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The History Of Animal Shelters & Dog Adoption in the United States 

This list includes just some of the big moments in the history of dog rescue and continues to be updated.

Written by: Arden Moore

Last Updated on April 21, 2024 by Nicole Cosgrove

The History Of Animal Shelters & Dog Adoption in the United States 

This list includes just some of the big moments in the history of dog adoption and rescue and continues to be updated. Have a dog adoption historical moment to add? Just contact Dogster here for the information for consideration of inclusion.

Created by Arden Moore and continuously updated by the Dogster team

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The Timeline of Dog Adoption and Rescue in the US

  • 1866: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) begins its mission.
  • 1869: First U.S. animal shelter created by Caroline Earl White along with other female animal activists opened as The Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals in Philadelphia. Today, it is called the Women’s Animal Center, renamed from the Women’s Humane Society.
  • 1910: A group led by Jean Milne Gower creates the Denver Dumb Friends League, now one of the largest and oldest animal shelters west of the Mississippi River.
Rescued dogs arrive at the North Shore Animal League America campus, where staff and volunteers take each to a climate-controlled Mobile Rescue Unit and into loving arms. ©NorthShoreAnimalLeagueAmerica/with permission
  • 1944: The North Shore Animal League and Dog Protective Association, Inc. rescuing homeless animals in Long Island and dedicating itself to the No-Kill philosophy is founded. Now called the North Shore Animal League, the nonprofit’s programs and initiatives have majorly impacted dog rescue, adoption and awareness, greatly lowering U.S. pet euthanasia numbers. More than 1.1 million dogs, cats, puppies and kittens have been saved since its founding, and today it places 18,000 pets on average in loving homes each year.
  • 1973: The ASPCA recognizes the need to control pet population and begins its Low-Cost Spay/Neuter programs to spay and neuter adopted dogs and cats.
  • 1976: Rich Avanzino, Pharm. D., J.D., who many consider the “father” of the No-Kill movement, becomes the president of the San Francisco SPCA through 1999. During his tenure, the Society and the County of San Francisco work together to become the first county in the nation to offer an adoption guarantee for every healthy and treatable shelter dog and cat, inspiring others to do so too. Rich later becomes President and then Strategic Advisor for the animal welfare organization Maddie’s Fund. Dog Fancy magazine — now Dogster magazine — named Rich to our list of 45 People Who Have Changed the Dog World in our March 2015 issue.
  • 1984: Best Friends Animal Society was formed and, with it, the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary for homeless and special-needs animals created in Southern Utah, advocating the importance of no-kill. Today, along with a national network of shelters and rescue groups, working toward goal of No-Kill 2025.
  • 1986: Independent non-profit San Francisco SPCA joins with Macy’s to create its annual Holiday Windows adoption program, starting a tradition that has lasted 34-years as of 2020 (which was the first time the event was virtual due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
  • 1989: Washington Basset Rescue was founded and its sister rescue Dachshund Rescue NW was founded in 1991 near Spokane, Washington. Both rescues still going strong today (2021) with the all-volunteer rescues having placed over 2,500 dogs (around 150 a year since 1991).  The groups hold fun events like wiener dog races, parades, adoption booths and holiday parties. The rescues were started by Director, Margo Mossburg and she and her husband Dennis are the main volunteers. The rescue is located at the Mossburg’s farm; visitors are welcome by appointment in advance only.
For staff and volunteers at North Shore Animal League America, it’s not actually a job but it’s love and passion. ©NorthShoreAnimalLeagueAmerica/with permission
  • 1991: North Shore Animal League America’s Humane Relocation Program begins with weekly transports from overcrowded municipal shelters and commercial breeding facilities across the country to the safety of its campus.
  • 1993: The ASPCA is the first national animal-protection group to start implanting microchips for identification in its shelter animals up for adoption.
  • 1993: North Shore Animal League America’s SpayUSA referral service — the first of its kind — premieres, connecting people nationwide to low cost, quality spay and neuter services for their pets.
