More dogs and cats entering shelters are saved, but the impacts of long-term sheltering can impact their chances of adoption. This is particularly true with dogs who in the past may have never made it out of the shelter alive. Prolonged sheltering often creates a host of new and problematic behaviors.
More lives saved means longer shelter stays
The so-called “no kill” movement has spared many companion animals a grim fate. Equally important, it has created positive change in the attitude towards homeless animals. More dogs and cats are being saved, rehabilitated, and re-homed.
Dogs with behavior problems that would have previously been killed are now being spared. This is a welcomed development and results in many more innocent pets getting a new leash on life. However, long-term sheltering creates a host of behavior problems even for dogs who otherwise presented with no behavioral issues.
An excellent article by Maddie’s Fund highlights four types of behavior problems observed in shelter dogs:
- Problems correlated to surrender
- Behaviors that reduce an animal’s potential for adoption, once sheltered
- Separation anxiety associated with any time a dog changes guardians
- Issues caused by the shelter environment itself
How to stop problems before they start
Saving more companion animals is a noble and worthwhile goal. And expanding our perception of what makes a pet adoptable means that more animals are being rescued and re-homed. But it is imperative to take corrective action when the environments in which animals are being sheltered causes new behavior problems, or exacerbates existing ones.
Ideally, practices are put into place that prevent the problems associated with long-term sheltering from happening in the first place.
Each of the four categories of behavior problems has its own preventative actions and remedies. Broadly, shelter environments need to consider various strategies to reduce the impacts of long-term sheltering on dogs.
Shelters are stressful places, and most sheltered animals spend the majority of their day in a kennel or small enclosure. Stress reduction involves various forms of enrichment, including walks, group play, behavior training, and co-kenneling, among others. The challenge with most enrichment programs is that they require significant training of staff and volunteers.
Many sheltered dogs are accustomed to eliminating in their kennels. This is due to shelters having limited staff and volunteers to provide the dogs with multiple walks each day. While this behavior is tolerated in a shelter environment, it often leads to dogs soiling in their adoptive homes.
Shelters are encouraged to develop a robust volunteer network to give each dogs three to four walks each day. In addition, some foster homes could focus on house-training adult dogs.
Play and socialization
Dogs are social animals. Yet most shelter environments inhibit dogs’ natural tendencies to investigate, and socialize with people and other dogs. Supervised group play reduces incidence of kennel stress. In addition, it reduces dog-dog aggression and other behaviors that arise when animals are not socialized adequately.
Fortunately, there is professional help for shelters that lack the resources or skill to implement a group play program. Dogs Playing for Life offers free in-shelter group play training for qualified shelters and rescues.
The best way to prevent shelter-related behavior problems is to prevent animals from being relinquished in the first place. Shelters, rescues, SPCAs, humane societies, municipal animal controls, and other animal welfare organizations share a responsibility to educate the public about responsible pet guardianship and training. This type of outreach can reduce the intake of dogs whose behavioral issues are altogether avoidable or preventable in a home setting.
Too many adopters are ill-prepared for the realities of bringing home a rescued pet. Even individuals who are not first-time adopters often make mistakes in the weeks and even months following adoption. Although shelters cannot control what happens once an animal leaves their care, counseling and take-home tips for welcoming a new pet can reduce problems that lead to surrender.
Similarly, post-adoption support and follow through can help identify and resolve many common training or behavior issues.
Shorter shelter stays
Strategies to reduce pet overpopulation, promote adoption, and decrease surrender are working. However, as a society we still have a lot of work to do to prevent the circumstances that lead to animals being abandoned, neglected, abused, and relinquished.
Once a dog or cat enters a shelter, however, the goal must be quick yet responsible adoption. Even shelters that are classified as ‘no-kill’ would benefit from having a sense of urgency to minimize every animal’s stay. Too many animals are spending months, even years, languishing in homelessness. Even with the best and most well-intentioned care, a shelter is not a home – and the impacts of long-term sheltering are too serious to ignore.