Where Can You Adopt a Dog? Differences Among Dog Rescues, Shelters and Sanctuaries

Shelter volunteers walking dogs together

If you’re asking, “Where can I adopt a dog?”, you’ve landed at the right place. In this article, we review where you can find a dog for your family, how animal shelters, dog rescues, sanctuaries, and responsible breeders differ from each other, and how to avoid disreputable sellers and puppy mills.

Where Can You Adopt a Dog?

Dogs add so much to our lives, and there are so many dogs that need good homes. Before you adopt, think about what kind of dog you really want and do research into the different breed characteristics. Plus, make sure you’re acquiring your dog from a reputable organization that has the dog’s best interest at heart. 

Adopting a pet is a lifetime commitment, so there is a lot to consider – about your new dog and your life. How much time will you be able to spend walking, training, and playing with your new dog? Do you have a place nearby where your dog can be easily house-trained? If you’re renting, will your landlord let you keep a dog in your home?

Dogs are available for adoption from different kinds of shelters, animal control adoption facilities, and rescue groups. You’ll find dogs of different ages, breeds and mixed breeds, and sizes at these facilities, although the adoption process will vary considerably. Most shelters, rescues and other adoption facilities require the potential adopter be at least 18 years old.

It’s likely the fees for adopting dogs will also vary among shelters and rescues, especially for the most popular breeds. These fees serve two purposes. Firstly, they cover the facility’s operating costs as well as the pet’s medical treatments. Secondly, higher adoption fees ensure the adopter is fully committed to giving the dog a new, loving home.

Rescues and shelters provide temporary homes for dogs that find themselves homeless due to a number of reasons, such as: 

  • Owner surrender due to the owner’s health issues or dog’s issues 
  • An unchipped dog found on the street by a good Samaritan  
  • Saved from a “last-resort” shelter when their time is up 
  • Rescued from a puppy mill  
  • Found as an unclaimed stray after a natural disaster 

What is a Dog Shelter?

A dog shelter is a facility where pets that have been surrendered or picked up as strays are available for adoption. They usually house both dogs and cats. In a search for “dog shelters near me,” you may come across three types of dog shelters.

Traditional Open-Door or Last-Resort Shelters

These are private or public shelters that may have a mandate to take all animals regardless of capacity or their ability to treat, so pets may have a limited time for adoption before they are euthanized. Because they are open-door facilities, they may have a wider selection of shelter dogs available for adoption, and often, their fees are lower than other facilities.

Potential adopters will have to complete an application, and adoption fees may differ depending on the age, size, and breed of the dog and may be lower or waived for senior dogs or for other situations. The fees usually cover first vaccinations, spay or neuter surgery, microchip identification, rabies registration, and flea treatments.

Pounds or Animal Control Facilities

A dog pound or animal control organization is a government agency or a private shelter that contracts with governments to collect and/or house strays. Their primary responsibility is keeping streets clear of homeless animals.

They’ll keep strays that aren’t chipped for a certain amount of time and see if they will be claimed by an owner. If they are not claimed, they’ll put them up for adoption, but because of the limited space for animals, if they are not adopted within a certain time frame, they can be euthanized.

Adoption will require an application, and the adoption fees will likely cover your dog’s first medical treatments. 

No-Kill Dog Shelters

No-kill shelters save healthy and treatable pets and must have a save rate of 90% or better to be identified as no-kill. Pets that are brought to the shelter are available until they are adopted. Because they are not an “open-door” shelter, no-kill rescues are usually selective about the pets they accept. 

Unfortunately, there may cases where euthanasia is necessary. If a pet is terminally ill, in extreme pain with an untreatable condition, or is a danger to the public, euthanasia is the only option. But with no-kill shelters, that will be 10% or less of the animals they accept. 

What is a Dog Rescue?

Dog rescues are usually run and supported by volunteers and often run out of private homes. Many times, they use foster pet parents to take care of pets until they find a suitable adopter. Pet rescue groups usually focus on either cats or dogs, although some will take both.

Rescues usually take time to make sure potential adopters are suitable for their pets and will often have strict requirements. Adopters may have to provide personal references, vet references, and if they rent, a letter from their landlord approving pets. Some rescues may require home visit to ensure  the house is safe and suitable for the pet. Others may request that you serve as your dog’s foster family before you officially adopt.  

If you’re considering a dog adoption from a rescue, make sure it’s a reputable one. 

For adopters who are interested in a purebred dog, but don’t want to purchase from a breeder, check out your local breed rescues. Most shelters maintain a list of local breed rescues and will contact them in case of surrender or if the purebred’s adoption time runs out. About a quarter of shelter surrenders are purebred, so visit your local shelter, too.

