According to the ASPCA, every year 3.3 million dogs enter an animal shelter. If you’re someone with a soft spot for dogs (and really why wouldn’t you be?), the idea of dogs cooped up in cages at some shelter probably tugs pretty hard on your heartstrings.
But there’s good news: There are things any animal lover can do to address this problem, such as spaying and neutering their own pets, but obviously the big one is personally rescuing a shelter dog. Unfortunately, shelter dogs can present some unique challenges for owners, so we spoke to some experts on what people should know before starting the process of rescuing a dog.
Each Shelter Pet is Unique
Like people or snowflakes, no two shelter animals are alike. “All dogs are individuals and every facility that you would get a dog from is different,” says Kenny Lamberti, the Vice President of Companion Animals at The Humane Society of the United States. And Mike Kaviani, Director of Life Saving Operations for Austin Pets Alive, says, “Any dog can have any number of individual challenges so the key there is wherever you’re getting your dog from you want to have that conversation on what to expect from your dog.” That said, you can get a good idea of what your potential pet may be like because…
Shelter animals are carefully vetted
While some may be concerned about behavioral issues in shelter pets, “the vast majority of dogs that would come from a shelter are evaluated for behavior and health,” says Lamberti. Furthermore, because shelters will usually offer prospective reports of their animal’s behaviors, Lamberti believes that owners can better predict the behavior of a rescue dog than a dog from some breeders. And, speaking of dogs: remember that a thorough vetting process is just one more reason Why President Trump Needs a Dog.
Expect to see a lot of Pit Bulls
According to data on Petfinder, Pit Bull Terriers are the most common dog breed found in shelters. This may be because Pit Bulls are often stereotyped as aggressive or dangerous—an unfounded concern, as one study found Pit Bulls to be less aggressive than Chihuahas. According to Best Friends Animal Society: “Aggression is not a breed characteristic or personality trait, and is not specific to any one breed of dog.” Unfortunately, this has not stopped pit bulls from being one of the main targets of breed-specific legislation, an ineffective attempt to reduce dog bites.
Most Pets Don’t End Up in Shelters Because They’re Bad
“Behavior is a reason at times, but it’s not the top one,” says Lamberti. Instead, the main reason why people surrender their animals is due to housing issues, such as they move into a building that doesn’t allow pets, or has restrictions on certain breeds, or are forced to relocate due to work issues. Kaviani echoes this sentiment, saying, “It’s a small percentage [of shelter dogs] that are returned for behavior problems.
They Need Time to Adjust
Taking any dog, but especially a shelter dog, into a new environment into a new environment may be a bit of a shock for the dog at first. As a result, they may initially appear overly shy or anxious in their new surroundings. “Dogs, they’re like humans, they adjust to change in different ways. A lot of dogs, they may need just some time to ease in,” says Kaviani.
Triggers are anything that can cause a dog anxiety, and so Kaviani says they always stress to people not to “trigger-stack,” or to put the dog in any sort of anxiety-inducing situations beyond living in a new home with a new family. Kaviani says, “I think a lot of people who take home a new dog, they’re so stoked to have a new dog and they’re looking forward to all the things they can do with their new dog.” Common triggering activities to avoid with a new dog are throwing a party and inviting lots of strangers over, or taking the dog to a dog park or groomers.
Separation Anxiety is Common
Although not exclusive to shelter dogs, Kaviani says, “Separation anxiety can be one of the more common behavioral challenges with rescue dogs, due to whatever has resulted in them re-homed.” So owners should take steps to show the dogs, as Kaviani puts it, “You might have been abandoned in a previous life, you might have lost your previous home, but you’re not gonna lose our home.”
Some of the steps that Kaviani recommends taking are leaving music on, giving the dog a food-filled puzzle toy to keep them happy and occupied while they’re alone, and “slowly/diligently working up to how long the dog is left alone for in order to ease them in to longer and longer periods of time alone, and to show them you come home every time, and to show them you come home every time.”
Don’t Give Shelter Dogs Free Roam of the House
Some shelter dogs may have been technically house-trained by their previous owners, but Kaviani states, “[that] doesn’t mean they understand the rules of your home.” So it’s best to crate-train your new rescue or keep them restricted to just one part of your home. Kaviani notes, “It’s much easier to restrict freedom in the beginning, and allowing the to earn freedom.”
Shelter Pets Can be Good for Kids
Although not without careful planning, “We always would strongly advise that families with kids bring the kids to the shelter and facilitate a meet-and-greet with your kids and the dogs,” says Kaviani. He also stresses that children should never be left unsupervised with a new shelter dog, as children can not always recognize when a dog wants to be left alone, and this is one of the main causes of dog bites.
You Will Be a Hero
Anyone who’s been to an animal shelter and seen those dogs staring up at you from their cages can tell you that it’s an incredible act of compassion to take a homeless lonely animal and give them a happy home.