The Strained Shelter and Rescue System

Fixing the Strained Shelter System

Before we can begin to address the strains on the shelter/rescue system, we have to identify what is contributing to it (if not directly causing it).

Before trying to identify contributing factors or causes, it’s important do define what the problem really is.  I suspect there are regional differences and specific issues at specific shelters/rescues but overall I think the biggest problem effecting shelters is simply a matter of numbers.  They have far too many dogs entering the shelter (many of these dogs requiring a lot of resources) and not enough resources–many shelters who are not in as “high flow” areas make an effort to step in and help areas that are harder hit so they too take in extra dogs.  Even if dogs are coming into the shelter and being adopted out easily and quickly, it’s still a strain on the shelter to accommodate those numbers–vaccinations, medical testing, spay/neuter, behavioral evaluations, following behavior plans, cleaning kennels, risk of spreading diseases like parvo or distemper, and finding foster homes for dogs who need one all add up quickly.  Whether the resources are financial, space, foster homes, etc, there is more need than they can adequately accommodate.

Linus came from a strained shelter that works with rescues to help save dogs.

Former foster dog, Linus came from a shelter that works extensively with rescues to help pull dogs from the shelter and into rescue.

Rescues have a little more agency (they are not open door facilities) and can choose to bring a dog into rescue or not, but many of them feel pressured to “do more” or just “take in one more” (sometimes by the very shelters they are trying to help).  It often results in rescues getting in over their head by either taking on more dogs than they can comfortably care for, or taking a dog who needs special resources (behavioral/medical), or a dog who may not be as easy to place.  Now I would argue here that a rescue that regularly takes on more than they can comfortably care for is not a responsible rescue, but that’s for a different blog post.

There are just too many dogs who are being relinquished to shelters and in turn the rescues that pull from shelters or who take in dogs bound for a shelter.  So, why?  Why are there so many dogs ending up in shelters?  I am not naive enough to believe I know it all, but here are some of the things I see as contributing to the strain on the shelter system.

*Puppy Mills/Pet Stores (aka pet stores that sell puppies, commercial breeders, Amish “Farm” breeders, Mennonite breeders)–puppy mills are a huge issue and the effects go on for generations.  There are 6 big reasons that puppy mills contribute in huge ways to the shelter dog/rescue population…

  • Poorly matched puppies and owners–puppy mills/pet stores do not care if a family is a good match for a particular puppy/breed, they just want to sell a dog.  When they send the “8 week old” (probably only 6 weeks and illegal to sell technically) border collie puppy home with the 80 year old couple, they are setting that puppy up to be dumped at a shelter/rescue.  So when individual dogs do not fit well with the person who bought them, there is no option for that person other than dumping the dog or rehoming since they cannot return to the pet store/breeder.  Or even more fantastic is when the pet store/puppy mill sells littermates (biological or not) to the same person.
  • No requirement for spay/neuter–pet stores and puppy mills do not care if the person they sell to then goes on to breed that dog.  So John Q. Public gets his female Sheep-a-doodle from the pet store.  His sheep-a-doodle remains intact and John was either not educated enough to prevent a pregnancy of his dog or intentionally wanted his: “kids to experience the miracle of birth,” “kids to understand the lifecycle,” “dog to get to be a mom,” or “dog to give him a puppy just like his dog.”  Now John has a litter of 10 mixed breed dogs and can’t find good homes for all of them so he goes to the shelter to drop them off OR he places these dogs with anyone with $300 (which potentially leads to bad matches where dogs will be dumped at shelters or THOSE puppies go on to have puppies who can’t be place and the cycle continues).
  • Selling puppies who are not behaviorally or medically sound–it’s not news that puppy mills/pet stores often sell puppies that are either physically unwell or that are behaviorally unwell.  Some of those puppies will be dumped into the laps of rescues when it is discovered that they are physically not well (and when the owners discover that returning a puppy is not as easy as the return policy suggests) and even more of those puppies will end up in shelter/rescue when the owners discover the depth of the mental and behavioral damage that has been done to their puppy.  These broken puppies take up a lot of resources should the rescue or shelter attempt to heal the puppy (time, kennel space, money, and staff/volunteer resources).
  • Humane investigations on the conditions in puppy mills that result in seizure–when a puppy mill, amish farm, commercial breeder is caught with their kennels unsanitary and inhumane and they fail to adhere to citations to clean up their act, authorities may act on shutting down the operation.  Unfortunately when that happens, humane agencies and rescues are forced to step in and take in the hundreds of animals that are on site.  Many of these animals are unsocialized, sick, or in horrible physical condition and require an immense amount of resources to assess, heal physically and mentally (if possible), and place into new homes (if possible).
  • Rescues who come in before puppy mills cull breeding stock–there are some rescues that seem to work directly with some mills to pull adults who have been used up by the puppy mill before the millers cull them (kill them in ways that may or may not be humane).  The rescues take in dogs that, as aforementioned, take a lot of their resources to help.
  • Do not have a lifetime return policy–if a person’s situation changes years down the road (that person passes away, they lose a job, become homeless, have a baby with a dog in the home who is not safe with children, change of job requiring long hours out of the home, etc), they have no place to send the dog other than rehoming him/her themselves if they are lucky, or surrendering to a shelter.  Ethical breeders have a lifetime return policy–so if something changes and the family can no longer care for the dog, the breeder will take the dog back or find appropriate placement for that dog so it doesn’t end up in a shelter or rescue, but that is not the case for commercial breeders of any kind.  When owners can no longer care for the dog, they have no other choice than to surrender to a shelter/rescue if their breeder will not take the dog back (and again, ethical breeders will take the dog back).

