Updated: Oct 25, 2021
When looking for a new puppy or dog, it is important to take a close look at your lifestyle and what you’re looking for in a dog so that you can choose the best puppy for you! [Need help doing that? Check out the first post in this series on Picking the Perfect Puppy!]
Once you’ve decided what type of puppy you’d like to bring home, it’s time to look for your puppy!
How should you choose where to get your puppy?
Depending on your goals for your puppy, getting your puppy from a reputable shelter/rescue may be the best choice for you or it may make the most sense for you to get your puppy from a reputable breeder. No matter where you get your puppy, the most important thing is to find a reputable source that cares about the dog’s long-term well-being.
Shelter and rescue dogs can make absolutely fabulous pets, but we often don’t know exactly what they will grow up to be. Sometimes you think you are adopting an Australian Cattle Dog puppy, but then she grows up to be a teeny 20 pound dog named Gouda! If you have a specific goal in mind and really want to adopt a rescue/shelter dog, adopting a slightly older puppy or adult dog will likely be a better fit! This will give you a better idea of what the shelter pup’s size and temperament will be. This is how and why I adopted Korra! I knew that she had the perfect temperament to become a therapy dog and that she was the size I was looking for because she was already full grown when I first met her. If your primary goal for your new puppy is to have a pet to share life’s adventures with you, a rescue/shelter puppy can often be the best choice. Shelters and rescues can also be an economical choice as their adoption fees are often less than the cost of a reputably bred puppy, but cover a good deal of veterinary care.
Unfortunately, not all rescues & shelters are ethical and reputable. Some are taking poor care of their animals, hoarding, or may even be a front for a puppy mill. [In fact, some rescues are actually buying puppies from the very breeders they publicly scorn.] How can you tell if a rescue or shelter is ethical and reputable? Check out these tips.
10 Signs You've Found a Reputable Shelter/Rescue
1. They let you meet the puppy before adopting.
While there are lots of shelters and rescues that are very good at publishing thorough information about their puppies available to adopt, there is no substitute for meeting your new puppy in person. This is especially true if you have other pets at home. While some cats or small mammals might not be able to meet a dog before adoption, you should certainly do your best to introduce your current pets to your potential puppy. Remember, your primary goal should be to take the best possible care of the pets you already own! If your current pet doesn’t get along with the new puppy, it’s best to keep looking. Some shelters and rescues may require that you fill out an application before scheduling your meet and greet. This is ok! It helps them to use their resources efficiently and saves them from spending a lot of time with people that just want to hang out with a puppy and not actually bring one home.
Red Flag: They pressure you into bringing your puppy home NOW.
While some reputable shelters and rescues may offer same day adoptions, many don’t. You should be glad if they give you time to go home and prepare for your puppy. You’ll probably have lots to do! You’ll need to puppy proof your main living space, get a leash, crate, food bowl, and more. If your application has just been turned in, they’ll also need time to check in with your veterinarian and references. Reputable shelters and rescues generally have a lengthy application approval process!
2. They ask you a LOT of questions (and answer yours).
Shelters and rescues are trying to find the home that is the absolute best fit for each and every puppy and adult dog that comes through their doors. Don’t be surprised if they ask you about your lifestyle, your plans for training your puppy, and how often the puppy will be home alone. They may even run a background check on you, ask for references, and look into the medical history of your current and past pets. No shelter or rescue has a perfect record of choosing the perfect home for each puppy, but these questions help them get closer to finding the perfect match for each puppy. Do you have questions about the puppy’s history, temperament, behavioral concerns, or medical records? Reputable shelters and rescues will be willing to openly and honestly answer your questions. If the puppy is a stray, they may not have too much history, but they should be able to tell you about the behaviors observed and veterinary care received since the puppy entered their system.
Red Flag: They limit your humane training options to one specific methodology or trainer.
Training is often the only thing that can stand between a puppy staying with its family and being surrendered to a shelter/rescue or returned to the breeder or even being euthanized. Different training methods work for different puppies (and owners!). Limiting the ways someone can help or even save their puppy is not setting that person or that puppy up for success. While a reputable shelter or rescue may certainly question you about your plans for training if problems arise or even require that you take your puppy to a trainer, they shouldn’t limit your training options.
3. They don’t adopt out dogs immediately after they arrive.
If the shelter or rescue you are adopting from brings their puppies in from heavily populated areas with high euthanasia rates or even transfers in puppies from other local shelters, they should be keeping them for several days before even considering adopting them out. This is important not only so they can get to know the puppy and ensure they are finding a home that will be the best fit, but also to ensure that the puppy is healthy and has received all necessary medical care. In some areas, they may be legally required to hold onto stray puppies to give owners a chance to claim them or to quarantine puppies that came from outside the area.
