How to Start Your Own Dog Rescue Group

If you have your heart set on starting your own dog rescue group, take a deep breath before you begin.

Before you start getting into the actual process, figure out the formalities and legalities of running such a group, as well as the logistics behind the rescue and adoption of animals.

We talked to Jme Thomas, Executive Director of Motley Zoo Animal Rescue, a volunteer run, non-profit organization, to find out what it’s like to start and run your own rescue group—and how to do it right.

THK: What steps should you research before you start putting a rescue together?

JME THOMAS: Look at why you want to start your own group. There are a lot of groups and it’s very hard work and you really can’t do it on your own, so your motivation is really key. For many people, it’s about the rescue being their “own,” which I personally believe is a very dangerous reason and likely to be the organization’s downfall. You always want more help and need more help—and there is never enough. Step two is a business plan, much like any for-profit business. It’s planning out all the things you need to think about before you’re in the moment and everything is a crisis—which is always.

This includes asking yourself a series of very important questions:

  • Is there a shelter or few in the area with which to work with? You should establish a relationship with at least one shelter, one that has animals which are being euthanized for time or space.
  • What is your budget? How will you get the money to start? Plan on using your own money or maybe a pocketful of change you get from some friends and family—but do not expect that people will just open their wallets for an idea that doesn’t exist, nor can they receive a tax deductible donation for.
  • How much will you allot for each animal? As in you literally have $X in the bank for each animal you will have in care, or you should not take them in. The fastest way to crash and burn before you even get going is to not be able to cover the expenses of the animals you have and yet are still taking in more. This is a huge issue for many rescues and it’s because emotion is driving them, and it just can’t if you want to sustain.
  • Does your city or county have laws that might conflict with having animals—usually multiple animals—in your home or others’ homes? Zoning ordinances? Other rules and laws in regards to animals, especially stray animals.
  • Get any business licenses you need to operate in your city and county and state. There are requirements for non-profits in each state and you must become one officially there first.
  • Learn about non-profits and know the rules and laws. Join Nonprofit Pro or other newsletters and blogs because they will provide helpful information.

THK: When starting a rescue group, is it important to have a focus in mind for the group? Senior dogs, dogs with special needs, small dogs, etc.?

JME THOMAS: Always choose your niche. This goes along with establishing your vision—but again, there should be a specific need you are addressing. And then set a goal—for example, focus on senior pets and try to rescue 10 of them the first year. Goals should be modest and when dealing with animals, the focus should be on the quality of care you provide the animals, not a number. When your focus is narrow, your goals are clearer. You can save the world one senior animal a year if need be—but it’s how you do it that really matters.

THK: How important is it to have a name, logo and tagline for the group?

JME THOMAS: It is really important to have a grasp on your brand and identity so you can stand out from the many other organizations doing this. To anyone on the outside, they all look the same, so what can you do to show you’re different, in appearance, attitude and culture?

Motley Zoo Animal Rescue’s name has very much been a part of our success. It was different from all the other groups—many of whom are named for furry, four-pawed angels in need. After a while any combination of those words sound the same—and yet you can have 10 different groups using those combinations of words in their title. Motley Zoo made us funny, it made us rock and roll. When a grant went across a foundation’s desk and there were nine groups that sounded alike, and one that sounded different—and was funny—which do you think they’d remember? One caveat: I would suggest avoiding naming the group after yourself. This goes back to checking egos at the door and it being about “we” not “me”—but it also doesn’t illustrate what you are doing or why you’re different.

THK: How do you decide where and how dogs will be housed? For example, is fostering always the best option? If so, how do you setup/find foster homes and is creating that network something you do before you start the rescue?

JME THOMAS: Fostering is pretty much the only option I can see for a small group starting out. And I truly believe group leaders must foster themselves and understand the experience of a foster first-hand, or they will never quite connect with or keep an audience of fosters.

Even though fostering might be the only option starting out, it actually has a lot of benefits a shelter doesn’t have. In general, shelters do large numbers (quantity) and animals that fall within “the norm”—whereas rescues do smaller animals and those in need of more individualized care (“quality,” for lack of a better way to describe how the two structures are different).

In foster-based rescue, you can also really get to know the animal, which is probably the best advantage of all. Many times, animals act different in shelters where it is loud and stressful. For example, many times the dog that is quietly sitting in the kennel—maybe even cowering—becomes the gregarious and energetic animal, which was not the person’s pick. In a foster home, you can get a better gauge for what that animal is really like. You get to test drive them in real life.

THK: How important is it to have a strong social media presence as a small rescue group?

JME THOMAS: I believe Facebook and Instagram are the two most important social media channels. With animals especially, pictures really tell the story. Honestly, people don’t even read the words most of the time—but a cute pic of a dog or cat will garner attention. Youtube is perhaps the next best—having your own channel of all your animals—because the only thing that “sells” people on adopting, fostering, volunteering, and donating more than pictures are videos!

THK: How do you cultivate support in the community? Would you recommend hosting events, doing talks, setting up a mailing list?

JME THOMAS: Getting your name and mission out there is the way to start garnering support—but also actually doing something, not just saying what you want to do. Start doing good work and people will notice and start supporting. Good programs (including volunteer and foster ones) recruit for themselves.

Motley Zoo started out by doing community events, even non-pet related ones. Then we became busier and started focusing on pet related ones—and now with our rock-and-roll thing, music events too. You will spend a lot of time “tabling” as it’s called—with a table and some pamphlets—but have an animal or two there. That always brings in attention. Going to schools and churches, scout troops and such community groups can be a good start too.
Having a mailing list is critical. You take down everyone’s information at events and keep track of where you met them and what they were interested in versus handing them a card and hoping they will follow through. Keeping an accurate database of adopters, fosters, donors and volunteers also critical.

THK: Are there always unexpected expenses when running a rescue group?

JME THOMAS: The animal that you expected only needed a spay and vaccines will need hernia repairs, a dental and so much more. We routinely spend more than $400 on each animal—and our maximum dog adoption donation is $450, cats, $150. That’s a huge discrepancy, which is made up for in fundraising.

THK: How do you recruit volunteers?

JME THOMAS: Recruiting volunteers is easy compared to keeping them—or finding ones that actually do anything to call themselves a volunteer. Good fosters/volunteer programs will recruit for themselves. Your biggest fans and cheerleaders should be your own people. If it isn’t, then you probably will struggle to recruit and keep people.

Meet the Author: Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at

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