Finding a Responsible Shelter or Rescue Group

Learn About Your Adoption Options

You’ve decided you are ready to adopt a dog…. Now what? There are several different ways in which you can go about adopting a pet, so make sure to do your researched and fully understand the difference between each.

Animal Shelters and Humane Societies

Government-run shelters and not-for-profit animal welfare organizations are two of the most common places from which dogs are adopted. These facilities typically have a physical location that will have multiple animals on-site. Many people bring stray dogs, cats or pets they can no longer care for to these types of facilities. Shelters evaluate the health and temperament of animals and place many up for adoption to new homes.

Rescues and Foster Parent

There are rescue groups, many of which deal with specific breeds or types of pets. Most of these not-for-profit groups rely on foster parents to care for their dogs temporarily rather than maintaining physical facilities. It’s not uncommon for foster parents to have multiple adoptable dogs at once, although they still are typically able to give their adoptable dogs an "at-home" experience. This helps the foster parents observe and report on how the dog will behave once adopted and living in a new home.

Pet Store Adoptions

It’s fairly common to see dogs up for adoption at local pet stores. Many pet stores chains refuse to sell dogs from large-scale breeders and now only provide care and viewing opportunities for dogs from local shelters or rescues. Pet stores often partner with local SPCAs or humane societies to host adoption days, and some have even started their own charities that support adoption centers and animal rescues.

Adoption Websites

We live in a digital age, and many people turn to online sources to find adoptable pets. There are pet adoption websites specifically dedicated to compiling adoptable pets from across the nation and sorting them by type, location and other specific characteristics, allowing potential pet parents to find their perfect match. Many local humane societies and SPCA’s also display dogs on their websites and allow you to browse what dogs are currently up for adoption near you. In these cases, you are most likely still required to visit the local shelter or rescue to meet and pick up the dog.

Rehoming Websites

Rather than displaying adoptable dogs that are currently in shelters or rescues, some online sources now connect current dog owners that need to rehome their dog with individuals looking for a dog. Sites like these provide responsible pet owners who can no longer care for their dogs the opportunity to find a loving new family for their pet through home-to-home adoption. These sites keep dogs out of shelters and ensure they receive a suitable new home.

Learn more about your adoption options

What to Expect During the Adoption Process

Depending on where you go, the adoption process may look entirely different, but there are a few commonalities that you should expect across the board:

Meet and Greet

Just as a responsible breeder would encourage you to meet your potential new dog and ensure he is the right fit for your lifestyle, a responsible rescue or shelter should do the same. The population of adoptable dogs in shelters will vary considerably from day to day, and an adoption counselor can work with you to find your best match. Know that you may need to be patient as this may require more than one visit. There are also breed-specific rescue groups if you have a particular type of dog in mind.

An Interview

After choosing the dog you wish to make a part of your family, someone from the shelter or rescue, or the foster parent, should ask questions to ensure you and the dog are the best possible match. At this point, you should also be asking about the dog’s past, medical history and personality traits. While dogs often come to the shelter with little history, the shelter or rescue likely has spent time evaluating them both medically and behaviorally. Feel free to ask whatever questions you may have.


Once it has been established which dog you are taking home, your rescue or shelter will have paperwork for you to fill out, and likely a reasonable adoption fee to pay. The amount of paperwork will depend on the shelter or rescue, but it’s always safe to reserve at least an hour of time for this process, plus any additional follow up questions you or the representatives may have.

Taking Your Pet Home

In some cases, you will be able take your pup home the day of the interview, but in some cases, a shelter or rescue group may need a day or so to obtain background information before approving your adoption. This is to ensure the dog’s safety and wellbeing. If you are traveling from a distance to adopt your dog, have this conversation with the shelter or rescue representative beforehand, and likely you will be able to come to an agreement.


Questions To Ask The Shelter Or Rescue Before Adopting A Dog

1. What Is This Dog’s History?

By asking about the dog’s history you can hopefully get a better picture of his background. When adopting however, there is always a chance that the shelter or rescue won’t know much about the dog’s past.

2. Do You Have Copies Of The Dog’s Veterinary Records And Has The Dog Received Veterinary Care Here?

If found as a stray it’s likely that the rescue or shelter checked the dog’s health and wellbeing upon entrance. Regardless, it’s important to know if the dog has had his vaccinations, has been spayed or neutered, and if he is facing any other health conditions, at which point you should assess the budget and time you’ll need to dedicate to the dog.

  • If the dog does have health conditions, be sure to ask what medications and special care the dog needs to treat the condition.

3. Has The Dog Undergone A Behavioral Assessment?

Upon entering a shelter or rescue, it is likely that the dog’s behavior will be assessed to determine how ready he is to be adopted and who he should be adopted by. Be sure to ask what types of behavior tests were conducted to understand the dog’s sociability, energy levels, maturity, etc.

4. Has This Dog Been Trained?

Knowing whether your potential pup is house trained and understands basic commands will be helpful as you are considering if he is the one for you. There’s also a good chance that if the dog is trained to some degree, he came from a previous owner rather than growing up as a stray.

  • If the dog has been trained by a previous owner, ask about leash training and if the dog is comfortable being walked on a leash. If the shelter or rescue isn’t sure, request that they assess this ability before bringing the dog home.
  • Ask the shelter about what training classes they may recommend for the dog you are considering. Some shelters even offer training classes on-site for puppies and dogs.

5. To Your Knowledge Has This Dog Been Around Children or Other Animals?

If you’re planning to bring this dog home to your family, this question is especially important to ask. If the dog is known to be aggressive towards children or other animals, he may not be best suited for your family. Even if you don’t have kids or other pets, you’ll still have to be extra cautious in public places or when visiting friends and families with your dog if he is aggressive.