Red Flag: They’re not forthcoming about behavioral issues.
While some behaviors might not actually appear until the dog is in a home, the shelter or rescue should be open and honest with you about what they have observed. If they have set limits on a dog’s potential home (no children, no cats, no other pets), they should be able to clearly tell you what behaviors made them set those limits. If they aren’t being clear, don’t adopt the puppy.
4. They are clear on where the puppies came from.
You should be sure to ask how the shelter or rescue acquired your puppy. It could be an owner surrender, it could be transferred from a different shelter or rescue, it could have been a stray, or it could have been born at the shelter or rescue. If the puppy was a stray, make sure that shelter or rescue can legally take in stray dogs. Some municipalities may require strays to be taken to one specific facility. Shelters and rescues should have a very clear record of how the puppy wound up with them.
Red Flag: They can’t or won’t tell you where the puppy came from.
While they may not be able to give you full details on the previous owner for privacy reasons, any lack of transparency should be a big warning sign. If you think the puppy might be stolen or purchased from a breeder or auction, ask! Pay attention to the reaction. If things feel sketchy, go with your gut and find a puppy somewhere else.
5. They have a variety of breeds and ages available.
Most shelter or rescue dogs are older, since it can take a few months or years for behavioral issues to become serious enough for surrender. Shelters and rescues in some areas may have a higher percentage of certain breeds - hounds in areas with lots of hunters or herding breeds and livestock guardians in farming communities - but nearly every shelter or rescue should have a large variety of breeds unless they are a breed-specific rescue. That’s what makes rescues and shelters so great! Visiting one gives you a chance to get know many dog and puppies of different breeds or breed mixes.
Red Flag: They have a large number of puppies, especially purebred or “designer breeds”.
Statistics vary depending on which source you talk to, but purebreds only make up 5-30% of the population of shelter and rescue dogs. [2, 3] If the rescue or shelter you’re looking at has nearly all purebreds or “designer breeds” when they aren’t a breed-specific rescue, its likely they are sourcing their dogs from a breeder, auction, or puppy broker. Additionally, if they almost exclusively have puppies and no adult dogs, there may be something fishy going on.
6. They provide adequate veterinary care.
Sick or injured animals are common in animal rescue, but every animal in a shelter or rescue shouldn’t be sick. Puppies should all be up to date on vaccines (including rabies if they are of age, distemper, and bordetella) and medicine that prevents heartworms, fleas, and ticks. They should all be spayed or neutered (while there are different opinions on spay/neuter age, it’s important for shelters to spay/neuter to prevent more homeless pets). If they’ve also had a fecal examination and/or are micro-chipped, even better!
Red Flag: Sick puppies with no treatment plan.
If the puppy you are looking at is showing signs of illness or injury, the shelter or rescue should ideally treat that before adopting out the puppy or at least have a very clear treatment plan in place for you (and cover the cost of treatment!). If your puppy is under 4 months, it should have received at least it’s first distemper/parvo vaccination. After 4 months, it should have also received a rabies vaccination. Lack of vaccines or other preventatives should be a clear sign not to adopt a puppy.
7. They’re clean.
Accidents happen, especially with puppies or dogs that were never fully potty trained. If a shelter is full, they might take a while to clean up each kennel. Kennels are often messy first thing in the morning before the staff has had a chance to clean or towards the end of the day when dogs are due for another potty break and kennels will need their final check. However, it should be evident that kennels and all other areas of the shelter or rescue are cleaned regularly. If the rescue houses dogs in a foster home, that home should be clean as well.
Red Flag: Excessive amounts of animal waste, especially if it’s on the animals themselves.
If you notice a buildup of stool in the outdoor exercise yards, a strong stench in the kennel area, or urine or stool caked on the puppy’s fur, the rescue or shelter is likely not as clean as it should be. Poosplosions happen to the best of us, but animals should not have to sit in their own poop or pee for extended periods of time.
8. They have a relationship with veterinary and behavioral experts.
Since the animals at a shelter or rescue should be getting regular veterinary care, they should either have a veterinarian on staff or have a local veterinary clinic or two that regularly provides care to their animals. Trainers should also play a role! If they don’t have a trainer on staff, they should be able to direct you to a local trainer or two that they can recommend.
