How to choose a rescue dog, by expert trainer Ben Randall

Adopting a dog in need of a new home can be a fabulous experience that will transform your life for the better, but you need to think carefully before you take the plunge. Ben Randall is here to help.

If you’re thinking of getting a dog, then broadly speaking there are two roads you can go down: finding a puppy or getting a rescue dog from a local charity. It’s easy to see the attractions of either path: puppies are all but irresistible, while the idea of giving a loving home to a dog in need is equally appealing.

If you go down the latter path, though, you should do so with eyes open for rescue dogs can have issues in their past which may not be obvious — as we saw with the recent article about a retired racing greyhound who was nervous about going places in the car.

The main thing is to understand what you’re getting into before you take the plunge, so it was great to hear from this reader who wrote to me for advice last October before going ahead:

Hi Ben, we’re looking at getting a dog from our local rescue centre. We’re not too worried about what type it is, but really want it to be a happy, friendly family dog. What should we think about and what should we be aware of before we choose?  — JT, Lancashire

Over the last decade or more here at Ledbury Lodge Kennels we’ve seen many rescue dogs that have gone to their new, loving homes and regularly come back for boarding holidays here. We see the full spectrum of experiences that people have with their rescue dogs: the good and, unfortunately, the bad.

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I’m not going to sugar coat it; there are pitfalls. But by making sure you do the right things, for the right reasons, right from the start, you’ll be able to find a wonderful pet that’s just right for you. And you’ll massively reduce the chances of being forced to hand your dog back to the same centre in six months time. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

How to choose the right rescue dog

1. Take care if you come across a ‘fashionable breed’ rescue dog

We tend to think of rescue dogs as being mixed breeds, but that really isn’t the case these days.  You’d be surprised how many pedigree dogs end up at rescue centres… and they’re almost always the fashionable breeds: French bulldogs, cockapoos, pugs, Staffordshire bull terriers and the like.

While many people who buy puppies of those sort of breeds are good owners, there are far too many who see a dog as a fashion accessory — and all too often, they’ll get rid of them as casually as they would get rid of last season’s handbag. These buyers aren’t dedicated owners and trainers — they’ve bought them on a whim and will likely have given scant thought to training and behaviour when they did so.

Please don’t take this to mean that there’s anything wrong with those dogs — that’s absolutely not what I’m saying. It’s just that you need to know what you’re getting in to, and accept that you might well have to start the training from scratch.

Some of these breeds have common health problems — French bulldogs, for example, can often have breathing issues — so you’ll need do your own breed research and be vigilant about getting them properly checked out, and make sure you can get a comprehensive pet health insurance policy.

2. Get to know your dog properly before you take plunge

Most dog rescue centres have a canine behaviourist come to look at each dog and assess its behaviour and ability to socialise, both with humans and other dogs. While their input can be useful, you need to take it as a starting point rather than just assume that they’ve unearthed everything you’ll need to know.

Once you’ve found a dog you like, ask to come and visit him or her regularly over one or two weeks, to see them at different times of day and in different situations. Ask to spend time with the dog in and around the kennels as well as outside in the yard, and introduce it to other dogs as well so you can see how it gets on with them.

Take ownership of the process, don’t just rely on what you’ve been told by the centre. You’re making a commitment that could last five or ten years, and welcoming a new member into your family. You owe it to yourself and the dog to take it seriously.

3. Make sure you get the right dog for your circumstances

Dogs are adorable, and it’s very easy to get carried away when choosing, especially when you meet a loveable canine friend who you might get on brilliantly with when you first meet. Remember, though: this is a dog you’ll be living with full-time, a dog who’ll have to fit in to your lifestyle, not just a dog to bond with for the odd 20 minutes here and there.

This particularly applies if you’re looking at big dogs. A German shepherd or a Malinois can be a beautiful animal, but they are often highly-strung and difficult to handle, particularly when they become stressed. These are emphatically not dogs for people who are out at work all day.

The same goes for many working dog breeds. If you find a working spaniel or a terrier as a rescue dog, there’s a good chance that they’ve spent the early months of their life being given free rein to use their noses to hunt and chase things, and very likely their owners have given them up because they  can’t get them to respond to recall training. It’ll be a huge, uphill battle for an inexperienced dog owner to correct that: you’d need an experienced gundog trainer with decades of knowledge of that breed to be able to harness that natural ability and energy and enable the dog to become a family pet.

There’s often a mis-match between the life they’re coming to and the life they’ve been bred for. Take springer spaniels, for example; you literally can’t give them too much exercise — they’ll just keep getting fitter and fitter if you try — so you’ll need to be prepared to spare three hours a day to take them for walks.

If you can, great; they’re wonderful dogs. If not, look for something else. My cocker spaniel, for example, has been trained correctly from day one, and because of that has a lovely, calm nature. She’ll happily snooze almost all day, then be ready to go for exercise when I am. A dog like that is a lot easier to fit in to a domestic situation.

4. Be honest — ask yourself why this dog has been put up for adoption

You do need to be realistic and think about the reason that they’ve been given up for adoption in the first place, as it’s more than possible they were a handful. If a dog is naturally placid, good natured and biddable, it’s unlikely it would end up being  given up for adoption. I’ve scarcely ever heard of a labrador or golden retriever being a rescue dog, but with ex-police breeds, and working dogs? It’s fairly common.

Some traits won’t necessarily be obvious until after you’ve signed the paperwork, of course, as seeing a dog in a yard or a kennel is totally different to seeing it out in a field. And you can’t go on what you’ve been told, either: a lot of owners have a hard time admitting that they failed at training, and I’ve known of many who give dogs up for adoption just tell the centre that they’re getting divorced instead of saying they can’t control their pet. Be honest with yourself about your level of experience and comfort with dogs, especially bigger, stronger breeds.

There’s another question here: what about the Heinz 57s, the cross-breeds? Honestly, When you cross two dogs you have no idea what you’ll get in terms of temperament and trainability. It’s a bit like a barman experimenting at the cocktail bar: everyone knows if they like a straightforward G&T, but once you start throwing in weird and wonderful extra ingredients it might be great… or it might not!

5. Don’t let any of the worries put you off

I love dogs and spend my life working with them. If you go into this process thinking clearly and honestly about yourself, your experience, your family and your home, there is every reason to think that it’ll be a huge success for you and your new dog.  A four-legged friend will enrich your life in countless ways, and taking on a dog that’s in need of a loving new home is a truly wonderful thing to do.

For more detailed advice about Ben Randall’s positive, reward-based and proven BG training methods, one-to-one training sessions, residential training or five-star dog-boarding at his BGHQ in Herefordshire, telephone 01531 670960 or visit For a free seven-day trial of the Gundog app, which costs £24.99 a month or £249.99 a year, visit

An earlier version of this article was published in October 2023.