You want to do the “right” thing and adopt a dog, but there are key warning signs to watch out for when finding the “right” dog for your family. Being aware of potential red flags can help you make the right decision and find the perfect dog for your home.

Adopting a dog is an emotional decision. Many people decide to get a dog on a whim… they see a social media post for a dog that needs a home or walk by an adoption event that has the cutest puppy you just can’t say no to.

But I’m going to urge you to stop and do a little research before adopting that adorable fluff ball.

white dog sitting inside shelter with back to camera

11 red flags to look for when adopting a dog

We’d like to think all shelters and rescues are honest and want what’s best for the dogs. But in reality, there are some shady organizations out there and you need to watch for the red flags, so you don’t become a victim.

And if you think you are immune to these problems, think again… like I said adopting a dog is a very emotional decision. Even I have fallen victim to adopting a dog that had a bite history that was not disclosed.

Here are the key warning signs to watch out for:

1. Shady shelter or rescue

When considering adopting a dog, you should be cautious of questionable shelters and rescues. These organizations may provide limited or misleading information about the dog’s health and background, making it difficult to make an informed decision.

To avoid adopting a dog from a suspicious shelter or rescue, research their reputation and ask for references from previous adopters. Finding a reputable shelter or rescue should be your priority.

Watch for these warning signs when searching for a reputable shelter or rescue:

  • No website or online presence
  • Bad or no reviews
  • Missing or inadequate information about the dog’s history
  • Refusal to provide information on the dog’s medical records.
  • Conflicting information

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and gather as much information as possible from the rescue. Your research will help you determine if the organization is legitimate and if the dog is the right fit for you.

And don’t be fooled into false security just because the dog is listed on a big-name website like Petfinder. PetFinder does not have a way to remove shady rescues and puppy mills still exist, usually hiding behind the facade of a “rescue”

PRO TIP: Search the IRS database OR Candid, GuideStar to ensure they are running a legit non-profit organization.

2. Free dog

Avoid online posts and ads with people giving their dog away for free. Free sounds great, but NOT when it comes to pets.

Nothing is ever free. The dog could have serious behavior or health issues that the owner cannot or does not want to take care of.

If the dog is coming from a friend or family member, then have an in-depth discussion with them to ensure you aren’t taking on more than you bargained for.

3. Adoption process feels rushed

A huge red flag when adopting a dog is if the shelter or rescue is trying to rush you into making a decision. If they aren’t taking the time to interview YOU or not allowing you time to spend with the dog, then I would be very concerned about their intentions.

Shelters are overwhelmed so I understand they need to keep applications moving along. But they also need to ensure the dogs are going to a good home, and the only way to do that is to spend time with the adopter.

4. Not being able to meet the dog first

Never send money, sign a contract, or agree to adopt a dog without meeting them in person first. It’s unfortunate, but there are scammers that prey on our emotions. Puppy scams are becoming more and more prevalent. This goes back to finding a reputable shelter or rescue to adopt from.

If you are adopting a dog from out of state or internationally, then do your due diligence on the agency. Make sure to research them, ask for references, and consider doing a video call.  

resource guarding dogs

5. Aggression

Observe the dog’s behavior and body language very closely when meeting the dog. Aggressive behavior in dogs can manifest in various ways, such as growling, snarling, or even biting.

If a dog displays aggression towards you or other animals, it might indicate deeper issues and extra caution is required.

And you may encounter a dog that appears to be friendly and still have an underlying aggression issue. This was true in our story when adopting Rocky.

Unless you are prepared for a long and expensive road of rehabilitation, I recommend finding a different dog. There is no shame in saying no to adopting a dog.

6. Fearfulness

While it’s understandable that many dogs show some fear inside a loud shelter, extreme fearfulness can be a cause for concern. Fearful dogs require additional time and effort to build trust and can be prone to developing anxiety or aggression.

You can learn a lot from watching a dog’s body language.

A fearful dog might shy away, pant excessively, or lick their lips when approached or interacted with.

It’s okay if your dog shows some signs of fearfulness when first meeting new people, so it’s important to use your gut instinct in deciphering how severe their anxiety is.

Puppy mill and hoarding dogs need an extreme amount of rehabilitation, so be aware of what you are getting involved in before adopting.

Read more about adopting a fearful dog and how to help them.

Signs of a fearful dog:

  • Trembling or cowering
  • Tucked or low and slowly wagging tail
  • Ears tilted back or flattened against the head
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Whale eye
  • Yawning
  • Lip licking

Learn more about how to read a dog’s body language.

dog laying in kennel at shelter

7. Separation anxiety

Adopting a dog with separation anxiety can be a major challenge and is very common among rescue dogs.

It’s very difficult for a shelter to know if a dog has SA, but you should ask if the dog has shown any of the signs below:

  • Excessive nervousness
  • Clinginess during interactions
  • Pacing, drooling, or barking when left alone

Dogs with separation anxiety (SA) require additional training and support to feel confident and secure when you’re not home. In severe SA cases, dogs cannot be left alone without destroying your home or injuring themselves.

