After several years of intense conversation (how good are you at reading between the lines?) we decided to let our younger daughter get a dog.

We have spent the past few years reciting the litany of drawbacks: We are people who like to pick up and go away for the weekend. We are enjoying the freedom that comes from having middle-aged (12- and 16-year-old) children. A dog is like having a baby forever. We have a house full of carpet. Some of it is in mint condition. A few of us have allergies . . .

But I had dogs when I was a child, and I like dogs. We agreed, finally, that this particular child needed to have a dog more than we needed not to have one. The hunt began.

We read the classified ads for fun, even though we were sure that we would adopt a dog from the pound. Sunday's paper had three columns of dogs for sale, beginning with AFGHANS and ending with YORKSHIRE TERRIERS. What lay between ranged from the whimsical to the expensive, and included one that combined the two: SCHNOODLE PUPS $45 EACH.

We called Noah's Ark Animal Society, and discovered that they are an unusual service rather than a "shelter." They have a listing of people who own pets that they can no longer keep (child is allergic, or family must move to a no-pets apartment, or country). They also keep a listing of people who want a particular kind of pet, and the idea is to match these groups if possible. Although the majority of their clients are dogs and cats, they will try to place "anything that needs a home."

The animal must be spayed or neutered before it goes to its new home, and Noah's Ark will help you arrange this. We thought it sounded terrific if you know just what you want, and are willing to wait for it.

Since one member of our group was in a big hurry, we figured the most logical place was the pound. The Montgomery County Humane Society was our first stop on a Saturday afternoon (one of us skipping ahead, the other two clutching each other's hands and mumbling "What are we doing?").

We breezed past a room full of cats in large cages, stopped briefly to admire a pen of tiny puppies, and continued on to the main area of the shelter where the dogs are kept. At any given time, the shelter will house between 80 and 100 dogs and cats, and this day was no exception. There were dogs of all sizes, shapes and colors, competing for our attention.

We had decided that we wanted a fairly young dog, on the small side, who didn't bark a lot. I checked out the dogs in the pound that day, and it seemed to me that our dog was not there, so I retreated to the lobby to give my ears a break and to get more information.

A Humane Society shelter in the Washington area handles approximately 1,200 dogs and cats a month. Of this number, about 5 percent will be returned to owners, and another 10 percent will be adopted. Many are caught, but few are chosen. The rest will be destroyed. Some shelters will hold an animal for 5 days, others for 7. (The Washington Animal Rescue League is an exception. They are funded privately through donations, and will hold animals "as long as necessary" to find homes for them.)

Each animal brought to a shelter is assigned a number, and has a tag with that number put on its collar. If we had been interested in a particular dog that day, we could have asked at the desk for any information on that dog, by number. Animals who have been turned in by their owners have a great deal of information in their files; those who were picked up on the street will have the shelter's educated guess of age and breed, and the neighborhood where it was found.

We would then have filled out an application for the dog we wanted, and gone home (reluctantly empty-handed) to wait for a Humane Society volunteer to call and set up a time for a home visit. The brochure explains:

"All families must be interviewed in their homes before any animal can be released to them. This precaution is to protect the animals against being adopted to unsuitable homes, and to allow the adopting families the chanceto obtain an animal that will be appropriate to their situation. The volunteer has the experience and training to advise the prospective adopting family on all aspects of pet ownership."

Once past the interview, there is one last hurdle. If the dog we chose is over 6 months old, and had not been sprayed or newtered, the Humane Society requires it done before the dog is brought home. (They are very unhappy about having to destroy hundreds of animals every month, and are determined to cut down on the unwanted pet population.) They take care of having the operation done on all animals chosen for adoption, at a cost of $25 to the new owne. The animal would be kept overnight for observation by the vet, and then returned to the shelter: We could come the next day, leash in hand, pay a $10 adoption fee, and take our pet home.

If the dog we chose ws less than 6 months old, we would have to leave a deposit at the time of the adoption, and would be assigned a date for the operation.

We found our dog the next day at the Washington Humane Society Shelter. Officially she was collar #1815, a 6-month-old (their guess) female stray, poodle-terrier mix. What we saw was a small black-and tan dog with a little Benji face and a very affectionate nature, who apparently didn't bark. She came with two kinds of worms (not uncommon, we later learned) and weighed only 10 pounds. I could feel a lot of sharp bones when I held her.

#1815 is now Kelly Ratner. She gained five pounds after we got rid of the worms, and is now a solid, jaunty little dog. Our first impressions have proved to be true; she is both affectionate and very quiet. Some of our fears have also turned out to be true: she enjoys chewing on wicker (dinning-room) chairs, and the word "house-broken" is not firmly established in her vocabulary. I have discovered that having a dog is not like having a baby all the time. it is like having a toddler all the time.

There have been days when if she asked for help in finding her natural mother, I would have dropped everything and tried. But our daughter is crazy about her, and most of the time we all like her company. She is go glad to see us when we come home that she does everything but play "Hail to the Chief," and maybe one day she'll do that, too.

The Humane Society brochure says that any animal you adopt is a life saved. According to an old Chinese proverb, if you save a life, you are responsible for it. We are just beginning to find out what that means.