Sweet tan and white dog sitting on a crossover walk with a suitcase and a sign "Adopt Me"

9 Red Flags to Watch for When Adopting a Rescue Dog

Last updated on March 12th, 2023 at 09:14 pm

If you are just beginning a search for a rescue dog to adopt, beware of the red flags. While there is an abundance of legitimate shelters and rescues, there are many people and groups that are not reputable. Ideally, anyone who has dogs available for adoption should have the dog’s best interest at heart. Avoid working with anyone who seems too eager to make money and profit from placing dogs up for adoption.

The primary red flags to watch out for when adopting a rescue dog involve the legitimacy of the rescue group. Make sure the group has a good reputation and it is not a scam or someone trying to sell you a stolen dog. Watch out for missing or inadequate information about the dog and where he came from. Additionally, pay attention to potential health and behavioral problems for which you may need extra support or resources. And, perhaps most importantly, do not disregard your best instincts or make a hasty decision and end up adopting a dog that is just not a good match.

Keep reading to learn more about avoiding red flags and things to look for when adopting a rescue dog.

1. You Cannot Find Any Information About the Rescue Group

The best place to begin your search for a dog is at a well-known county shelter or nonprofit rescue group. If you are not familiar with local organizations you can do a web search and check out their websites to learn more. See if they have Google or Yelp reviews. They should indicate whether or not they are nonprofits or local government shelters. Nonprofits usually give information about their mission, background, and board of directors.

When working with rescue groups, I recommend going to Guidestar.org to see if they are registered as a nonprofit. This is a free service that provides basic information and ratings. Guidestar (recently renamed Candid) lists the mission and basic information about the nonprofit including 3 years of filed tax returns. Be sure to see my article Why and Where to Adopt a Dog in Need for more information.

Be wary of adopting a dog online, from ads, or listings on Craigslist. Also, avoid buying dogs from anyone selling dogs on the street or in a makeshift storefront. Stolen dogs and abused pups and dogs used in illegal puppy mills are often sold in this manner. Reputable rescue groups uncover many of these scams, report them, get them closed down, then place these unfortunate pups in their rescue facilities for recovery and adoption.

Legitimate online adoption services such as Petfinders.com and AKC Rescue Network are good options. They are reputable and you can find breed-specific dogs, as well as extend your search beyond your local area. See this great article by Petfinders.com, How to Spot a Fake Adoption Group.

2. The Adoption Process Seems Rushed and Does Not Include Basic Information About the Dog

Regardless of which group or shelter you work with, make sure you learn as much as you can before you adopt. Do not feel like you need to make a quick decision just because you are being encouraged to act quickly. Take time to learn more before signing a contract. The shelter or group should be able to give some basic information about each dog they are holding for adoption including:

  • How did they obtain or find the dog?
  • Does the dog have a name, tags, or a microchip?
  • How long have they had the dog in their care?
  • What is the approximate age and gender?
  • Do they know the breed or mix of breeds?
  • Has the dog had a previous owner or was it a stray?

In some cases, a shelter may not have a lot of background information especially if the dog was a stray. And in the case of “kill” shelters, which only hold dogs for a limited time before euthanizing them, there may be some real urgency. Even so, most shelters hold dogs for at least 30–90 days. But if the shelter is full the staff may try a little harder to get dogs adopted by running ads and waiving adoption fees.

However, most rescue groups will know a little bit about a dog’s background–at least the circumstances that landed the dog in their facility, to begin with. Therefore, it is a huge red flag if a rescue group does not seem to have any information about a dog they are trying to get you to adopt.

3. You Are Not Provided with Any Medical Information

owner taking new shelter dog to vet
Owner taking newly adopted dog to the vet.

Another big red flag when adopting a dog is not being provided with a medical history. Even if past records are not available, most reputable shelters and groups will do an initial medical exam. They will provide medical care for chronic conditions and treat serious injuries when a dog enters their facilities.

Dogs usually receive basic vaccinations as a precaution. Many shelters also neuter/spay dogs and implant microchips when dogs first arrive if this has not already been done. So, you should be able to get a record of all medical treatment the dog has received while in their care. The staff should also be frank about any known or suspected conditions that the dog may have. If they don’t give you medical records or say they do not provide any medical care, this may not be a reputable facility.

A dog with a health problem is not necessarily a reason to not adopt, but you it is important that you be able to make an informed decision. See more about health issues in my post, How to Tell if a Rescue Dog is Healthy Before You Adopt.

4. You Are Not Allowed to Meet the Dog in Person

I cannot imagine adopting a dog sight unseen! Yet, it is easy to see a picture and feel that this is the dog for you. If you are searching online and fall in love with the image and description of an adorable dog, just make sure you meet the dog in person. You want to get a sense of what the dog is actually like in person. You also want to make sure the description and photo of the dog are real and not made up. This may mean that you need to make a trip to the facility if it is not in your area. But it is worth it and much better than being disappointed later.

