Ask Dr. Wan: "Is it better to get a puppy than an adult dog?"

Dr. Wan discusses whether age should be a consideration when searching for a new canine companion.

Q:  Is it better to get a puppy than an adult dog? I’ve heard that adult dogs are more likely to come with behavioral problems, whereas puppies are “clean slates.” 

A:  You need not consider the adult dog in your local shelter to be damaged goods.  Events having nothing to do with a dog’s behavior often lead to relinquishment.  When I was a volunteer at a shelter in New York City, an owner surrendered a dog because the dog didn’t match the sofa!  A study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy found the following top ten reasons for owner relinquishment of dogs to shelters:

  • Moving
  • Landlord not allowing pet
  • Too many animals in household
  • Cost of pet maintenance
  • Owner having personal problems
  • Inadequate facilities
  • No homes available for littermates
  • Having no time for pet
  • Pet illness(es)
  • Biting

As you can see, only one of the top ten reasons was a behavioral one.  Furthermore, the reality of the situation is that dogs whose behavior or history raises red flags are often euthanized by shelters for liability and other reasons.  Therefore, in many cases, the dogs available for adoption may be considered a pre-screened population.  You can certainly ask the shelter staff or volunteers to discuss the intake and evaluation process and to explain what they know about a particular dog’s behavior.  Further tips about the process of adopting a dog are available here, and dogs available for adoption can be viewed here.

Another point to keep in mind is that puppies, whether purchased from a breeder or adopted from a shelter, have already had a multitude of experiences by the time they are made available to you at the age of eight weeks. For example, they’ve likely had both positive and negative experiences with their mothers, littermates, human handlers, and environmental stimuli.  Therefore, it is not really accurate to view puppies as “clean slates.”  Even puppies can display behavioral issues due to negative early experiences. 

All things considered, I do hope you’ll consider an adult dog as a viable option for your next pet.  However, I also don’t want to imply that bringing an adult dog into the home is an easy process. Patricia McConnell and Karen London, who recently wrote Love Has No Age Limit for adopters of adult dogs, note that adopters may not feel an immediate bond with their adult dogs, and it could take up to a year for an adult dog to settle into his new home.  Be patient, and expect to experience a crisis of confidence, just as you would with a new puppy. While some adult dogs are already housetrained and have basic obedience under their belts, others may need a great deal of training, so be prepared to invest time and energy into working with your new companion.


Dr. Wan provides dog behavior and training consultations to Fairfield County dog owners.  She earned her doctorate and researched dog-human communication at Columbia University. 

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