Red Flag: No relationship with other animal care professionals.
Many trainers and groomers volunteer their time or offer discounted services for shelters and rescues, so it would be very surprising if a shelter or rescue has no trainer or groomer that they work with or recommend. In fact, if you already know a trainer, groomer, or veterinarian near them, ask that professional what they know about the rescue or shelter in question.
9. They will take your puppy back if it doesn’t work out.
No matter how hard a rescue or shelter tries to place every single puppy in the perfect home, sometimes things just don’t work out. I know that you will be fully prepared to keep your puppy for life, but sometimes unavoidable emergent situations may arise. You know this shelter or rescue loves your puppy and provided them with great care, so you should be able to trust them to rehome your puppy if need be. Any shelter or rescue that is adopting out animals should be fully prepared to take them back if they need to be rehomed. Open admission municipal shelters may need to ask you to wait a little to return your puppy if they are at maximum capacity, but other than that, they should always be willing to take back animals that they once housed.
Red Flag: They are notorious for not taking back animals they adopted out.
Even if they require returning animals to them in their adoption contracts, some shelters and rescues still won’t take back your puppy if it doesn’t work out. Check with other rescues and shelters in the area to see if they have had difficulty returning dogs to them when they get them in.
10. They’re your brick & mortar municipal shelter.
Almost every municipality in the US has a shelter that is legally required to intake all strays and owner-surrenders. These shelters are brick and mortar facilities that are often overseen by government agencies. They must adhere to local ordinances with regards to stray holds, quarantines, licensing, and more. While they may often be very full (since they can’t turn dogs away) and operating on a tight budget (since their budget is often controlled by the municipality), they will easily be able share all information with you about the puppy’s background, medical history, and temperament. Adopting a puppy from your local shelter may actually save another dog’s life as you will be freeing up space for them so they don’t need to worry about euthanizing for space.
It will be hard to find any red flags at your local shelter besides what we already covered.
“For what it’s worth, no [local] shelters have been linked to dog auctions,”
says John Goodwin, the senior director for the Humane Society of the United States’ Stop Puppy Mills campaign, in a Huffington Post article.  While there certainly are many reputable non-profit rescues and shelter organizations, if adopters and rescues both worked with local shelters that are forced to euthanize for space instead of bringing in pet dogs to be adopted from other areas, we can all help save more animal’s lives.
If you have a very specific goal in mind for your puppy (such as a service dog or dog competitions), a reputable breeder may be the right choice for you! With an extensive knowledge of the puppy’s genetics and relatives, your breeder will be able to make an educated prediction about their size and ability to meet your goals when they are an adult dog.
In a world full of the #adoptdontshop mantra, this may sound a little surprising to you! But did you know that if you get a dog from a reputable breeder, it will never end up in a shelter? No, not because breeders are able to perfectly place every puppy (even the best shelters and breeders sometimes don’t nail a puppy placement), but because a reputable breeder will make you promise to return the puppy to them if things don’t work out. Who better to find a second home for the puppy than the breeder that loves them and is extremely knowledgeable about their breed? Unfortunately, the number of irresponsible breeders far outnumbers the number of reputable breeders, so it is extremely important to ensure that the breeder you choose is reputable. Check out these 10 tips to make sure you're choosing a reputable breeder.
These tips on determining whether a breeder, shelter, or rescue is reputable are by no means an exhaustive list, but should certainly be able to help you narrow your search. Making sure you get a puppy that’s a good fit for your lifestyle AND from a reputable source may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be! If you’re overwhelmed with all the variables, I can help. Shoot me an email or contact me on Facebook or Instagram. We can work together to find you the perfect puppy!
Once you’ve determined what puppy will be best for you and found a reputable source for your puppy, check back for the next post in this puppy series with training and tips to successfully settle your puppy into your home and set them up for lifelong success!
Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn, Washington Post, 4-18-20: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/investigations/dog-auction-rescue-groups-donations
NAIA study confirms fewer dogs, scarce purebreds in US animal shelters, National Animal Interest Alliance, 7-14-15: http://www.naiaonline.org/articles/article/naia-study-confirms-fewer-dogs-scarce-purebreds-in-us-animal-shelters
Adopting from an animal shelter or rescue group, The Humane Society of the United States: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/adopting-animal-shelter-or-rescue-group
How Can You Tell If A Dog Rescue Group Is Legit?, Huffington Post, 4-13-18: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-can-you-tell-if-a-pet-rescue-group-is-legit_n_5acf9e3de4b0edca2cb7b4be