  • 1994: Maddie’s Fund is created in Pleasanton, California, by Dave and Cheryl Duffield in memory of their dog Maddie (1987-1997), and the foundation has awarded about $250 million in grants for shelters and foster care groups. This California-based nonprofit invests resources toward “keeping pets and people together, creating a safety net of care for animals in need and operating within a culture of inclusiveness and humility.”
  • 1995: The North Shore Animal League’s first Pet Adoptathon is conducted, reaching around the world annually to save tens of thousands of pets’ lives. Today it’s the Global Pet Adoptathon, reaching around the world and saving tens of thousands.
  • 1996: Betsy Banks Saul and Jared Saul created the website Petfinder as a way to match adoptable pets in animal shelters with people living in and around New Jersey. In 2000, Petfinder became national and in 2013, it joined Nestle Purina. Petfinder ranks as the largest pet website on the internet with more than 25 million pet adoptions.
  •  1998: SF SFPCA’s Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center opens, revolutionizing animal sheltering by housing adoptable dogs and cats in home-like settings and not cages, which sets a new standard of sheltering practices.
The North Shore Animal League America‘s Mobile Rescue Units are roomy and climate controlled. ©NorthShoreAnimalLeagueAmerica/with permission
  • 2001: North Shore Animal League America commences its The Tour For Life program, sending Animal League America’s Mobile Rescue Units on the road, using the units and expertise to help shelters across the country save more animals.
  • 2008: Old Dog Haven volunteer Julie Dudley leaves her corporate career to create the nonprofit fundraising organization for senior dogs, The Grey Muzzle Organization, inspired by her experiences at Old Dog Haven and foster dog Sassy. The organization’s sole mission is to raise money to fund grants for existing animal welfare groups across the country to help homeless, at-risk senior dogs. Julie funded the first grant cycle and part of the second one with $40,000 of her own money. Today, the organization is able to fund the grants through individual and corporate donors. These grants allow welfare groups to give specialized care homeless senior dogs need, such as orthopedic beds, medical screenings, surgeries, dental work, senior dog adoption programs and hospice care. Today, the organization has a dedicated Board of Directors, Advisory Board of experts and many volunteers across the country.
  • 2009: The Shelter Pet Project launches in September. Created by the Advertising Council, Maddie’s Fund and The Humane Society of the United States, it urged people looking for a new pet to make shelters and rescue groups their first choice for adoption. The campaign played out on billboards, bus shelters, websites, TV and radio.
  • 2013: ASPCA launches ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center pilot program to provide behavioral rehabilitation for severely fearful, un-adoptable dogs in New Jersey. Today, the BRC program has expanded and is housed in a permanent facility in North Carolina.
  • 2014: John Hussey, a National Football League referee and animal advocate, creates This Santa Monica, California-based company has conducted more than 7,000 campaigns that have raised more than $20 million in donations to help more than 2,100 animal shelter and rescue groups.
  • 2014: Russian stray and abandoned dogs get an international media spotlight turned on them during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games due to the coverage of homeless dogs in Sochi. This led to the creation of the Sochi Dogs and the Sochi Dogs Sanctuary, which promotes spay/neuter programs and getting Russian dogs off the streets and into homes around the world.
  • 2018: The ASPCA opens its Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Weaverville, N.C. This first-ever permanent facility is dedicated to “the rehabilitation and study of extremely fearful, un-adoptable homeless dogs, most of whom are victims of cruelty or neglect.” The facility cover 13 acres, giving the BRC the capacity to rehabilitate 65 dogs at any given time.
  • 2020: TIME magazine names rescue animals as its 2020 Pet of the Year. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic the U.S. national adoption rate spikes, with some animal shelters and rescues being emptied of adoptable pets.
  • 2021: Los Angeles Animal Services officially becomes a No Kill shelter city, becoming the largest city in the U.S. to achieve that rating (must be over 90%).

Is an important dog rescue date missing from this list? Please send a photo along with any information on additions to [email protected].  

Featured Image Credit: Molly Wald, Best Friends Animal Society

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