wrong with the dog, you want to find out before you’ve had the dog long enough to form an attachment.

Next, in Part 2 of this article, we offer some tips on what to do if you already have pets.

Part 2: Multiple Pets »

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