So you’re thinking of bringing a dog into your life, huh? That’s exciting! Dogs are wonderful additions to our lives. Now, you have to decide where you’re going to get a dog. Once you start to tell people you’re thinking of getting a dog, you’re bound to hear someone tell you “adopt don’t shop”. “Adopt Don’t Shop” is a slogan used to raise awareness about all the wonderful pets available for adoption in shelters and rescues nationwide. While the phrase has good intentions, working in the dog industry I’ve heard it used more often by people pressuring prospective dog owners to adopt rather than buy from a breeder. So, is it true? Is adopting a dog a better choice than buying? The reality is that the answer isn’t black and white. Let’s dive in and figure out which is best for you.
There are a few different routes you can go to adopt a dog. Rescues and shelters. While they have the same goal in mind, there are a few differences. Shelters are usually run and funded by the local government, whereas rescues are usually funded by donations and are run mainly by volunteers. The key word here is usually, there are always exceptions and there are so many amazing rescues and shelters out there that it’s hard to lump them into only two groups.
If you’re adopting, the process is going to vary drastically depending on the shelter or rescue you’re adopting from. Some rescues do extensive background checks, and have very high requirements you’d have to meet in order to adopt from them. Sometimes these requirements are so high that the perfect family may be turned down for something as simple as not having a 6 foot privacy fence. On the other hand, some shelters have very low standards, and virtually anyone can bring any pet home right away. I can speak from experience. The shelter I adopted my first two dogs from let me take them both home same-day, they asked me very few questions that were mainly aimed at making sure I was legally allowed to own a dog where I lived - which is good - but they hardly asked me any questions to ensure I was a good fit for the dog I was trying to adopt. To be clear, in no way am I trying to speak poorly of them. They are an amazing team of people, who had way too many dogs in their shelter and they were doing the best they could to ensure each and every one got a home, while trying to make room for the numerous dogs they were taking in daily and trying to avoid needing to euthanize as many as possible. This just meant that any home was better than no home.
Unpredictable temperament. Let's say you walk up to a kennel and the information card for the dog has it's breed listed as “Lab Mix”. For most shelter pets they don’t know for sure what it's breeds really are. It may look mostly like a Labrador, but there’s a problem here. Phenotype vs. Genotype. If we’re looking at genetics, a phenotype refers to physical characteristics, whereas genotype refers to genetic characteristics. The dog you’re considering may look mostly like a lab, but it may be mixed with a Greyhound. And while it looks like one, it may have the temperament of the other. For this reason, its very hard for you to predict what the dog's temperament and needs will be like. Of course, the rescue/shelter staff should be able to tell you but there are a few problems with this as well. Most dogs in a shelter situation don’t act like themselves in such a setting. The setting is so completely different than that of a home, and the shelter staff may not really know, or they may be so busy caring for so many pets that they don’t have time to spend one on one time with the dog. Rescues that place dogs in foster homes would have a better idea of a dogs needs and personality.
History. Dogs end up in shelters and rescues for a multitude of reasons. This means there is a lot of information that can get lost. Medical information is a big one. Without knowing the exact breeds your dog is mixed with, its hard to know what medical issues they may be predisposed to. And even if they are a purebred, you probably won’t have access to information on whether or not the parents were health tested or have medical issues of their own that could be passed down to the dog you’re potentially adopting. The two dogs I adopted both suffered from several types of parasites that took months to get rid of. They most likely picked these up in the shelter because of the high volume of dogs housed there. One had a chronic cough, the shelter vet couldn’t find any obvious medical issue but after having him a while we had his chest x-rayed and found out he had permanent damage to his lungs that was likely caused by a severe parasitic infestation he had before being picked up off the streets. While the cough wasn’t severe enough at the time of adoption to cause much concern, our veterinarian does think his lungs will stiffen as he gets older and cause more serious medical issues down the road. The other dog we adopted had an infection in his intestines that caused symptoms the shelter assumed were caused by separation anxiety. Because the shelter told us this was the issue, we rolled with it. It wasn’t until 6 months later, seven crates destroyed, accidents daily and an extremely wobbly relationship with him that we finally figured it out. Within a month of discovering the root issue, the infection and behavior problems both got much better. But, we spend literally a few thousand in medication, crates, and medical treatment before finding the root cause of the issue.
Am I saying shelter dogs are more prone to illness? Absolutely not. Actually, from the dogs I’ve met and worked with it seems mixed breeds tend to be much healthier than a lot of purebreds nowadays due to backyard and irresponsible breeding. What I’m saying is that while adopting a dog is initially much cheaper than buying, you don’t have any way of knowing what you’re getting into and sometimes they end up being more expensive in the long run.
Puppies. As mentioned before, you’re not always sure what breeds a dog is mixed with when adopting from a shelter. This is especially true for puppies. Small puppies are even harder to guess, and their personalities haven’t really come through yet. So you’re really signing up for a surprise.
Adopting a dog also has many perks. It's incredibly rewarding to earn a dogs trust, and you learn more about yourself in the process. The companionship is priceless, and sometimes you're forced to go outside your comfort zone to start new activities. My rescues have taught me more about patience and understanding than my puppy ever did. They also inspired me to change my career path, and because of them I've met some truly incredible people.
So then there's the other option.
