The idea that an adult dog is somehow "damaged goods" as an adoption prospect is strangely pervasive, especially among people for whom an older dog would be perfect -- novices with neither the time nor the experience to raise a puppy properly.
The older dog (anything from 1 year old and up) can slide easily into your life and will bond just as surely as the dog you took home as a puppy. And older dogs are everywhere, available from private homes, rescue groups and shelters. If you're interested in a purebred, a rescue group specializing in your breed can be the deal of the century -- these volunteer organizations typically offer their dogs for the cost of the shots and neutering that they've already taken care of.
While the older dog can be a marvelous find, you still have to be selective. (That's true of puppies, too -- there are lots of poorly bred and ill-socialized little time bombs around.) While expecting to work on some things as your new dog gets used to you is reasonable, you want to avoid those animals who have too many problems, especially if one of them is aggression. Here are some questions to ask about any dog you're considering adopting:
-- What do you know of this dog's history? You may be dealing with a shelter, a rescue volunteer, the dog's original owner or breeder, or a nice person who found a stray. If you discover the dog is well-bred and his parents have been certified free of congenital defects, all the better. If you find out nothing about him, though, because he was a stray, don't count him out. If he's healthy and friendly and otherwise fits your size, coat and activity criteria, he's a contender.
-- Why is this dog available for adoption? Dogs become available for lots of reasons, some as frivolous as a change in decor. "Losing our home," "divorce" and "death" are some of the better ones; "bit our daughter" obviously is not (even if you don't have children). Listen, too, for what isn't said: "He needs more exercise than we can give him" may mean, "He needs more exercise than anyone could possibly ever give him, and he eats furniture when he doesn't get it."
-- What behavior problems does this dog have? Many things are fixable and worth considering if you honestly believe you'll take the time to work with the dog. Remember, too, that some problems don't need anything more than a dose of common sense to fix. "Won't stay in the yard," for example, may be easily cured by a decent fence and neutering.
How is he with children? Other dogs? Cats? Even if you don't have children, you're going to run into some from time to time. The same is true with other dogs. You can successfully avoid cats if you don't have them, but make certain your prospective pet at least tolerates them well if you do. If there's no way to determine the dog's attitude toward children and other animals but he seems friendly, he may be OK.
Above all, know that giving an older dog a second chance is the right thing to do. You're helping with the problem of "surplus" pets, and you're getting a good deal and a good dog on top of it, if you choose wisely. You can't ask for anything better than that.
Pets on the Web: Your local shelter may have lists of breed-rescue volunteers in your community, but the Internet has become one of the best ways to find these groups. A good place to start is the American Kennel Club (www.akc.org), which lists rescue contacts for national breed clubs (although you have to use the site's search function to find it).
Two Web sites I really like are Golden Retrievers in Cyberspace (www.rahul.net/hredlus/golden.html) and Doberman Rescue of Sacramento (http://Sacramen.to/doberescue). The sites offer a nice contrast between a group with national scope and one with a regional one -- both working hard to save animals.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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