Adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue is a life-changing decision—and it’s a wonderful one.
“Shelter dogs make some of the best dogs that we have out there,” says Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, DVM, service chief of community practice at Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
An estimated 3.3 dogs enter the animal shelter system every year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. A little over half a million dogs are strays who are returned to their owners, and another 1.6 million dogs are adopted each year.
Historically, the holidays are a popular time of year to bring puppies and dogs into the home. Available data does not exist for how many dogs are specifically adopted as presents, according to the 2013 study “Should Dogs And Cats Be Given As Gifts?” from the journal Animals. However, we know that shelters around the country say there is an increase in animals being returned (called surrenders) during and after the holidays.
This heartbreaking situation can be avoided by more responsible behavior from us humans. Animals are living creatures, not objects that can be returned to a store when interest wanes.
Returning an adopted dog to a shelter can be extremely disruptive for the animal. Dogs bond with their humans, says Ruch-Gallie, and may not understand why that bond was suddenly broken. Additionally, dogs thrive with routine, she says. Entering a shelter for the first time, adoption, acclimation to a new home, and relinquishment to the shelter again can be disorienting for the animal.
Our relationship with the pet we call “man’s best friend” can be one of the most rewarding of our lives. If you’re thinking about adopting—and especially giving someone a dog for Christmas this year—here’s what you need to know to do it responsibly.
After all, you are adding a new member to the family.
Is it Ethical to Give a Dog as a Present?
Some animal shelters will waive adoption fees during the month of December. It almost seems like an encouragement for families to adopt animals during the holidays.
In fact, the ASPCA does say it is acceptable to give a dog as a present. But—and this is a big but—only when you know the person already wants the animal. For example, one spouse may adopt a dog for the other who has expressed extended interest in caring for a pet, or parents may jointly decide to adopt a dog for their children.
It’s never OK to surprise anyone with a dog for Christmas. “As a gift is fine—as a surprise, absolutely not,” says Liz Fiore, a volunteer with Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, a non-profit rescue based out of Nashville, Tennessee. “Look at it like an engagement,” advises Fiore. “It’s not out of the blue, but you surprise them when and where you’re doing it.”
It’s crucial that an adopted dog have a good quality of life with his new family. Owning a dog can be up to an 18-year-long commitment, says Ruch-Gallie. “You’re giving a living creature to somebody, and that living creature needs care,” she adds.
It’s ideal if the person who will be caring for the pet can be involved in the selection of the dog. Some shelters or rescues may not even let a “Gotcha Day” occur without the intended owner meeting him first.
Before giving someone a dog for Christmas, make sure you know the answers to these questions first:
- Is anyone in the recipient’s household allergic to dogs?
- Are there small children in the house and is this dog good with children?
- Can they afford to pay for dog food, veterinary bills (x-rays, spay/neutering, flea medication, blood tests), leashes, collars, and toys?
- Are they able to walk the dog several times a day, or pay for a dog walker?
- Do they have time and patience to transition the animal into the home after the adoption?
- Do they have the time and patience to housetrain a puppy or dog? Are they ready and willing to clean up indoor accidents?
- Are they willing to train a dog out of negative behaviors like jumping and barking?
- If the dog has fur, are they willing and able to clean up dog hair?
- Are they able to lift or carry the dog to a bath, or to transport the dog to a groomer?
The good news is that dogs who are adopted as a present do end up being cherished members of the home. A survey by the ASPCA of people who were gifted dogs found that 96 percent of said that receiving the dog as a present increased or had no impact on their love and attachment for the animal.
How to Give a Dog for Christmas Responsibly
Usually the holidays can be a difficult time to transition a new dog into the home after an adoption. Owners may travel, guests come in and out, and there are packages, ribbons, and decorations everywhere. All that can be overstimulating or scary for a puppy or dog.
“The challenge with the holidays for a lot of people is there’s a lot of chaos,” says Ruch-Gallie. But thanks to Covid, “this year may be perfectly fine [to give a dog as a present], because we may be a lot quieter during the holidays than we traditionally are,” she continued.
How to Adopt a Dog
If you give a dog for Christmas, make sure that the recipient will be able to be home to establish a routine for walking, feeding and play. “A lot of dogs like some routine,” says Ruch-Gallie. “If their routine changes on a regular basis, that makes it challenging for them.”