In some cases when you are adopting from a distance such as a homeless dog from Ukraine or a retired Greyhound from another state or country, meeting the dog beforehand may not be possible. However, you should be given options in the event it does not work out. Make sure you read the small print in the adoption agreement!

5. There is a Lot of Drama and You Feel Manipulated

There is nothing wrong with a shelter or rescue being honest about the back stories of their wards. All of these dogs will need a good home whatever their situation has been. Certainly, some dogs have been pulled out of really bad situations which may seem heart-breaking. It is appropriate for rescues to post stories about the dogs they have saved and placed in good homes to bring attention to their work and the dogs who still need homes.

But if you feel that someone is being overly dramatic and pulling at your heartstrings to talk you into adopting--stop! Start asking questions. Put your heart on hold, and use your head. Make sure you are getting a balanced understanding of the dog’s past and objective information about the dog and his needs.

Even if the rescue group means well, you do not want to adopt only because you feel sorry for a dog. You need to be sure it is something you can and want to do.

6. The Organization Tries to Pressure You into Making a Quick Decision

Similarly, if someone tries to pressure you into quickly signing an adoption contract and paying a fee, this is also a big red flag. You will want to make sure that all of your questions have been answered. Be sure to see my post, Questions to Ask Before Adopting a Rescue or Shelter Dog. Ensure that you have plenty of time to meet the dog, hang out with him, and even take him out for a walk or play with him. Some rescues and shelters may allow a trial visit to your home for a few days before you decide.

But if you feel pushed to adopt quickly because someone else may snap him up, or because the dog is so lonely or miserable, you may need to walk away. If someone else does adopt him after your visit, good for him! There will be many other great dogs to adopt. A dog who is lonely or in need has been this way for a while, so another day or two will not make a huge difference if you need to think about it.

7. The Group Does Not Ask Questions About You and Your Reasons for Adopting

Any reputable shelter or rescue will be first, and foremost, concerned about the well-being of the dogs they care for. They will not want to place a dog only to have him returned within a few weeks or days. This is very hard on a dog who has already been through a lot. In fact, a good rescue dog organization will have an extensive application process to protect the welfare of the dog. Be sure to see my post, How to Pass My Dog Adoption Interview to become familiar with the typical process of adoption.

Additionally, they will want to evaluate and screen you and your family to make sure that the dogs they place will have a good life and home. Therefore, people who want to adopt usually have to complete an application and answer questions about why they want a dog in the first place.

Most screening forms also want to know what your home environment is like and where will the dog sleep and be allowed to spend time. If you work full-time, they will probably want to know how you will accommodate your dog’s needs while you are away. And many rescues also do a visit to your home just to see it with their own eyes before placing a dog.

If a rescue does none of this and only requires that you pay the fee, they probably do not care about the dog’s welfare. This is another warning sign that they only want to “flip’ dogs for money, and may not be fully truthful with you.

8. The Dog’s Behavior May Indicate an Emotional or Health Problem

Dog barring his teeth and barking aggressively in dog shelter
Frightened dog in shelter baring his teeth.

Make sure you spend enough time with the pooch you want to adopt to see how he behaves. If he cowers or backs into a corner, he may need some help in recovering from a trauma. If he has a really flat affect and does not react in either a negative or a positive way to you, he may be sick. Or he could be really checked out due to a prolonged period of neglect or abuse.

You can still consider adopting a dog who has a lot of needs but have a trainer or vet take a look at him. Know what you are getting into and what resources you may need to help a dog recover and adapt. See this comprehensive article in PsychologyToday.com, Behavioral ‘Red Flags’ in the Dog, by Liz Stelow, DVM for other behaviors that indicate emotional stress.

9. Biggest Red Flag — The Dog is Not a Good Match for You and Your Family

In any adoption, make sure that the dog you select is a good match for you and your lifestyle. Consider in advance some of the needs you have before you adopt. Do you want a large or small dog? Does gender matter to you? Do you want your dog to go jogging with you each day or do you prefer a lap dog? Consider how much space you have in your home and yard and how much time you can spend with a dog.

If you want a dog for companionship but also really want to help a dog who has a lot of needs, my hat is off to you! As an example, many senior dogs dealing with aging issues really need a good home. Additionally, many dogs have health or emotional issues and need a loving owner to provide some additional care for their special needs.

If you find your heart going out to a special dog in need, by all means adopt a dog who really needs you. But make sure that you have all of the information first. You will also want to spend enough time with your new, furry friend to feel that there is a connection or potential for a strong bond. It may be hard to tell while a dog is in a shelter environment, but by spending some time with him you may be able to get a sense of his heart and spirit.

Final Thoughts

Adopting a dog is a wonderful thing to do that can bring you years of joy. Just be sure you watch out for the red flags and make a decision using both your heart and your head!

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