The Responsibility of Rescues/Shelters

Panther–Rescued 1996 from Western PA Humane Society
Shayne–Rescued 2006 from Western PA Humane Society
Rio–Rescued 2010 from Rawhide Rescue
Jefferson–Rescued 2010 from the on-ramp of I-95 in NY
Monty–Rescued 2012 from Home Sweet Home

As you can see, I’m clearly a fan and supporter of rescuing animals. Honestly, while I have hopes and dreams of one day getting a well bred dog from a top quality breeder, I’m not sure that will ever happen because I really do enjoy my rescue/shelter dogs. I like having the opportunity to provide a home to a dog who doesn’t have one and who may ultimately euthanized. It also doesn’t hurt that the type of dog I like (high energy, high drive, smart, and a little naughty) are frequently found in shelters.

Although I’m a supporter of rescue, I’m certainly not immune to being frustrated with rescues and shelters for doing, I think, a disservice to adopters and the dogs in their care.

The vast majority of dogs I work with are rescue dogs and most of the dogs simply need some training–they may be energetic, a bit “out of control,” or easily distracted but these issues are fixed with appropriate levels of exercise, building communication through training, and a good bit of patience. They generally have sound temperaments and are free of any big issue. In just the last month or so I’ve had two students tell me that they had thought about returning their dog within the first few weeks–the dogs were hyper, untrained, trouble makers, making life frustrating for their new owners. One had tears in her eyes as she spoke about this …but now both of these dogs have taken at least two classes with me and they are fantastic dogs. Both dogs have been in their homes for less than a year and are the envy of all their dog owning friends–they are well mannered social butterflies and anyone who saw them during those first few weeks hardly recognizes them now. They just needed some training and stability to become fantastic family dogs.

Most of the rescue dogs I work with come from the shelter that hosts my classes–this is a shelter that does thorough temperament testing, makes sure dogs get walked every day by dog walkers, give all the dogs some basic training and includes enrichment activities for the dogs. I have to say that they do a pretty good job with making sure the dogs they adopt out are safe and that the dogs get worked with while in the shelter. Now I’m sure they make mistakes occasionally but in what I’ve seen, they do a pretty good job making sure dogs that leave the shelter are sound, just in need of some training.

I really wish, however, that shelters and rescues in general would spend half as much time making sure a dog and family are a good match as they do making sure the dog is sound to be adopted out. It is CERTAINLY extremely important that shelters spend time temperament testing the dogs but to then adopt the dog out to the first John Doe who walks through the door is a recipe for disaster.

I have seen so many poorly matched pairs (both in classes and just in the world) that it’s really starting to get to me. 6 month old Jack Russel Terriers are really not the best match for a retired couple in their 70’s with mild mobility issues–I’ve had 3 such matches in the last 2 years. One highly energetic puppy was adopted with no big issues other than jumping/mouthing. By the time that young friendly dog was 12 months old, it had become extremely reactive to other dogs on leash and was destroying items at home–he was under exercised, under stimulated, and was getting himself into lots of trouble. The couple would have been great owners for a different dog as they were still pretty active and were home all day with their pup–but this young dog was really just too much for them. The sad part was the owners felt trapped–he was hard to live with because of his energy, destruction and reactivity but at the same time they recognized he may be in trouble if they tried to return him to the place from where he was adopted. They tried their hardest–even hiring a dog walker while they were home for a fast-paced run everyday, got a flirt pole for the pup, and invested in lots of food dispensing toys–but this was a dog who could have easily been in a sport/performance home and really needed more of a steady job.

Or I think of the many young first time dog owners struggling with dogs who are young, energetic, untrained, and under-stimulated. One young family, of first time dog owners, adopted a 9 month old high energy, high drive Aussie mix. The family disclosed that both adults worked full time (opposite shifts) and asked if it would be a good match even though they could only commit to two long walks a day and weekly off-leash romps and the counselor said yes. The dog was great and friendly with everyone for months but lack of physical exercise, mental exercise, and rules caught up with them and created a dog who was pushy, reactive, frustrated, and a bit destructive. Two long walks a day was simply not enough exercise for this dog and they were not confident enough dog owners to create rules and expectations of the dog.

