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How To Find And Bring Home Your Perfect Dog

By Kayla Fratt

After reading our last article on how to decide on what you want in your new dog, you might be ready to start looking. Your options in your local area will vary widely, so don’t be scared of getting creative. 

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Kayla with her pup, Niffler.

Step One: Plan Ahead

During the COVID pandemic, you won’t be able to just pop into the local shelter in most places. Be prepared to interact with the shelter or rescue online for a while before going in. For this reason, I suggest writing up a sample introduction for the shelter. It may read something like this (which is what I sent a shelter in April 2020 about a dog I was hoping to adopt):

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Be prepared to interact with the shelter or rescue online for a while before going in. For this reason, I suggest writing up a sample introduction for the shelter.

Hello, my name is Kayla and I’m interested in Ryker. I’m a 26-year-old dog trainer who enjoys trail running with my seven-year-old border collie. I am looking to add another active, healthy border collie to my home and Ryker caught my eye. I provide an active lifestyle full of agility, scentwork training, hiking and running. We live in a dog-friendly apartment complex. I generally work from home so the dog isn’t home alone often. My ideal dog is high-drive and friendly to neutral with people, dogs and cats. If Ryker and I sound like a good match, can we connect more soon?

There are a few key things in this note that you may want to replicate. Make sure to mention:

  • What you hope to do with the dog, or why you want a dog

  • Your household makeup

  • What you’re looking for in the dog

  • What you’ll provide to the dog and what your life together will be like

  • How to contact you

Start out by researching your options locally. You can likely just use Petfinder.com, but in some areas you’ll have better luck also checking local shelters and rescues. For example, Denver Dumb Friends League (where I used to work) often had pets updated on their website for a while before they appeared on Petfinder. In Denver, dog adoption is practically competitive, so that time difference mattered!

Step Two: Sift Through Local Listings

Once you’ve found your outlets for research, get your list handy. Generally, it’s easiest to narrow down dogs in online directories by their physical characteristics, so start there. If you know you have a size restriction or age preference, that’s relatively easy to sort on Petfinder or local shelter sites. Petfinder also allows you to sort based on sex, distance from you, breed, “good with” (for kids, cats or dogs), coat length and color. I suggest starting with an extra-narrow search then gradually expanding if you don’t find anything in the small pool you start with.

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If you know you have a size restriction or age preference, that’s relatively easy to sort on Petfinder or local shelter sites. Petfinder also allows you to sort based on sex, distance from you, breed, “good with” (for kids, cats or dogs), coat length and color.

From this shorter list, you can start to select dogs to read more about. Some dogs might not have a bio at all; in that case, just reach out using your little note and gather more information. In this case, you may want to include a few short questions about your top concerns with a match.

If the dog does have a biography available on the site, great! Scan through it for key phrases that could be euphemisms. Dogs described as dominant, shy, aloof, loyal, protective, alpha or nervous may not be great for homes with frequent guests or children. Dogs described as energetic, enthusiastic, excited or exuberant may be too high-energy for some homes. Think critically about what adjectives may mean and try your best to read between the lines. It’s worth asking more questions before writing these dogs off, but also know that those phrases may be euphemisms for behavior concerns that might strike a dog from your matchmaking list. 

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Dogs described as energetic, enthusiastic, excited or exuberant may be too high-energy for some homes. Think critically about what adjectives may mean and try your best to read between the lines.

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Step Three: Reach Out

If and when you decide to reach out about a given dog, simply follow up on the phrases that caught your eye. You might ask, “Fluffy’s bio says she’s aloof. Can you tell me a bit more about that? What does that look like and what might that mean in our home?”

Each shelter or rescue is going to work a bit differently. Some shelters or rescues will happily go back-and-forth over email for a while, while others will prefer to get you on the phone, while others may schedule a meet-and-greet right away. Be sure to work with however the shelter does its job, rather than making the staff or volunteers work harder!

I recommend calling first if you can, then trying an email address, then using a contact form. Many contact forms aren’t set up properly on the websites and a Petfinder message may never reach the shelter. You can use multiple forms of contact, but make sure to be polite and mention that you also reached out in other ways so multiple staff or volunteers don’t all spend their time trying to help you.

Once you’ve made initial contact and the shelter or rescue has confirmed that the dog is still available and may be a good match for you, it’s time to start asking questions!

Ask pointed questions related to the list you made before starting your search. You might also want to ask why the dog was relinquished to the shelter, what behaviors their old home reported, and what behaviors have sprouted up since the dog arrived. 

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Once you’ve made initial contact and the shelter or rescue has confirmed that the dog is still available and may be a good match for you, it’s time to start asking questions! Ask pointed questions related to the list you made before starting your search. You might also want to ask why the dog was relinquished to the shelter, what behaviors their old home reported and what behaviors have sprouted up since the dog arrived. 

You can also ask the shelter what their ideal home for that dog would be. I find that question really helps cut through mismatches in some cases. While you can make it work with a shy dog in your bustling home, hearing that the dog’s ideal home is more like a quiet retired farm may help you see things a bit more clearly! 

These questions also help you put the dog’s behavior into context once you meet them. Your meeting will just be a snapshot in time that you can compare to general assessments of the dog. For example, if the shelter schedules your meet-and-greet the day after your prospective dog was spayed, you may not see her true personality!

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Step Four: Meet the Dog!

If everything is looking good based on the information gathered, it’s time to schedule a meet-and-greet. It can be helpful to leave children behind and/or bring a trusted friend along for meet-and-greets. It can be incredibly hard to say no to a dog with your child hanging off your arm, so leaving your child but bringing a trusted friend can help you keep a clear head.

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It can be incredibly hard to say no to a dog with your child hanging off your arm, so leaving your child but bringing a trusted friend can help you keep a clear head.

Each shelter’s or rescue’s precise meet-and-greet format will vary quite a bit. Within the format that the shelter provides, do your best to observe the dog without interacting with them at first. This allows you to see how the dog interacts with other passersby: do they shy away in the back of the kennel, bounce around the front, or calmly ignore them and snooze on?

Once you actually meet the dog, see how the dog interacts with you. Are they all over the place? That’s pretty normal, and might actually be a good sign of friendliness. A more subdued dog may be perfect for your family — but depending on the nuances of their body language this could also be the sign of a shy dog. You can ask if the dog knows any behaviors and then pull out some treats, or take the dog for a little walk and see how engaged with you they are.

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Once you actually meet the dog, see how the dog interacts with you… You can ask if the dog knows any behaviors and then pull out some treats, or take the dog for a little walk and see how engaged with you they are.

Generally, the meet-and-greet is more to see if you and the dog “click” than it is to do a true assessment. Many dogs are too excited or nervous to let their real colors shine! See how things feel, then compare that against your more objective data-gathering from earlier. 

Step Five: Make a Decision

If the shelter allows it, try to sleep on the decision. Some shelters don’t allow this, but if you can take the extra time it will be really helpful to clear your head. You might find that after you walk away from that wet nose and wagging tail, you realize that the dog wasn’t right for you. Or maybe you’re up all night dreaming of them. Talk it over with friends and family and make a decision.

If everything seems right, it might be time to sign the adoption paperwork! Ask the shelter about post-adoption support for behavior concerns or medical issues, and if they offer trial adoption periods. Of course, you hope that the dog fits well into your home, but it’s also important to know what your options are if the dog simply doesn’t fit into your home as expected.

We hope you find the perfect match!


Next, read this helpful article on How To Introduce An Adopted Dog To The Family.


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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