Top Tips for Adopting a Shelter Dog

October is national Adopt a Shelter Dog month. So if you are looking for a great four-legged addition to your family, now is the perfect time to get a pet that desperately needs a home. On "The Early Show," Resident Veterinarian and CBS News correspondent Dr. Debbye Turner Bell shared some tips on how to find a good pet at a shelter for you and your family:

There are eight to 10 million homeless animals in shelters across the country and the cold, hard reality is that approximately half of them -- four million -- will not find homes and have to be euthanized. Shelters are a great place to find a great pet. You just need to do your homework, know what you're looking for, and ask the right questions.

The good shelters out there will have already done a lot of the legwork for you. You can expect them to have already spayed or neutered the pet. They should have already vaccinated and de-wormed the animal. And if there were any underlying health issues when the pet arrived at the shelter, the staff veterinarian should have already completed, or at least started, the treatment. When shelters adopt out an animal, they don't ever want to see that animal back in a shelter. So, most will do all they can to make sure the pet you take home is healthy, happy, and whole, so that the pet is with you for the rest of his life. But let's face it, there is a reason that the animal ended up in the shelter in the first place. While some shelter animals were perfect pets and the owners relinquished or abandoned it through no fault of the pet, a large majority (some report 60 percent or more) end up at the shelter because of behavior issues, like barking, aggression, chewing, or general unsocialized behavior. That is why it is essential to ask the right questions and know exactly what you're getting into.

When you visit the shelter, keep your eyes open. Be observant! Avoid animals that look sick; that have runny eyes or noses, dull eyes, persistent cough, sneezes, are lethargic, or seem fearful. Many of us are drawn to the "underdog" but the dog that is cowering in the back of the cage with his/her ears back, head down, and tail tucked between the legs may be extremely fearful. Sometimes a fearful dog can be an aggressive dog. A significant portion of dogs that bite, bite out of fear. This dog may need special attention, socialization, and training.

Ask the shelter about the dog's history. Unfortunately, sometimes the shelter just doesn't know the animal's history if he is a stray or abandoned pet. But many times they do know. Find out if the pet has any health concerns, chronic diseases, or history of behavior problems (like biting or nipping, digging, chewing or barking). Often if the animal does have a behavior issue, that is exactly why they ended up in the shelter in the first place! Confirm that the pet has been spayed or neutered, de-wormed, checked for heartworms, and vaccinated. If these things have not been done, ask the shelter if they will perform these tasks before you take the pet home.

WHAT TO ASK:
Get a complete history of the animal that you are considering.
Age (Although sometimes there is no way for the shelter to know for sure), breed, gender
Where the dog came from
What was his previous living situation
What is his medical history
How has he behaved since being at the shelter
Ask if the dog has any ongoing medical issues (cancer, diabetes, intestinal parasites, heartworms, etc.) and if the dog is on any medication.
Ask what follow-up services that shelter provides, such as obedience training, consultation for behavioral problems, medical services.
Ask about their return policy. It's important to know if you can return the dog if the adoption does not work out.

While all animals in a shelter should have a chance at a good life in a great home, you might want to take a closer look at the shelter itself. A good shelter is clean, smells good, friendly, and very knowledgeable. Often shelters will have a veterinarian on staff, as well as a staff behaviorist. In these cases, you can expect all the animals ready for adoption have received the proper medical care that they need and the behaviorist has evaluated his/her temperament and worked out any behavior issues.

WHAT TO EXPECT:
Most shelters will conduct an interview with you to determine your lifestyle, resources, and dedication to providing a "forever home" for the animal. You usually will have to fill out a fairly exhaustive application that will ask questions about your employment, living situation, family members, income, other pets in the home, etc. Expect a good shelter to ask YOU as many (if not more) questions than you ask them.
Many shelters ask for references and check them!
Some shelters will even conduct a home evaluation to make sure your living environment is suitable for a pet.
Animals will already have been spayed or neutered. Or you will have to provide assurance that you will spay or neuter your new pet as soon as they reach the appropriate age.
The animal will also already be vaccinated and de-wormed.
There is usually an adoption fee, but it is much less than the cost or purchasing an animal at a pet shop or breeder. Expect to pay anywhere from $50-150 or more.
Shelters have visiting hours, so call ahead to know when is the right time to show up.
After you've taken your newest, furriest family member home, often the shelter will call you to see how you and the new pet are doing.

HOW TO CHOOSE:
First understand your lifestyle and expectations. You should choose a dog whose own natural traits best fits your lifestyle. If you lead a busy, active lifestyle, then you want a dog that fits your household. If you want a lap dog, then don't choose a Border Collie!
Carefully look at the breeds or dogs that match your lifestyle. Spend time with each animal. Observe how the dog relates to you. Look for a "connection" with that dog. Often the dog with "pick you" if you take the time to notice.
Avoid animals that look sick (i.e. Runny nose or eyes, scaly skin, dull coat, open sores, lethargic, coughing or sneezing, etc.)
Pick a dog that is curious and alert but not fearful or jumpy. When approached, the dog should accept your advances, sniff you, or even present her belly or rump to be scratched.
If you have other pets at home, observe how the shelter candidate interacts with other animals. Avoid those that display aggression toward or extreme fear of other animals. A very general rule of thumb when bringing home a dog with existing dogs in the home, is to choose a dog that is younger and opposite sex of the dog you already have at home.
Before you make your final choice, take the ENTIRE family to the shelter to meet the dog. Sometimes a dog will respond differently to different people. You don't want to find out that your new pet doesn't like kids AFTER you get him home!

Finally, 25 to 30 percent of dogs in shelters are purebreds. So, you don't have to go to a breeder, or God forbid a pet store, to get a pedigreed pooch. Plus, shelters get new animals almost daily, so if you don't see one that is right for you on your first visit, just wait and go back again another time. Many shelters will take your preference down and notify you if the breed you are looking for comes in. A lot of shelters have more than just dogs and cats in residence. Many rescue pocket pets (like hamsters, guinea pigs, and gerbils), rabbits, birds, even turtles and snakes. So give a homeless animal a chance for a good life. Adopt a shelter pet!

Dogs featured on "The Early Show":
(See photos of these dogs in this story's photo area above.)

Cody is a 7-year-old male/neutered Pomeranian. He is VERY sweet and quiet!

Rocky is a 2-year-old male/neutered Poodle mix. He is very friendly and playful, with a very cheerful disposition.

Nick is a 5-month-old male/neutered Boxer mix. Nick is so nice! He loves to walk, play fetch and is generally very fun loving, a real puppy!!

Flops is a 10-year-old Lab mix. He is super sweet and friendly. He just is slightly arthritic and shouldn't take too many stairs.

If you are interested in adopting any of these dogs, go to the Humane Society of New York for more information.