Starting a Dog Rescue Group: A Beginner’s Guide

Hard truth: Starting a dog rescue group is a huge a labor of love. But it’s totally worth it. Begin your research here.

Starting a Dog Rescue Group
Planning on starting a dog rescue group? First, figure out your community’s needs. Photo: stonnie

Nearly 4 million dogs enter animal shelters in the United States each year.

That’s a big number, and knowing there are so many loving animals out there without proper homes or attention is heartbreaking.

There are tons of ways to help and care for those dogs in need. You can foster, adopt or simply support an organization dedicated to serving them. But what if you want to do more?

Starting a Dog Rescue Group

When helping a single dog or simply giving financial assistance isn’t enough, there’s another path you can take, albeit a big one.

If you’re truly dedicated to helping the countless dogs in need, why not start a dog rescue group of your own? Just think of the difference you can make in so many dogs’ lives.

If you know this is your calling and passion, keep reading to learn how to take the first steps toward opening a rescue group in your community.

Your First Steps

Before you start scoping out locations or buildings for your rescue group, you need to do a lot of planning and brainstorming.

While the word “nonprofit” means you won’t be in business for the money, at its core, any successful organization takes just as much business savvy to get up and running.

Not only will you need a detailed business plan with a lot of outside help, but also you’ll need to handle things like:

  • Management
  • Accounting
  • Marketing
  • Networking
  • Legal needs

Before you dive into that work, however, you’ll need to start with a fair amount of field research. After all, while you might have a goal of starting a rescue group, your community might not actually need the kind of rescue you’re dreaming up.

The best thing you can do before going all-in is head to nearby shelters and groups.

Talk with people already working in the sector. What needs are they meeting, and where are they lacking?

Decide whether there’s a true need for another rescue group in your area. By opening your own, you could actually be pulling from another group’s resources, which could hurt you both in the long run.

If there’s a clear demand, though (or if certain needs just aren’t being met), and opening another organization could help, your idea might be the perfect solution for your community.

Starting a Dog Rescue Group
How would you handle donations to your organization? Photo: Myriams-Fotos

Choose Your Model

Rescue groups come in many different shapes and forms.

Working out of a building adds an entirely new facet to running any type of organization, nonprofit or not.

The overhead, supplies and staffing needs just scrape the surface of the kind of costs you’ll incur. Unless you have significant funding, you may want to consider taking a different route.

Many groups operate out of homes, for example, where a network of volunteers might house each rescue dog until they’re placed in a forever home.

Although this might mean a smaller capacity, it could be a far more viable option when you’re first starting a dog rescue group.

Volunteer First

Regardless of which rescue model you choose, you need to understand exactly what goes on behind the curtains of your local dog rescues.

Start by volunteering at nearby organizations. Get as much hands-on experience as you can in every role available.

The more you understand the needs of both the organization and dogs, the better you’ll be able to serve your community’s pets in the future.

Seek out both shelters and rescue groups in your area:

  • Shelters are typically run by the government and so will operate a bit differently.
  • Rescue groups, on the other hand, are supported mostly through private funding and volunteer work.

You can learn a lot from both.

A great tool for finding volunteer opportunities near you is the search feature on

Build a Team When You’re Starting a Dog Rescue Group

To successfully start a dog rescue group and keep it going, you’ll need a team of experts behind you. Plan on becoming partners with experts who have experience in:

  • Accounting
  • Fundraising and grant writing
  • Volunteer management
  • Business management
  • Veterinary care
  • Law
  • Marketing
  • Community outreach

Consider forming a board of people who can contribute these relevant skills.

Not only that, but each person should have a strong sense of community. They should be willing and excited to build relationships and grow the rescue group.

Since you’ll need significant funding throughout the life of the organization, it’s also wise to build a team of people able to financially support it in some way, whether that’s through their own funding or by cultivating outside donors.

Lay the Groundwork

If you’re opening a dog rescue group at a physical location, start scoping out spaces.

Employ the help of a real estate agent who can help you find the right location that suits all your needs. You’ll need to consider zoning regulations in your area and also decide which existing properties are capable of handling your type of work.

In addition, decide which type of rescue group you want to become:

  • Will you accept all animals?
  • Will it be a no-kill shelter (where not all animals are taken in)?

There are many options, and the decision should be based on your desires as well as your community’s needs.

Also, consider establishing nonprofit status for your group. Doing so means donations or support from the community are tax-deductible. Businesses or large donors typically look for organizations with nonprofit status for that reason.

Form Your Mission and Vision Statements

A mission and vision statement are at the core of every nonprofit. At first, they might seem hard to differentiate, but these statements serve 2 different purposes:

  • Your mission statement should be short, concise and direct. For example, your rescue group’s mission might be: “To reduce the number of stray dogs in Dallas by rehabilitating, fostering and housing them.” The mission statement lays out exactly what you do and why you do it. It’s 1–2 sentences that state a purpose and a method.
  • A vision statement, on the other hand, is broader. Think of a vision statement quite literally: How will your work change the vision and image of your community? How do you envision your group changing the world? A vision statement could be: “A loving home for every dog in need.”

Brainstorm with your team members or board, and try getting input from each member to create a unified sense of direction.

This enterprising teen and her rescue do great things for her community:

YouTube player

Start Fundraising for Your Dog Rescue Group

This is usually the hardest part of running a nonprofit. It’s tough to gather enough funding to not only start start but also operate an organization.

This is where your fundraising or grant writing expert will come in.

During this stage, you’ll want to seek funding from both individual and large donors. Reach out to foundations, local businesses and key activists in your area.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the money. Seek out dog food, treat and toy donations too.

This is also a time when you can hold events within your community. Do as much as you can to become a name in your area and form a network of support.

A great way to spread the word about your organization is through the media. It might sound overwhelming, but landing a spot on the local news channel or a big online publication isn’t as daunting as it might seem.

Reach out to reporters and news organizations with press releases and story ideas. These tasks are often tedious, but the more outreach you do, the faster you’ll start seeing the support you need.

Put Systems in Place

Once you start bringing dogs into your rescue group, you’ll need efficient systems in place to keep the organization running smoothly.

Write a checklist with the following tasks:

  • Create a well-oiled volunteer program, where volunteers are interviewed, screened and trained before interacting with animals.
  • Have a system for accepting donations, including thank-you notes or recognition.
  • Train all staff, both volunteer and not, on dog intake and processing.
  • Schedule regular events and outreach campaigns.
  • Create an application and screening process for people who want to foster or adopt.
  • Write a set of organization-wide policies and standards.

Of course, these systems just scratch the surface. Building and expanding on them is where your team of experts comes in.

Final Thoughts on Starting a Dog Rescue Group

Running a dog rescue group is truly a labor of love.

If you decide to take these first steps, prepare for a lot of ups and downs along the way. While it takes a lot of work, the outcome is completely worth it.

Remember, the community shares your mission, and at the end of the day, you’re all in this together.