What You Should Know Before Adopting a Special Needs Dog

We all know what is meant by the term “Special Needs Dog” means, Right?

For those who may think they know, but aren’t really sure; A “special needs” dog is any dog that requires help or assistance doing the things that all other dogs can do without help. Like their human counterparts, “special needs” dogs may have physical or mental disabilities.

Caring for a “special needs” dog can be a daunting task if you are not prepared and knowledgeable about the disability that that particular dog has. “Special Needs” can cover a wide range of issues. It may be something simple like an amputation or something as difficult as mental issues that make the dog afraid of everything including it’s own shadow. 

Dogs with physical disabilities can live perfectly happy lives if they have the right owners. Most of these dogs need no special medications, but do require an owner that can fore see potential barriers and issues before they become a problem.

Many people see physical disabilities in a dog as a sign of a broken and unfixable pet. This isn’t the case. Nor is it true that a dog with a medical or mental issue is any less of a good pet. If anything, these dogs are usually much more affectionate and appreciative of the care they get.

The only thing you must remember is that they will require extra care and supervision to keep them safe and happy. Some “special needs” dogs require medications, a special diet, or a piece of equipment to allow them to get around. This will often equate to spending more money, so people who are thinking about taking on a “special needs” dog need to keep these things in mind.

While “special needs dogs” are usually thought of as dogs that require help because of a physical or mental issue, many dogs that are rescued have been neglected or abused. These dogs can have emotional scars that require special attention.

A few years ago I adopted Neka, a 2 year-old German Shepherd. She was dumped on a gravel road in the country and left for dead at a very young age. After many months on her own she was captured by a local shelter, nursed back to health and was taught the basics. Unfortunately the staff and volunteers were spread much to thin, and Neka still suffered from a lack of socialization and a fear of sudden noises, thunderstorms, strangers and yes, other dogs.

With lots of patience, 24 hour a day positive guidance and only reward based training, it took several months to get her to relax and to fully trust me. It took her about a year to feel at ease around unfamiliar humans. But surprisingly, she made friends with four of the neighbor dogs very quickly. As soon as she learned that they weren’t going to attack her and steal her food, that is.  Before she passed away last year of a sudden illness, she was a happy and well-adjusted dog and was perfectly comfortable in almost every situation she was asked to be a part of.

Adopting a “special needs” dog is similar to adopting a regular dog, but there are a few additional things to consider. Instead of just jumping in to it, you really must think about all of the circumstances surrounding the dog’s needs. The worst thing that you can do is to take on a dog that you are not prepared to care for. It doesn’t help you or the dog if you are forced to return or surrender the dog you’ve just adopted.

If you’re thinking about adopting a “special needs” or older dog, there are a few things you need to ask yourself, including:

1.) What are the additional financial costs? Medications, treatments or a special diet may be required. Dogs with mobility issues may need therapy or more frequent vet visits or surgeries. Older dogs will need to have their teeth cleaned more often and may need more surgeries for health issues.

2.) Can I accommodate the dogs needs? As a caregiver, you’ll need to make sure you are available to meet the needs of a “special needs” dog. Medications may need to be given several time per day or they may need to be let outside. It’s your responsibility to find a way to address them before introducing the dog into your home.

3.) How will the dog fit in with the rest of the family? Animals with emotional issues may feel overwhelmed with young children or other dogs. They may panic and try to attack someone if there is a lot of frantic activity in the house. Additionally, introducing a new dog into your home when you already have pets can be a challenge. Before you adopt, inquire about any conditions the dog may not be able to tolerate. Some shelters and rescues allow you a short-term “fostering” period to make sure the dog would be comfortable living in your home. They vary in length from an overnight stay to a few days.


Special needs dogs and older dogs everywhere need homes. Thousands die every day just because they don’t have a home to go to, so you won’t need to look very far to find one to adopt. You might want to consider these places:

1.) Local humane shelters. Almost every animal shelter from coast to coast is filled to capacity. Sadly those animals that have been there the longest, are the oldest or need special care are never adopted.

2.) Breed-specific rescue groups. If you are interested in adopting a specific breed, the chances are very good that there is a rescue group that would be happy to place a dog in your home.

3.) National Pet databases. There are thousands of groups that take in stray and abandoned pets all over the world. When they are checked by a veterinarian, immunized and spayed or neutered, they are placed for adoption in a searchable online database by breed, age, size, gender and special needs. Petfinder.com is by far the largest and is able to match up people with the ideal pet.

4.) Become a Foster. Fostering is a great way to help a dog in need when you can’t afford to do it. Volunteering to foster a dog in need can help take some pressure off of the shelter or rescue group. Your efforts will help the dog adapt, learn and become more socialized before it is suitable for permanent adoption. Have you ever adopted a special needs or older pet? Tell us about your experiences.

Have you ever adopted a special needs or older pet? Tell us about your experiences.