*Unethical/Irresponsible hobby or backyard breeders–see the above puppy mill problems and they apply here, just on a smaller scale.

*Irresponsible Owners–owners who keep their dogs intact, know what they should do to prevent unwanted litters, and do not do their due diligence to prevent unplanned pregnancies (let intact males roam, not protecting their intact female, having intact dogs of both sexes in one home without committing strict separation when the female is in season, etc), owners who get tired of their dogs and dump them on the streets (even worse when those dogs are intact), owners who allow their dogs to roam and the dog gets lost or picked up as a stray (worse if that dog is also intact), owners who impulsively buy a cute puppy and dump a snotty adolescent in the shelter 6 months later, owners who try to ‘sneak’ a dog into housing that is not dog friendly, or owners who neglect vet/grooming care until the dog is a nightmare and they dump it at a shelter.

*Uneducated Owners (or undereducated)–these are owners who simply don’t know enough.  They may support puppy mills/pet stores by buying a pet from them, they may keep a dog intact without knowing what they need to do to prevent pregnancies and handle an intact dog responsibly, they may not understand the lengths at which a male will go to to get to a female in season, they may not know that behavior problems can be helped with a professional trainers (they don’t have to surrender necessarily), owners not knowing that there are resources out there to help them pay for medical expenses a dog may require, or may not know there are resources out there to help finding pet friendly housing or pet friendly home insurance.  Uneducated owners may not properly train their dogs or socialize their puppies and instead of seeking a professional to help with the issues they are having, they simply relinquish the dog to someone else.

*Some practices of Rescues or Shelters–unfortunately some rescues and shelters are part of the problem and it’s not just the irresponsible rescues/shelters that can contribute.

  • Irresponsible rescues/shelters placing dogs inappropriately–when shelters send home the crazy 11month old husky/border collie mix with the 80year old man who walks with a cane and lives in an apartment, when shelters encourage or allow a family to adopt two puppies/dogs (who aren’t already ‘bonded’–and I believe that it’s actually very rare for dogs to be truly bonded),  when they place a wild adolescent in the home of a person who came in looking for a calm senior (after talking up the dog as being a great dog),or when they place an exceedingly nervous dog in a hectic home with 5 children, they are not setting anyone up to be successful.  By placing dogs in poorly matched homes, a couple things can happen, that home can return the dog (either to the same shelter or at another), that dog can become abused or neglected and ultimately get turned into a shelter as a dog who is no longer adoptable, that home can lose trust in rescues/sheltering over all and decide to not adopt in the future, or can sully the name of that organization overall if it becomes common place to see these poor matches.
  • Irresponsible rescues/shelters placing dangerous dogs–Since I just blogged about this, we’ll keep this short…when rescues place dogs with known history of aggression  or concerning behavior, they break the trust of the community they serve and make people reluctant to adopt.
  • Shelters/Rescues putting up roadblocks to adoptions–having adoption requirements and criteria are certainly important but having unbendable rules prevents nice dogs from getting good homes and those potential adopters who were denied may ultimately go to another source to quickly get a dog and that would be a pet store, amish breeder, puppy mill, or unethical backyard breeder (aka, other things that contribute to shelter over population for the aforementioned reasons).  Before getting Rio, I was denied adopting a puppy by two different rescues because I lived in an apartment with no fenced in yard, they would not even talk to me about the fact that I already had a crazy herding dog successfully in that environment and intended on the puppy becoming a dog sport competitor (who would get ample exercise and training)–thankfully I’m pretty persistent and patient and kept looking at rescues until I found Rio, but not many people are willing/able to wait 6 more months searching for a dog.
  • Shelters adopting out intact dogs–thankfully this does not really happen in my area but I do know some areas or shelters will provide a voucher for a free spay/neuter and then issue a partial adoption fee refund after proof of sterilization but the reality is not all owners will follow through and the last thing that is needed is more intact dogs owned by people who are either not responsible enough or simply uneducated on preventing unwanted litters.


If we really want to make meaningful improvements to the strains on the shelter system, and not just put a bandaid on the problem, I think we have to focus our efforts on addressing these big causes for the strain on the shelter system.  If we can address the root cause, things will improve.

Stay tuned for another post in the very near future that will delve into a crazy idea I have as to one way we can help improve the strain on the shelter/rescue community!

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