Had the rescues and shelters stepped up and prevented such poor matches, the dogs and people would have ended up much happier and healthier. A bad match can lead to a dog being dumped in the country, dumped at another shelter, relinquished to a rescue, returned to the shelter, or ultimately euthanized for the behavioral problems created in the home.

Waiting for the idyllic adoptive home isn’t necessarily an option–unfortunately turn over rate is important when it comes to open door shelters. But there has to be a happy medium between not waiting for the PERFECT home and adopting out to the first John Doe who asks about the dog. I mean, if shelters take enough time to temperament test the dogs, get to know them a bit, and go as far as designating the dogs for the “Meet Your Match” or similar program, why not make an attempt to see that the adoption is made with a reasonably matched person/family. Making a reasonable match may very well prevent that dog from ending up back in the rescue/shelter system.

**I absolutely recognize that the other part of this problem is that owners need to be more educated before they adopt a dog. A big reason that those older couples ended up with the JRTs is that they were looking for a small, lower maintenance, and portable dogs and JRTs certainly LOOK the part. The first time dog owners should have done a little more homework on how hard it can be to raise a puppy and the needs of adolescent labs/aussies/weims/pits (or whatever breed guess is offered).

  1. I agree with this post 100%! This is absolutely what happened to me and my husband when we adopted Pearl at 6 months. We are first time dog owners and while she is sweet, friendly, and smart, she is also high energy, high drive, and not the dog I would have picked for a first time dog owner! We were told she was calm (when we met her she was sleeping in her crate while dogs around her were barking like mad… probably the last time we’ve ever seen that from her), good with other animals (we were told she lived in a foster home with cats… but her obsession with chasing cats and other small animals is one of our biggest training obstacles, so i am doubtful). I love Pearl a lot and wouldn’t give her up now, but I do wish someone had given me more information about her personality and energy needs and asked me more about my lifestyle. I certainly know the feeling of being trapped like that couple with the JRT you mentioned and I sometimes feel like she would have a better life doing competitive agility or something, the types of activities that, as a student, I don’t have the time or the money to do right now. As my husband and I contemplate adopting a second dog sometime in the future we are also shocked at how easy it appears to be to adopt a second dog without even introducing the dog to the other animals in your household. Sorry for the long comment- this issue is so close to my heart and I am glad to see a post on it- although it is sad to see how many other families have also struggled with a less than ideal match.

    • Karen, it sounds like Pearl is one of the lucky ones who ends up with a less than ideal match but with a person who’s going to put the effort into making things work by adapting themselves a bit to accomodate the needs of the dog.

      For sure, most dogs are not exactly themselves in the shelter environment so mistakes can easily be made–that calm sleeping dog may just be so overwhelmed that the only escape is to sleep… or that dog living with another dog may just be so overwhelmed that they aren’t showing their reactive side.

      I just feel like there has to be some type of mid-ground in this system… shelters (particularly open door) can’t be too picky because they have a constant stream of dogs but they also shouldn’t be ignoring an obviously bad match. When someone openly says they cannot commit to more than 2 walks a day due to their lifestyle/schedule, sending them home with a high drive, high energy young dog is dangerous for everyone involved and ultimately that dog will probably reenter the shelter system, or worse.

      Luckily, where I live, most shelters require a meet and greet between dogs because that is a disaster waiting to happen.

  2. Tena, I love your posts! I think the shelters could also create a winning situation if they had a support group or volunteer mentors for new adopters. Having a support system is really important to a new adopter’s success. Many times, there are volunteers who worked exclusively with a particular dog who would be willing to be a mentor when the dog is adopted. Sandy Louise and I are very fortunate to have a special person like that in our lives.

  3. Great post, Tena. I do think most shelters/rescues do their best and I know most would love to do even more to make sure the dogs they place go to the right homes if they had the time/resources. After all, if the adoption goes well, that dog won’t be returned or end up on the streets. It’s a win-win. However, I do believe there are probably shelters/rescues who are too tired/jaded/frustrated/over-worked/afraid for the dog’s life/etc etc and they don’t put in the effort they should, which only leads to more returns and more tired/jaded people.

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