  • If the dog does not do well around children, ask how he does around strangers in general. It’s imperative you understand how much socialization the dog will require before bringing him home.

6. What Is Your Return Policy?

A responsible shelter or rescue will be more than willing to take the dog back if he were to not fit with your family. Know the reclaiming policies and if there are any associated fees.

Visiting a Shelter

Shelters vary in terms of the quality of their facilities. However, all shelters should be clean and provide optimal care for the animals they house. Here are a few things to look out for during your visit to ensure your shelter or rescue is responsible:

Take note of the facility’s cleanliness

It’s important to not judge a shelter or rescue by its cover, as funding varies for these types of places and a less-than-modern building does not necessarily indicate a poorly cared for establishment. That said, basic cleaning and maintenance of the facility is affordable and should be kept up with for the animals’ health and safety.

Observe how the staff interacts with the dogs, and how the dogs respond

Don’t be alarmed if certain dogs do not seem excited to meet new people. It’s natural for dogs to be timid or shy when first being introduced to a person. The dogs should seem comfortable and happy interacting with the shelter staff, however, as that is who they are seeing and playing with daily. Do they pet, talk and play with the dogs? How staff members treat the dogs is an indicator of the quality of the shelter.

Pay attention to the dog’s health during your initial walkthrough

The dogs should seem happy, clean and healthy, unless the shelter or rescue staff indicates that they are new and still undergoing medical treatments or behavioral training. The kennels the dogs are being housed in should be clean and the staff should be able to provide you details on how often the dogs get to walk, play, and socialize. Warning signs that the dogs are not being well cared for:

  • Runny eyes and nose
  • Weak, malnourished and lethargic
  • Open wounds
  • Smell of urine or feces
  • Timid around the staff
  • Uninterested in interacting with you

Notice the amount of space that is provided to each dog

If there are several dogs crammed into one crate, or several kennels stacked on top of one another, it’s likely that the dogs are being provided inadequate living space. Dogs should not be forced to walk on wired cage and should have plenty of space to get up and move around. Staff and volunteers should be taking the dogs out 2-3 times a day to go to the bathroom, plus additional time should be spent outside for exercise.

Be Aware of Irresponsible Shelter and Rescue Red Flags

Animal shelters and rescues not only help dogs in need, but often save their lives. Unfortunately, as is the case with breeders or pet stores, shelter and rescue operations vary in quality and the level of care they provide.

You want to be sure you are supporting a reputable shelter or rescue and that the dog you are adopting has been well cared for while there. Be on the lookout for these red flags during your shelter visit and think twice about adopting if your spot any troublesome signs.

It doesn’t adhere to standards of care

The federal government does not enforce a set of standards that animal rescues and shelters must abide by, although some states have implemented their own set of standards and many local shelters and rescues receive oversight from health departments. Regardless, there are many voluntary standards that are set by professional organizations that the shelter or rescue can choose to implement, and plenty of resources are provided by these organizations that can help educate and guide shelters and rescues.

If the shelter or rescue does not follow a set of standards, ask the staff about the standards the establishment sets for itself.

The animals’ health is questionable

Be sure that the shelter or rescue you are visiting provides optimal care for its dogs before adopting. Physical health conditions will be more obvious, such as open wounds, sickly appearance, flea and tick infestations, etc. Veterinary care should be provided to all dogs in shelters and rescue groups. Ask the shelter representative if the dog you are interested in adopting has any known health problems. Also inquire as to what preventative care the pet has received at the shelter.

You also want to pay attention to behavioral conditions that indicate the dogs are not properly being cared for such as shy, fearful and anxious temperaments. Dogs may be experiencing kennel stress from overpopulated areas as well, which would lead to excessive barking, jumping, spinning or panting.

If at any point you suspect animal abuse, you should leave the facility immediately and call your local law enforcement agency.

The facility looks dirty and smells bad

Although you can’t expect an animal shelter to be spotless, building maintenance and basic cleanliness should be a top priority to keep the dogs healthy and safe. Take note if there is a strong smell of ammonia as you enter, as that indicates the shelter likely isn’t cleaning properly, and also isn’t well ventilated putting the dogs’ health at risk. Kennels should also be kept clean of urine and feces, and the dogs should be provided clean beds, blankets, toys and fresh water.

The staff lacks knowledge on the dogs

Dogs often move quickly through shelters and rescues, but that’s no excuse for the shelter staff or foster parents to be unknowledgeable about the dogs that are in their temporary care. If the staff is unfamiliar with the dog because the dog is new to the shelter, a complete file should be compiled with the dog’s history, health carts and behavioral assessment by the time you, a potential adopter, are visiting the dog. The shelter or rescue personnel should be able to answer most questions you may have about the dog’s health or temperament.

You aren’t thoroughly vetted before adopting a dog

You should be prepared to answer questions the shelter or rescue has about your lifestyle and concerned if they don’t ask any questions about you at all. Reputable rescues will want to ensure the dog you’re interested in suits you, and that you are prepared to raise and care for one of their dogs before allowing you to take one home.

They aren’t fully transparent

A shelter or rescue should be completely forthcoming about their dogs, practices, procedures, standards, and staff. As an adopter, you should be allowed to fully tour the facility and have access to your potential dog’s medical records, history, behavioral assessment and any other associated paperwork. It’s best to avoid shelters or rescues that you feel aren’t fully open and honest.

Trust your gut

If you have any doubts about the shelter or rescue or feel pressured to adopt a dog in any way, it’s best to walk away from the situation. Staff, volunteers and foster parents should help you make an informed decision about adopting a dog, and you should be excited about taking your new puppy home.

For more shelter and rescue red flags, check out these resources

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