Am I ready for a rescue dog?

Every year animal shelters are filled with thousands of unwanted dogs of all ages, shapes and sizes, all desperately in need of ‘forever' homes. Maybe you can't rescue every single dog but if you can save just one you will be helping to make a difference - both to that dog's future and your own life.

Selecting a dog

If you're going to make the right sort of difference, you need to make your choice wisely and carefully and often this can be the toughest part of taking on a rescue dog. Especially at shelters where you can walk around and view the residents, it is hard to resist the sad eyes and hard luck stories and all too easy to let your heart rule your common sense.

It can help if you make out a list beforehand with any definite preferences such as age, size, sex, activity level, coat type, compatibility with children, other dogs and so forth. This makes it easier for kennel staff to guide you in the direction of the dogs most likely to fit the bill and could help you to avoid making an impulsive mistake which could be very distressing for both you and the dog.

The next step is to check out opening hours at the shelter and pay a visit; allow plenty of time, as you'll need it! Weekends and holidays are usually busy, so if possible try to go along on a weekday. When you arrive, you'll generally be interviewed by a member of staff and asked to fill in a questionnaire; this can be pretty detailed and may sometimes seem rather personal. Remember that it is aimed at ensuring you can offer the right sort of home as well as identifying the sort of dog that would best suit you and your lifestyle.

The next step is to view prospective dogs; not all shelters allow you to walk around but will bring dogs out from their runs to meet you instead. Depending on the facilities available and each shelter's individual policy, a room or outdoor exercise/play area may be available for you to start getting to know each other, or you may be invited to take the dog out for a brief walk.

Spend as much time as you can with each dog so you can make a careful and considered decision rather than a snap judgment. As well as making your own observations, ask questions of staff - preferably the person responsible for the dog's care who will know him best - about his background, any assessments that have been made, his personality and so forth, to help give you as full a picture as possible.

Don't feel obliged to take what you're offered if you don't feel the dog is right for you, even though you may feel mean doing this. Remember this will be the start of a lengthy and, hopefully, happy relationship, so it's important for both of you to get it right.

If you do meet a dog you feel is ‘the one' don't expect to walk away with him there and then. You'll need to arrange for a home visit first and if the other members of your family (or other dogs you may own) don't accompany you on this visit, you'll need to visit again with them so they can meet and you can see how they react to each other.

Rescue facts

    • A survey conducted on behalf of Dogs Trust revealed that of the 105,201 stray dogs rounded up in the UK by local authorities during 2007, nearly 8,000 were destroyed for want of a home. This figure is shocking enough but is actually potentially even higher as it doesn't include figures from the 34 per cent of authorities who failed to respond or those dogs put to sleep by vets, or those by animal welfare organizations that don't operate a ‘no destruction' policy.
    • Pedigree breeds now outnumber mongrels and cross-breeds by ten to one at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.
    • Black dogs are more likely to be overlooked when it comes to rehoming than other colours.
    • Bitches tend to be more popular than dogs.
    • Although some stay longer through no fault of their own, the average length of stay for a dog at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home is 23 days.

Meeting your match

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home helps match up prospective dogs to owners using a computer ‘dating' system. As Ann O'Brien, the head of the behaviour unit explained: "Being able to cross-reference dog and owner details helps us to find the best matches.

With around 400 dogs here at any one time, the rehomers can't be familiar with every single one. Although you might not always click with each other, it's a starting point and a more reliable method than simply walking round trying to pick out a dog by how he looks."

The pros and cons

Adopting a rescue dog can have its downside. You're not necessarily getting a ‘ready-made' dog - it's highly likely you'll still have to do at least a little, and possibly quite a lot, of training with him and when you take him home you'll also be taking any behavioural problems he may have with you. Some dogs also behave very differently as they settle into their new homes and grow in confidence - what you see in kennels is not always what you'll get.

But while it's wise not to take too rose-tinted a view, there are plenty of positives to outweigh most of the negatives. There's the feel-good factor of giving a dog a second chance and most behavioural problems can be remedied with patience and application. You get a huge range of choice when you visit a shelter and the dogs will already have been health checked, vaccinated, wormed, de-flead and very often neutered, microchipped and with temporary insurance to boot.

Some charities provide back-up advice and support if new owners need it and some dogs may already have had the benefit of some basic training. Older dogs are often passed over in favour of younger pets but can still have much to offer. Not all dogs classed as ‘mature' are necessarily geriatric; at six or seven-years-old they may be in their prime and still very active with many years lying ahead of them. Those who are definitely senior in years will still repay your care a hundredfold with their company and affection and can make ideal pets for those who are either unable to fulfil the demanding exercise requirements of younger pets or are perhaps hesitant to take on a boisterous puppy due to being elderly themselves. Older dogs can be susceptible to age-related ailments, which can be another deterrent for some, but very often assistance with veterinary bills is offered in such cases.