Thursday, February 11, 2010


Since we brought Teddy into our home (garage?), I've gotten a lot of questions about shelters, the surrender process, why people give up their dogs, and animal abuse. I though I'd answer a few questions about shelters first.

What was wrong with the dog?

There can be quite a few reasons why dogs end up in a shelter. I divide them into 'understandable' reasons and 'questionable' reasons.

Some understandable reasons I've heard are:

  • An elderly owner had to move to a nursing home or needs assisted care and has nobody else to take their dog.
  • The owner dies and the rest of his family aren't in a position to keep or care for the dog.
  • The owner has to go on military duty or make a sudden move to a place that does not accept pets.
  • A family experiences severe financial hardship and can no longer adequately care for the dog.
Some questionable reasons I've heard are:

  • Starting a family/having children.
  • Claims of not having time for the dog or not being able to "give him the love he needs".
  • Allergies. I've only heard one allergy-related rescue I believe where the husband developed breathing problems and his mild allergies became more severe. In this case, the family re-homed their dog and she did not end up at a shelter.
  • Landlord threatening eviction due to excessive barking, jumping, marking.
  • The dog had an aggressive episode and the owners are afraid.
(Notice that almost all of these are predicated on a behavioral problem the owner does not know how to fix.)

Then there are a whole collection of completely ridiculous excuses. I won't go into them other than to say that I wish people would just be honest and accountable and say, "I wasn't ready for the responsibility of a dog." Or, "I didn't want to take on the commitment of finding an acceptable home myself."

What happens when a dog is surrendered to a rescue or shelter?

When a dog is surrendered to a rescue or shelter there is at least a 15-minute intake session. The owner should be prepared to provide as much information as possible regarding the animal including vaccinations, spay/neuter status, behavior, training, food, and other information that might help the rescue re-home the dog appropriately.

The owner usually signs a document covering the information given and a release form that states the shelter will make every effort to place healthy, friendly animals in new, loving homes. This is not a guarantee rehoming. The placement of an individual dog for adoption is based on an evaluation of his or her health and temperament

Once an animal is up for adoption, the time limit in which he or she can remain up for adoption depends on facility. Some have a fourteen day adoption period, some have no time limit, others are based on ongoing temperament testing as may dogs develop shelter shock and accompanying neuroses that can effect aggression response.

New owner-surrender dogs go through a pretty rough transition. Unlike strays that are usually happy to be inside, clean, warm, and feed (at least for the first few days), owner-surrender dogs often bark themselves hoarse out of stress. Most adoption wards have about 25 other animals in cages in close quarters who are barking, whining, sleeping, or banging about in their cages.

If they are at an average shelter, they may get taken out in the morning and then again at night. The volunteers have to make the choice between keeping kennels clean or getting dogs outside. Cleaning kennels always takes priority. One shelter I volunteered at had so few volunteers and so many animals that the dogs were often in their cages for days at a time. (One day I spent eight hours there and tried to walk as many dogs as I could outside for five minutes each. I got through less than half the dogs.) For an owner-surrender dog, this can be the most distressing aspect of shelter life. They've learned not to go potty inside and they certainly don't want to go in the place where they sleep and eat. Breaking their housetraining is one of the most difficult challenges for the dog and they know they broke a rule. Once they realize their family isn't coming to get them and they have soiled themselves, they begin to exhibit what animal care workers call "shelter shock".

When a dog has shelter shock, he is often overly quiet, depressed, and sometimes unresponsive. Many pace restlessly in their cages. Some dogs deteriorate dramatically in a kennel situation and it can take a period of normal home life to gradually undo the damage. Many shelter dogs begin to "fence-fight" or show other signs of barrier-aggression.

It is sad to see this happen, but it is the reality of a dog turned over to a shelter. If you or someone you know can no longer keep a dog or no longer handle the responsibility of dog ownership, please take as much time as you can to re-home your dog yourself. Advertising on websites like and local papers can be helpful, reaching out over social networking sites can help reach a wider area than just your hometown. Be honest with yourself about how much time it takes to re-home a dog. Give yourself at least six to eight weeks of active effort to re-home your dog.

Some trainers (like me) recognize the pressing need to keep dogs out of shelters and will volunteer a few sessions or references to other training programs to the new family as a bonus.


  1. We rescued a second old english sheepdog recently. Now that he is no longer matted and starving from neglect, his biggest flaw is that he jumps up on us out of pure joy. We have some territorial issues that we are working with between all our pups, but frankly, I can't imagine parting with any of them without a fight!! They are pure love. PURE love! A little training goes a looooong way!

  2. Butterfly, that is so true. A little training does go a long way. And the love you get back is soooo amazing.