[Updated December 3, 2018]
Public Animal Control Shelter
TYPICAL: These facilities are charged first with public safety and law enforcement; adoptions are sometimes an afterthought. They are commonly (under)funded by the local government, or may be private businesses that contract with local governments. Frequently, there is little or no adopter screening, information about the animals, veterinary care given, or adoption follow-up. You can find a great dog here, but identifying him is up to you.
AT BEST: Cheap. Local. Not picky about you.
WORST CASE: Employees may be political appointees, the lowest scorers on civil service exams, or prisoners from the county lockup, few of whom have any genuine interest in the animals; volunteer programs for animal lovers who want to help are nonexistent or minimal. No useful information about the dogs. High rates of communicable disease and parasites. Depressing. Death threat encourages rash adoption choices. No support or follow-up. Not picky about you.
Traditional Local Non-Profit Private Shelter
TYPICAL: This is a brick-and-mortar facility that may be small or quite large and includes paid staff as well as (usually) volunteers. In many places the animal control contract is held by a non-profit shelter, leading to at least partly conflicting missions within the same walls. Others are limited admission shelters that pick and choose which animals they will accept from the public. There are wide variations within this category on every dimension: adoption policies, evaluation of the animals, adopter screening, contracts, fiscal practices. Some are lean and focused on animal care and adoptions, some are top-heavy with executive salaries and high fundraising costs.
AT BEST: Local. Adoptions are a priority. Usually some evaluation is made of the dogs available for adoption. There is usually some effort to make good matches.
WORST CASE: Kenneled dogs do not reveal their true temperaments. Reliance on “tests” for temperament that are inaccurate and misleading, especially in larger facilities. Dogs may be kept caged for months or years, and if/when adopted, exhibit serious behavioral issues. Can be especially rigid about adopter criteria.
Breed-Specific / Other Specialty Rescue Group
TYPICAL: Usually composed entirely of volunteers with a special interest in a given breed or profile of dog. Rarely have paid staff; most keep dogs in foster homes rather than kennels. Only the largest have a brick-and-mortar presence. Usually (but not always) registered charitable non-profits with federal 501(c)3 designations. May be local, regional, or national (the latter is most common for rare breeds). Sourcing practices, screening procedures, follow-up, dog evaluations, health care and behavior interventions, fiscal responsibility, organizational stability, and level of expertise range from the very highest standards to completely hopeless.
AT BEST: Expertise in a narrow area. Foster-based rehab and evaluation. Generally better at making matches. They have the breed/type of dog you are looking for. Generally fiscally lean.
WORST CASE: Can be slightly insane about screening adopters. Adoption fees can be excessively high. Risk of breed-blindness. Trendy street dogs imported from the Third World (on the theory that there is a shortage of feral dogs for adoption in the US) could give you rabies (imported dogs have tested positive for rabies). Some self-styled “breed rescues” are nothing more than the scratch ‘n’ dent warehouse for a puppymiller – a profitable way to move out the defective, unsellable puppies and the superannuated breeding stock – as is, no warranty, because it is an adoption not a sale – by appealing to the credulity of people who want to “rescue, not buy.” Bonus, the puppymillers can use this rescue shell game to avoid state regulations that apply to breeders, and use tax-deductible donations to maintain their own families and dogs.
Large, High-Profile “Sanctuary” or “Shelter” with a National Presence
TYPICAL: Some of these expert marketers raise millions of dollars in donations via direct mail, spam blitzes, and even television ads, almost all of which is churned back into more fundraising, high executive salaries, and “consulting” fees for various cronies. They typically care for and place many fewer dogs annually than an average local shelter that operates on a fraction of the funds raised.
AT BEST: Your dog will come with a Hollywood-ready backstory.
WORST CASE: You are an integral cog in the executive salary-consultant fee-direct mail-industrial complex.
Local Rescue Group
TYPICAL: Local rescues may have a relationship with one or more local shelters from which they pull dogs that are in danger of being killed, or dogs that require special care before adoption. They may accept dogs from private owners.
AT BEST: The best are as good as the best breed rescue groups. They add value to the dogs they rescue with training and vetting while each lives in a foster home, and can tell you quite a lot about the dog. They are there to support you in your dog ownership.
WORST CASE: The “group” is no group at all, but incorporated for the express purpose of swindling kind-hearted animal lovers. At near-worst, they can fail to balance intakes and adoptions and become de facto animal hoarders, operating in a constant state of emergent crisis. This is most common when the group has one powerful and emotionally unstable poobah and no accountability to an independent board of directors. Another version involves crazy dog ladies fighting with one another. Tunnel vision leads to bad economic and animal welfare decisions. Driven by sentiment and panic/urgency they may bite off more than they can chew, or disintegrate due to personality clashes and internal politics.
For information on adoption costs, see this article from Dogster.com.