First, lets get one thing straight. If you choose to buy, please please please, do your research and buy from a reputable breeder. Aside from adopting there are plenty of other ways you can get a dog - buying off craigslist, backyard breeders, pet shops that usually get puppies from puppy mills - but... just don’t. If I were to explain all the reasons you shouldn't get a dog in those ways, I'd need a new post altogether. So for the sake of this article, when I say buying I am only referring to buying from a reputable breeder.
Genetics. You have a complete family tree at your disposal. Reputable breeders health test all dog parents before breeding them. This doesn’t guarantee you’re dog will never experience health issues, but it does give you a sense of security that measures have been taken to prevent them.
Exposure training. Reputable breeders rarely breed dogs for profit. They breed them because they love the breed. The are experienced and knowledgeable, and they start handling the puppies correctly during vital developmental periods, so you’re puppy is well socialized and exposed before you bring it home. Your puppy will still need you to practice exposure and socialization training after you bring it home, but your breeder will do a lot of work to make sure you start off on the right foot.
You get the right match. Most reputable breeders don’t let you choose which puppy you'd like to bring home. This may be disappointing, but it's for a good reason. Your breeder will ask you about your lifestyle and how this puppy will be a part of it. Then, they’ll match you to the puppy in the litter they think is best suited for your needs. And if that puppy ends up not being a match, they’ll take them back and find them another home.
Predictable temperament. When buying from a breeder, you get choose which breed you’re bringing into your life. This means you can choose the breed best suited for your lifestyle. While individual personalities vary, temperament within breeds is pretty predictable. This means you can pick a breed that matches your lifestyle. Even as a puppy, you have a good idea of what you’re getting.
Age. Buying from a breeder means you’re getting a puppy, most of the time. Who doesn’t love puppies, right? Raising a puppy is exceptionally rewarding. You have full control over how to train them, and you can make sure you properly expose and socialize your puppy from the get-go. This isn’t always the case when you adopt, as that dog may not have been properly socialized or trained and now you have some cleaning up to do. But, on the other hand, a puppy isn’t right for everyone either. Puppies need a lot of work and attention. If you work a full time job and are hardly ever home, a puppy may not be a great fit for you. Even if you are home, you may not have the energy or physical ability to care for a growing puppy that needs regular exercise, mental stimulation and training.
This is going to be different for everyone. To make the decision, here are some things you should consider.
Do you have flexibility in your lifestyle? If you’re looking for a companion and you’re willing to adjust your lifestyle based on that individual dogs needs - a rescue pet is a great option. For example - if you’re not the most active person, but you’re willing to go above and beyond to provide the dog you get with the exercise it needs. Or if you’re very athletic, but the dog you bring home isn't and can't quite keep up, you won't be disappointed to let them nap while you complete your daily run on your own. Adopting a pet is a fantastic option when you don't have expectations are are willing to grow, learn and adapt to thrive with your new companion.
Do you have requirements that are non-negotiable? If you have specific needs, a
breeder will be a better option. For example, if you work 40 hours a week, and when you get home you have kids to care for and dinner to cook and you just don’t have time to take the dog for a run everyday. Or you live in an apartment and can’t have a large dog romping around above your neighbors all day. If you need to have some control over the size and temperament of your dog, buying from a breeder allows you to ensure you get a dog that will fit your needs.
Age. Puppies are great, but do you have time to house train a puppy? Do you have time to dedicate to training and socializing a young puppy? If not, rescues and shelters have dogs of all ages. Maybe you want a young dog who's active and can keep up with your busy family, but not quite a puppy. Maybe you want an older dog who doesn’t need much exercise anymore and is happy to relax with you at home. Adopting an older dog is great. When we adopted Max he was already crate trained, house trained and didn’t need constant supervision. There will still be some things to work through with an older dog, but they likely won't need to be fed and let outside as frequently as a puppy.
Size. Small, medium or large? You want to make sure the size of your dog matches your lifestyle. If you have a very rambunctious family or a house with other very large dogs, a small dog may not be the best fit. On the other hand, if you live in an apartment or can’t physically hand a large dog, a smaller dog may be better suited. Buying from a breeder makes this easy, you’re able to choose a breed within a specific size range. If you adopt a puppy, the rescue or shelter can make a prediction as to what the puppy’s adult size will be, but they aren’t always right. I’ve know people who adopt a puppy and are told it will only be 40lbs full grown, and a year later they’re taking their 90lb dog for a walk. If you’re adopting, be prepared to adapt if things don’t go as planned.
PRICE. Buying from a breeder is expensive, but for good reason. Breeders put a lot of work into making sure you’re puppy will be healthy and set up for success. While shelters and rescues generally are significantly cheaper initially, that doesn’t mean you won’t pay for it later in unexpected medical expenses or training. The bottom line is, dogs are not cheap. Whether you’re buying or adopting, you need to research the overall cost of owning a dog. Medical expenses, pet insurance, food (some breeds eat a lot more than others), toys, treats, training, and equipment. If you are doubting that you can afford to buy from a breeder, you should also consider if you can care for your adopted dog in an emergency. I’m not saying you need to be rich, but you need to be prepared to properly care for your dog.
If adopting is better for you, great! It’s an incredibly rewarding experience. But, if buying from a breeder is the better choice for you, that’s ok. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for not rescuing a shelter pet. Bringing a dog into your home is a commitment. You owe it to yourself and to the dog you bring home that you make the right decision for you.