He was lying in a crate, watching children play a few feet away as the rest of the dogs at the adoption fair were scooped up by their forever families. From a distance, he looked intimidating, like someone had captured a black bear, put a yellow bandana around its neck, and tried to pass it off as a dog. But amidst all of the chaotic fun around him, he was calm and observant, almost longing to be a part of it. I looked up at my dad and mustered the best please-please-please-I-am-begging-you pair of eyes that a 15-year-old could still manage to put on.
A pause. A sigh. “Fine,” he says, “he can come home.”
When we adopted Duke, a 1-year-old Newfoundland, my family and I were still healing from the loss of our German shepherd, my childhood dog, only two weeks earlier. Not only did this loving ball of fluff help ease our heartache, but we were already prepared to give him everything he needed to suit his massive doggy needs. However, had we not been equipped with food meant for 90+ pound dogs, an endless supply of pig ear treats, and dozens of “indestructible” toys (spoiler alert: he decimated them), such a spontaneous adoption would not have gone as seamlessly as it did. The truth is, there’s so much more preparation that goes into rescuing a dog than just love at first sight.
While all dogs that come through the rescue are sent home with some essentials (including their up-to-date shots and being spayed or neutered if old enough), not all pet parents are so lucky. So what makes the happiest home for dogs and the least amount of stress for pet parents? I spoke with Ellyn Wasserberger of NY Pet Rescue, who's been in the business of finding dogs forever homes since 2002. Follow her recommendations for a rescue dog checklist to make sure you have the essentials.
“Having a place that can be your dog’s own space is important,” says Wasserberger. Filling their crate with a bed, toys, and even old clothes that still have your scent give your dog a sense of security. It's especially important if you’re bringing home a puppy that needs training and you don’t want your dog to be left to wander around when you’re not home.
Having a vet-recommended bone or chew is a good idea to help keep your rescue pup occupied. Choose one that promotes dental health and won’t break off and get caught in your dog’s throat—this can help keep your furniture safe, too.
“Avoid giving your dog things like cooked chicken bones and beef bones,” Wasserberger advises. “They splinter and get stuck in your dog’s intestines. And because the bones are cooked, they have absolutely no nutritional value to them.”
And we mean variety. Dog toys that squeak are great for your dog’s sensory activation. Ropes and tug of war type toys are a great way for you to spend some quality play time with your dog. Plush toys can be a comfort for your dog when they sleep or are in stressful situations, just make sure that whichever one you’re buying is especially suited to dogs and doesn’t have anything that could be a choking hazard if ripped off (think hard plastic eyes or noses). Interactive dog toys can also keep your dog busy if you can't be there all the time.
Allow your dog a place that gives them a break from their crate. Adding an extra bed for them that’s in the heart of your living space or bedroom allows your new pup some much needed bonding and socializing time with their new family.
These go without saying, as you’re going to need to take your dog on walks. Consider a harness for smaller dogs or if you have concerns about your pooch’s neck being strained in a traditional collar.
Your dog’s tags should have your number, address, and up-to-date vaccine information (if applicable). This is another no-brainer that may get lost in the excitement of bringing your adopted dog home. Make sure your most up-to-date contact information is on your dog’s collar, as well as their microchip number if you (or the rescue) decide to chip them.
Consider grabbing an extra water bowl to keep outside if you have a gated backyard that your dog will be spending a lot of time in.
In Pet Rescue’s case, your furry family member is sent home with a bag of food that they’ve already been eating. You can choose to transition off that or maintain that same brand. It's important to slowly transition your dog from one food to the next, as they have sensitive digestion processes. Wasserberger also notes the importance about being picky with your dog food.
“Not all food is the same. Dogs, especially puppies, need a high quality food. Meat should always be listed as the first ingredient.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal (gum) disease by the age of 3. Periodontal disease can lead to liver, kidney, and heart damage, which means basic dental care can help extend your dog's life. Pick up a toothbrush, some dog-friendly toothpaste (free of fluoride and xylitol, which can be toxic), and some dental chews.
This is especially important for first-time pet parents. While there’s the obvious no-no that is chocolate, did you know that the artificial sweetener xylitol can cause liver failure in dogs? Keep a handy-dandy list taped to the fridge for quick reference without having to guess if some food is safe to share with your dog.
Many rescue organizations can provide insight on whether your dog has other particular needs, such as joint issues or dry skin. Make sure you have those supplements ready to pick up where the rescue left off.
Consider getting pee pads if you’re bringing home a puppy and a baby gate if your dog has a tendency to destroy everything, or if there are just parts of the house you want to be off limits to them, like the second floor or basement.
There’s also the option of ramps for senior or handicap dogs. If you’re adopting a special needs dog, ask the rescue in advance if there’s anything they recommend or that the dog’s foster home has previously used.
Dog-proof your house so there are no exposed wires or other chewing hazards for your dog to get into. Make sure all of your valuables are either moved or put to a part of the house that your dog is not allowed in. Establish a schedule with your dog in terms of walking and feeding, Wasserberger notes. This is especially true if you’re self training your dog.
“If you’re not taking your dog to training classes, then the whole family needs to be onboard in their learning. It gives your dog much needed socialization and allows them to bond with the rest of the family. A well-trained dog is a happy dog—and family.”
One of the most important things to remember is that, chances are, your rescue doesn’t have a detailed analysis of your dog’s background—only something vague they can go off of.
We don’t know what the dog has been through by the time they get to us,” explains Wasserberger. "So do your best not to overwhelm the dog and give them some quiet time to settle into their new surroundings.”
If your dog doesn’t open up to you right away, be patient and understand it may take a few days (or longer), but with all the love and well-prepared home for them, they should be showing you their brand of affection in no time.