Breed rescues will most likely have adult dogs for adoption and will have a vested interest in seeing the dog placed with the best forever home. Adopting from a breed rescue is an ethical alternative to purchasing a pet shop purebred, which may come from a puppy mill, or other disreputable place, and may potentially end up having multiple health issues.

Adopting from a reputable shelter or rescue saves two lives: the pet you’re adopting, and the pet that can now be placed for adoption in the space vacated by your new furry friend. 

What is a Dog Sanctuary?

A dog sanctuary is a permanent home for animals that are not available for adoption. It’s usually a farm setting, or at least several acres of land, and is not open to the public. The term “sanctuary dog” describes a dog that has been rescued from harmful or dangerous environments and taken to a dog sanctuary where they can receive the necessary care and rehabilitation. Sanctuary dogs may have health issues, complicated histories, or origin stories involving abuse or exploitation that make adoption difficult, and a dog sanctuary provides them with a safe and nurturing environment to heal and recover.

The dogs at a sanctuary are saved from euthanasia and given appropriate care for the rest of their lives. Many sanctuaries also include animals other than pets, such as horses, wild fowl, and farm animals.

What is a Dog Breeder?

Most reputable dog breeders raise litters from AKC registered purebred dogs, although some mixed breeds, such as Cavapoos or Goldendoodles, are not recognized by the AKC, and therefore, those breeders are not registered. 

Most will specialize in one breed. If you want to buy a purebred puppy from a breeder, buy from a responsible breeder who is AKC registered and/or dedicated to animal welfare. As good stewards of the breed, they ensure there is no inbreeding which can lead to health issues. If you’re wondering how to check if a dog breeder is registered, contact AKC Customer Service or use the dog breeder license lookup at the USDA Animal Care Public Search Tool.

Keep in mind, there are many good, trustworthy breeders who do not breed AKC purebreds, as there are many mixed breeds that do not fall under AKC guidance. This doesn’t make those breeders less reputable than an AKC registered breeder.

A reputable breeder should be able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge about their puppies’ lineages and pedigrees and about the breed characteristics in general. Ask if they belong to any local or national breed clubs, because many clubs require that their members comply with a code of ethics. They should also be able to explain what they have done to help with the puppies’ early socialization and be able to demonstrate the good medical and behavioral health of their litters. Avoid breeders that appear aggressive or fearful toward their puppies. 

If the breeder is more interested in your deposit or your payment than what kind of home you are going to provide for their puppies, that’s a signal you might not be dealing with a trustworthy breeder. Good breed stewards will want to know about your previous dogs, their ages, your veterinarian, your work schedule, where the puppy will live, and how it will be trained and further socialized. 

Ask to meet the dog parents of the puppies. The father may not be available, but the mother dog should still be with the litter and available to meet the prospective owner of her puppies. 

You may be required to sign a contract attesting to whether you want the dog as a family pet or if you’re going to enter him in dog shows. The contract may also stipulate that if the dog needs to be surrendered, for any reason and at any age, the dog is to be returned to them. 

Avoid dogs that are bred in puppy mills. These large-scale commercial dog breeding operations place profit over animal welfare. Many times, these puppies are sold to brokers or direct to the consumer at a very young age and will have little training or socialization.

In addition, puppy mill puppies will likely have health and behavioral issues as the people who run the puppy mill are not interested in the welfare of their dogs. Puppy mill pups are sold at irresponsible pet shops, flea markets, roadside stands, and online shops, so caveat emptor – buyer beware.

Find Your Perfect Dog

To find your perfect dog, search “dog adoption near me” or browse Petfinder, where you can access our network of more than 11,500 shelters and rescues with thousands of dogs and puppies looking for a good forever home. You can refine your search by breed, color, age, size, gender, location, and other criteria to find the pup of your dreams.

Before you begin your search, think about what type of dog breed you’d like and what you, your home, and your family can handle. For example, German Shepherds are handsome dogs, but may need a strong handler; Border Collies are fun, but probably need someone with the same level of energy; and Beagles are friendly, people-pleasing pups that are generally good with children. Each dog has a unique temperament regardless of breed or breed mix, so learn as much as you can about your dog’s individual personality before adopting. 

To make your search ever easier, complete a short profile – it only takes a minute – and get matched with compatible pets. Browse your customized list of available dogs to find your match and you’re on your way to finding the perfect dog for you. 

Learn more about adopting dogs with Petfinder.