SA is a serious condition and is one of the top reasons people return a dog to the shelter.

Learn more about Rescue Dog Separation Anxiety Solutions

8. Visible injuries or illnesses

If you notice any visible injuries or signs of illness in a dog you are considering adopting, it’s essential to address these observations with the shelter staff or rescue organization.

Look at the whole dog, inside and out. Some common signs of health issues might include:

  • Lethargy, which can indicate underlying health issues
  • Excessive coughing, which can be a sign of respiratory or heart problems
  • Dirty ears, can be an ear infection or a sign of allergies
  • Bad breath, can be a sign of lousy gut health or oral health
  • Vomiting or diarrhea, which can be indicative of digestive or other internal issues
  • Limping can be a sign of an injury
  • Cuts, sores, or thin/missing hair
  • Scratching can be a sign of allergies, fleas, or mites
international dog that is sick with a skin problem

9. Lack of medical records

When adopting a dog, it’s not always possible to have their complete medical records. But the shelter or rescue should be able to provide medical records of the dog while in their care.

If no medical records are available, this is a red flag that they have not had the dog assessed by a vet or are trying to hide health concerns.

PRO TIP: Many dogs are adopted so quickly that some medical issues may not appear during their stay at the shelter. Ask if the dog has a health guarantee if something should show up after taking them to your vet.

10. Inadequate nutrition

It’s very possible the dog came to the shelter underweight. If the dog looks malnourished, ask staff to explain the situation.

If you suspect that a dog has not received proper nutrition within their care, this is a major red flag. Signs of malnutrition may include:

  • A severely underweight or emaciated appearance
  • Poor coat condition, with thinning or missing patches of fur
  • Weakness or lethargy

A malnourished dog is not a deal breaker for me. Most shelters and rescues get food donated, which is great, but not always the highest quality food. In time you can switch the dog to a high-quality diet.

11. It feels too good to be true

Go with your gut instincts in any situation. If the shelter/rescue says the dog is perfect and has zero issues, it’s the exact age and breed you were looking for, it makes you wonder… this is when asking a lot of questions should help flush out some real answers.

I’m not saying there isn’t a perfect dog for you, but if the shelter is telling you exactly what you want to hear, then you need to wonder if they are playing off your emotions and hiding something.

It’s reasonable to understand that shelters need to get their dogs adopted quickly so they can save another dog. BUT rushing the process can backfire and you will be the one paying for it, literally and figuratively.

Never feel pressured and always be prepared to walk away if it doesn’t feel like the perfect fit. Remember, this is a 10+ year commitment.


Take your time when adopting a dog and keep these red flags in mind. By being informed and proactive, you can help ensure that your new dog is healthy and happy in their new home.

Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to ask a lot questions to ensure you have all the information needed for a successful adoption.

It’s also important to consider if you have the time and resources to provide the necessary care and support the dog requires. With patience, understanding, and professional help, many dogs can overcome behavioral issues and become loving, well-adjusted companions.

But it will take a lot of patience and possibly financial resources to help the dog through any challenges.

It is not selfish to decide against adopting a dog with challenges that might be beyond your current experience or capacity to manage.

Your ultimate goal should be to provide a loving and safe environment for your new pet, and being aware of red flags during adoption plays a significant role in achieving that.

What’s Next?

About the Author

Debi McKee

Debi McKee is the expert behind Rescue Dogs 101 where she guides you in your journey of adopting and raising a rescue dog every step of the way. She is a mom of 3 human kids and 4 dogs and volunteers for a local dog rescue and Humane Society. Click here for more about Debi and her passion for helping you and your dog.

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  1. Yes, I spent years trying to adopt from local rescues but as I needed a small dog due to my age and fitness, it was quite difficult as they seemed to have many applications. A percentage stipulated you needed another dog , or no pets, no cats, etc. And some didn't consider older people like ourselves. I ended up adopting from overseas as a last resort, but the dog was nothing like their bio in reality and has severe leash aggression and will attack other dogs unprovoked and doesn't like cats or car rides unlike the description of being good with all of these. In retrospect, I would have preferred to have a trial period or had a dog that had been fostered in a home first as then they might have been able to assess more thoroughly and state the behavioural issues.

    1. I am so sorry you had such a bad experience. It’s unfortunate that good people like yourself have to go to extremes to adopt a dog and then end up with a dog that isn’t a good match. I hope things work out for you.

  2. Such an eye-opening piece, Debi! 🐾 Adopting a dog is indeed a heartfelt journey, and your comprehensive list of red flags serves as an invaluable guide for potential adopters. It's so crucial to approach this decision with both heart and mind, ensuring that our furry friends find the loving and suitable homes they deserve. I particularly appreciate the emphasis on trusting one's instincts and the importance of thorough research. It's a reminder that while our hearts might melt at the sight of those adorable eyes, it's our responsibility to ensure we're making the best decision for both the dog and our family. Thank you for shedding light on this topic and guiding many toward responsible adoption!

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