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Shop or Adopt?


January 16, 2014 by Julia

Recently, a friend came to me with a dilemma – She wants to add a dog to her family, but should she adopt from a rescue or buy from a breeder? While writing out a long email reply, I realized that my “answer” could be applied to anyone. When it comes time to add a canine family member, should you adopt or shop? Rescue or purchase? Unlike some, I don’t believe there is only one right answer. But, as I did for my friend, I’ll offer some points to consider.

First, and this applies to any of the options – You cannot, no matter how hard you try, totally control the outcome of dog + household. If you are a control-freak like me, this is not the answer you want to hear, but you should make peace with it if you are going to bring a new dog into your home. You can make an informed decision and do your best to create the right situation, but there are no guarantees that things will turn out according to your best laid plans.

Next, you need to consider your goals or criteria for the dog. The average pet owner is looking for something very different than a world-level performance competitor, even though both will be living with their dogs as family. Each option could provide what you want, but finding the right dog takes some work.

Puppy from a Breeder

Let’s be clear from the start – When I say breeder, I mean a responsible, ethical breeder who wants to improve the breed. Pet stores, puppy mills, and backyard breeders looking to make a buck or breed because “Spot would make such cute babies” are not included. The breeders I support follow the standard, Code of Ethics, and recommended genetic health testing for their particular breed. They screen their potential buyers and they will take a dog back or help rehome it if you cannot keep it. They are knowledgeable about their breed’s temperament, genetic predispositions, and the bloodlines they are using in their breeding. Costs vary by breed, but with a responsible breeder you could easily be looking at $1,000 for a puppy. Breeders like this invest so much into good breeding that they are not making a living (or in some cases, any profit at all) from their ventures. A breeder will also be a lifelong resource for you and your pup, which can be invaluable.

These breeders work hard to match homes with the right puppy and they will take your needs and situation into account. Depending on the size of the litter, you may have your choice of several puppies or you may be matched with the best fit puppy. Some people balk at not being able to pick their puppy, but the breeder has lived with them for 8 weeks and knows their personalities. Even so, that 8 week old puppy may not grow up to be the dog you picture in your head. A solid background and savvy observations give the breeder’s predictions a good chance of being right, but it isn’t a certainty.


  • The “Aww” factor – big eyes, soft furry body, bouncy play style. Who doesn’t love a puppy?
  • You know (via the breeder) what is behind the dog in terms of temperament and health.
  • You determine how the dog is raised and socialized.
  • Your breeder will be resource when you have questions or concerns.


  • The “Eww” factor – poop, pee, vomit, chewing your stuff, nipping, not sleeping through the night. It’s a good thing they are so damned cute!
  • You have to put in all the work of raising them – and it is a lot of work.
  • Sticker shock, especially if you’ve only seen prices from “casual” or “backyard” breeders.
  • No guarantees – the puppy you get may not grow to be the dog you imagined.
Delta, the Boxer puppy

Proud owner of a well-bred puppy.

Adoption from a Rescue, Shelter or Private Home

You can adopt, which usually means an adolescent or adult, from a number of places. Costs are typically lower than a breeder, but still vary quite a bit from source to source.

Rescues that operate with foster homes typically have the strictest adoption rules and families without fences or with small children may not qualify. There are usually long questionnaires or interviews and home visits. Some people find it intrusive but these rescues are trying their very best to find the right, permanent home for their dogs. The benefit is that these rescues often have a very clear sense of who the dog is – they’ve seen them in a home environment, may have been able to test them out with kids or cats, and they typically use behavioral evaluations. Their adoption fee is less than a breeder but can be several hundred dollars. Given the amount of time and effort they put into their dogs, it is a good value.

Shelters get a lot of dogs in all age ranges and they typically have lower adoption fees than a rescue. They may know some of the dog’s background and they’ll have some observations but it can be very hard to tell what some dogs are really going to be like in a shelter environment. Their adoption requirements are not as strict as rescues, in part because of their limit resources, but they will collect some information and have some restrictions.

Lastly, there are dogs being rehomed by their current owners. They may be on Craigslist, in the paper, or word of mouth. The benefit is that the person you’re working with has lived with the dog and knows their background and habits. They may be asking for money or giving the dog away for free. Don’t automatically think that those who are asking for money are just trying to make a buck – some have been encouraged to use a price as a litmus test to weed out people who aren’t serious.


  • The dog is already grown or mostly-grown and they “know who they are”. What you see is what you get.
  • They aren’t puppies – they have more control of their bladder, the ability to sleep for longer stretches at night, and have outgrown their voracious puppy appetites.
  • They are usually at least partially house-trained and may have some other basic manners or skills.


  • What you see is what you get *after* a period of adjustment. Like humans, dogs feel out a new environment before settling in and showing their full personality.
  • You don’t really know the background and history. If you are lucky, you may have a good idea but that is still someone else’s interpretation.
  • They’re imperfect and you didn’t make them that way. Some people call this “other people’s problems” but I think that is unfair. Still, it can be frustrating if you have a dog that has mastered a bad habit that you are stuck trying to break.
  • No guarantees – the dog you choose may not become the dog you expect.
Dash the Boxer pants with excitement

Proud owner of “someone else’s problem”

Other Variations: “Change of Career” and “Growing Out” Dogs

Service dogs and show dogs who didn’t make the cut are another possible source. Service dogs may be “released” because they don’t have the very particular temperament needed for service dogs. A friend has one of these dogs who was just too “busy” to lay calmly at someone’s feet for hours, but he makes a fantastic family member. Similarly, breeders may keep show prospects to “grow them out” or because they hope to breed them. Frequently, dogs that aren’t suitable to the breeder for reasons that would not matter to a pet home. The benefit of both these dogs is known histories (both personal and genetic), in addition to the advantages of a rescue dog. Breeders may also have dogs returned to them when a puppy buyer is unable or unwilling to keep them. Each of these options will still cost more than a shelter, but less than a puppy. 

So which way do you go?

Did you notice what each choice had in common? No guarantees. You need to relinquish any illusion you have that you control the outcome. The best you can do is stack the deck in your favor. You may find that the dog you didn’t imagine is also exactly the dog you needed.

In the end, there is no one right answer. There may not even be one right answer for one family at one time. Finding the right dog is part researching and planning, part something else – fate, luck, or whatever you might call it. Your gut and heart will make the decision while your head pretends it ran the show.

Boxers Dash and Delta are waiting for their treats.

Who runs the show?


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