There are both pluses and minuses to puppies and adult dogs. For an adult dog, you’ll likely have more information about his personality and whether he’s good with children, cats, chickens or other dogs. An older dog may also have had some behavioral training already, like knowing ‘sit,’ ‘stay’ or ‘leave it.’ “You still have to train [the dog],” says Fiore of older dogs. “But not the general puppy stuff.”
Older dogs may be more set in their ways, though. For example if a dog is afraid of men or children or the sound of the vacuum cleaner, that may never change.
How to Adopt a Puppy
Puppies are very cute, of course. But puppies require even more special care and training during their transition into a home. Remember, for a puppy, everything is new.
Training a puppy takes dedication—and time. It is a wise idea to research the basics of puppy training before you decide to take on that responsibility. “You obviously want to make sure that you are prepared to train the puppy and housebreak the puppy [potty training] and crate train the puppy and deal with bad behavior,” says Fiore.
How long it takes a puppy to acclimate to a new situation varies, says Ruch-Gallie. The puppy should have been allowed eight full weeks with his mother and littermates. Ideally, a puppy should also have been socialized with other people, including kids, and handled early on.
You may have heard about a “pet adoption boom” clearing out animal shelters at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But experts say those claims were mostly media hype. In fact, the “Pets in a Pandemic” report from MARS Petcare found 61% of pet parents were concerned about their ability to financially provide for an animal.
What to Know Before Adopting a Dog
Before adopting a shelter dog, you should know the type of dog that would suit the family best (big vs. small dog, puppy vs. older dog.). Here are some tips on making the best choice for dog adoption:
1. Be honest about your lifestyle.
Dog breeds each have different personalities, temperaments and potential health issues. While all dogs can be trained to some degree, many traits are fixed and an adoptive family needs to accept that aspect of the dog’s behavior. For example, some breeds are active and need to run off their energy daily in a backyard, park or dog park.
Other breeds—like the Saint Bernards or Great Pyrs rescued by Big Fluffy Dog Rescue—were bred to be working dogs, says Fiore. Working dogs may get bored and mischievous (i.e., destructive) if they don’t have farm animals or a family to ‘guard.’ Other dogs are more than happy to be couch potatoes and snuggle all day on the couch.
You should only adopt a dog whose personality and temperament will mesh with the lifestyle of his adoptive family.
2. Research the dog breed first.
Fiore recommends the American Kennel Club as a good resource for in-depth information about breeds. The site explains health and grooming needs, exercise requirements and trainability, as well as what life expectancy and how large a puppy will be at full size.
If you adopt a mix/mutt, obviously you should read about all the breeds in the mix.
3. See what other pet owners are saying on social media.
Searching social media before adopting a dog is also a great way to research breeds, Fiore says. You can check hashtags on Twitter or Instagram like #pitmix, #terriermix or #poodlemix.
Facebook groups devoted to, say, golden retrievers, will give you an honest, no-holds-barred look at the dog breed’s behavior (both good and bad).
Dog caretakers usually love to talk about their pets, so take advantage of this!
How to Surrender a Dog
Sometimes the responsibility of caring for a dog ends up being too great for the new family. Other times, certain dogs and families just aren’t a match. As the person helped adopt the dog, you should help to make sure the dog is safely and humanely surrendered. “That living creature, the burden of that care, goes back to you,” warns Ruch-Gallie.
You can surrender your animal at your local shelter or Humane Society.
Breed rescues are easily found online by searching “poodle rescue” or “pitbull rescue.” If you adopted the dog from a rescue, it will usually take the animal back, Fiore adds.
You can also ask local veterinarians if they will allow you to put up a flyer advertising the dog you need to surrender or “re-home” your dog.
However you relinquish your animal, the Humane Society of the United States recommends that you be transparent about the dog’s personality and any medical issues so that potential new adoptees are fully informed. You should have your dog’s veterinary records available to hand over when you surrender the animal, and you may expect to pay a fee.
Never, ever release dogs (or any other pets) into the wild. “They can’t fend for themselves—they’re domesticated,” says Fiore. “They’re dependent on humans to care for them.”