17 ways to identify a reputable dog rescue shelter (adopt or surrender)

Approximately 6.3 million companion animals enter rescue shelters each year according to the ASPCA. Of those, approximately 3.1 million are dogs.

With nearly 15,000 rescue shelters in the US you may feel overwhelmed.

While there is nothing more rewarding than rescuing a dog, rescuing that dog from a disreputable shelter could turn into a nightmare.

Choosing which organization to adopt from is just as important as choosing which pet to adopt.

Make a bad decision and you could end up with an aggressive, sick or even dying dog, or unknowingly support a puppy mill.

If you have made the difficult decision to surrender your dog, the suitability of its new forever home and quality of temporary welfare will be of the utmost importance to you.

Surrendering your dog to a reputable shelter will ensure they get the veterinary and behavioral support they need.

Whether you are in a position of adopting or surrendering, it’s vital you identify a reputable dog rescue or shelter to work with by using the methods below….

Table of Contents

1. Knowledgeable About Dogs in Their Care


The shelter or rescue should be knowledgeable about each animal in their care.

While the full background of the dog may not always be known due to the limited information provided to the rescue themselves, there are certain things they should be able to tell you.

Health records, details of personality & temperament, and any behavioral problems are all things that should be disclosed prior to adoption taking place.

If the information seems vague it should raise a red flag 🟥

2. Meet & Greet Available Prior to Adoption

While photos, videos, and descriptions provided on dog adoption websites can help you learn a lot, it’s vital a meet and greet takes place before you make a decision.

It’s important there are no barriers or excuses as to why a meet and greet cannot take place prior to adoption.

A common tactic used by puppy mills is impersonating rescue groups and urgently requesting they drop the dog off at your home or ask you to pay an adoption fee for the delivery of the animal.

3. Veterinary & Behavioral Support

Onsite vets, trainers, and behavioral experts are always an excellent sign. As are rescue groups that offer additional services like drop-in clinics providing cheap or free veterinary services.

Where onsite veterinary and behavioral support isn’t available it’s important the rescue has solid relationships with people and organizations offering this care.

4. Rushed Process

Due to limited staff resources and high applicant numbers, it is possible you will be asked to make a decision during the meet and greet and not have the option to reserve the animal.

While this is sometimes far from ideal it shouldn’t be classed as a red flag 🟥. Shelters will often make it clear they work on a first come first served basis, providing you the opportunity to meet the dog several times before making a decision on the understanding the dog could be adopted to another family during this time.

If you are pressurized and not given a reasonable amount of time to make a decision it should be seen as a red flag 🟥.

5. Return Policy

In a perfect world, every adoption story has a happy ending. In reality, there are many reasons you may be forced to return a dog you have adopted.

A rescue or shelter should always accept an adopted animal back into their care when needed.

6. Transparency – Key Details On Website

An animal rescue or shelter should be of non-profit status, typically 501(C)(3) you can check the list of IRS-registered non-profit organizations here https://501c3lookup.org

They should provide details of its board of directors where applicable and have some kind of online presence as well as fixed address.

Are they registered locally or with the city, county or state? Has the group complied with any local registration or inspection process?

No visible phone number shouldn’t necessarily be anything to be worried about. Many rescue groups prefer to conduct the initial stages of the adoption process online rather than on the phone due to limited resources.

If they are using a PO Box for their physical address it’s likely they are 100% foster-based. This means the adoptable dogs are cared for by foster families while their forever homes are found.

Many of the organizations will also have an active social media presence. This may help you connect with others who have adopted dogs from them in the past and get a feel for how genuine they are by looking at how far back in time the posts go and if they have a supportive following.

7. Staff Knowledge & General Demeanor

The staff at an animal rescue or shelter will be volunteers. They should be approachable, knowledgeable, love what they do, have the necessary expertise, and (where relevant) certificates.

You should expect them to be open and transparent answering any questions you may have honestly and to the best of their ability.

It’s possible a volunteer may not provide you with the full story in order to ensure the dog is rehomed. Try and identify if this is the case by asking lots of questions.

8. Proof of Vaccinations or Unvaccinated

All rescue groups should have the funds in place to provide animals with the basic level of veterinary care. Adoption fees are charged to cover the cost of vaccinations.

They should be able to provide proof of vaccinations. For dogs, vaccines for canine parvovirus, distemper, canine hepatitis, and rabies are considered core vaccines.

9. Spayed or Neutered

Like vaccinations, a rescue group should ensure that all animals are spayed or neutered prior to adoption.

Spaying or neutering is important as it helps protect dogs against certain illnesses, can address unwanted behavior, and save money.

10. Adopts Younger Than 8 Weeks Old

Aside from being illegal in many states, adopting puppies younger than 8 weeks old can lead to behavioral problems like issues with aggression.

Young puppies require vaccinations and often specialist care if they have been separated from their mother at an early age.

11. Only Have Puppies

A group that only adopts puppies could be a puppy mill falsely representing itself as a rescue charity and should be avoided.

12. Taking Dogs From Transport Vehicles Directly to Adoption

Rehoming dogs directly from transport vehicles provides no time for them to be assessed.

All animals should spend some time in a rescue facility or in foster care prior to adoption to ensure they receive both veterinary and behavioral care.

13. Adoption Events

Foster-based rescues with no physical address should be regularly seen out and about at adoption events.

Being available in person at these events provides the chance for people to interact with animals and build awareness of the rescue and its needs.

14. Adoption Fees

A rescue group should be transparent about fees prior to adoption. They should provide details of how the money is spent on their website or if asked.

A higher fee may not necessarily be a red flag 🟥, as long as the reasons are clearly stated. If every dog is marked at an unusually high fee the word adoption may have been mistaken for retail price.

15. Wellbeing & Mental Health

Animals should be housed in clean, comfortable accommodation. They should be provided with toys & puzzles and played calming music.

There should be evidence they are regularly allowed to stretch their legs via walks and exercise.

16. Adoption Process

A reputable animal rescue should ask you as many questions as possible with the aim of creating the perfect-pet match.

If the adoption process seems less than thorough you should often deem this to be a red flag 🟥.

In order to protect both animals and people, a rescue or shelter should have rules for adoption which are communicated to you at an early stage.

You should expect a combination of lengthy application forms, phone interviews, vet & reference checks, home visits etc.

17. Adoption Contract

A written agreement should be provided by the rescue in the form of an adoption contract.

You should be made to agree to the terms of the agreement prior to the adoption taking place


With no regulatory groups or oversight that regulates animal rescue groups or shelters in the US to distinguish between reputable or not, it’s important to do your homework.

You should read reviews online and talk to people who have worked with them or adopted from them in the past which will help you get an insight into how the rescue is run.

What do you look for in a reputable shelter or rescue? We’d love to hear from you.

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