The Dangerous Shelter Dogs Who Make Wonderful Family Pets

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

stress in shelter dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Some dogs with behavior classified as “dangerous” in a shelter environment make great family pets once they’re home
  • It can be difficult or impossible for the staff in high volume shelters, working with limited resources, to pick out the “adoptable but not shelterable” dogs and save them from euthanasia
  • There are a growing number of organizations in the U.S. dedicated to helping shelter dogs find homes quickly, and working with dogs with behavior problems to increase their chances for adoption into forever homes

“Every dog is an individual.” This is a phrase we hear a lot these days, and those of us who share our lives with a canine companion know the truth behind those words. Unfortunately, from a purely practical standpoint, there are environments in which it’s difficult or impossible to view dogs as individuals.

Among those environments are high volume animal shelters across the U.S. that receive and house millions of dogs every year. To give as many homeless dogs as possible a chance to find forever homes, shelters must make heart-wrenching decisions each and every day about adoptable versus presumably unadoptable animals.

Tragically, there are pets who inevitably fall through the cracks. Sometimes these are dogs who, in the words of author and journalist Amy Sutherland, writing for Bark magazine, are “adoptable but not ‘shelterable.’”1

Some Dogs Have a Shelter Alter Ego

Sutherland tells the story of Walter, a Jack Russell Terrier whose behavior at the shelter made him appear dangerous and therefore unadoptable, which put him on the to-be-euthanized list.

Walter was one of the lucky ones, however, and was plucked from the shelter by an enlightened veterinarian with specialized training in animal behavior. The vet worked with him over several months, during which the dog’s true personality emerged. As it turned out, the “real” Walter wasn’t dangerous at all.

Sutherland’s foster home was the next stop for Walter, and after a slightly rocky transition, he settled in nicely. His good behavior as a foster earned him a return to the shelter with a positive report card and presumably, a chance for adoption.

However, as Sutherland describes it, “… almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel.” Only Sutherland or the veterinarian who originally worked with him were allowed to take Walter out of his kennel for fear he’d nip someone he hadn’t bonded to.

When either of his two friends visited, Walter was blissfully happy. As soon as they left, his “shelter personality” returned. The staff were considering euthanasia, because if they couldn’t handle him, they couldn’t justify putting him up for adoption. Sutherland got word the shelter was thinking of putting Walter down, and made a decision.

“When we brought Walter home for good we goofed up his name some to put our official stamp on him,” she writes. “He became Walter Joe Jr. We started calling him Waltie-Bear or Joey or Junior or Dub-yuh or Mister or Champ or Bubbles — all names he learned.

Though he showed no signs of it in the shelter, he was completely capable of living in a home, not to mention riding in canoes, staying in hotels, and lounging on the beach. He was, as they say, ‘homeable’ but not ‘shelterable.’ To be the former, as it turns out, does not mean a dog can be the latter.”

We Need Shorter Shelter Stays and Fewer ‘Boomerang’ Dogs

Shelters are extremely distressing for pets, especially new arrivals. Because they have few options, most shelter employees must evaluate dogs’ behavior in a stressful environment rather than the comfort and familiarity of a home setting. In addition, even dogs who seem to adjust well upon entering a shelter tend to deteriorate the longer they stay, and also with subsequent returns.

Dogs who develop behavior problems are more difficult to adopt out, which means they remain in the shelter longer or are returned after being adopted — a vicious cycle. As Sutherland points out, “It’s not always enough to find a dog a home. You have to find one quickly.”

I would add that it’s just as important to work with the dog, if possible, or at a minimum offer resources for adoptive pet parents to help them deal with existing or potential behavior problems. Statistics show that every time a “problem” dog is returned to a shelter, his or her chances for adoption diminish.

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Three Organizations Making a Difference in the Lives of Homeless Dogs

Gigi’s Transitional Shelter

Located in Columbus, Ohio, Gigi's goal is to help dramatically reduce the time dogs spend without a home. The premise is simple: take dogs from shelters that are overwhelmed with animals and move them to those with empty kennels and greater resources — typically shelters near high-population areas with a large pool of adopters looking for a furry friend to add to their family.

Along the way, the dogs make a stop at Gigi’s state-of-the-art transitional facility where they receive medical care and behavioral evaluations to ensure they’re ready for adoption. Since stress reduction must be part of the equation, Gigi’s incorporates essential oil diffusers, calming music, natural light, canine massage and soothing colors to help lessen the dogs’ anxiety.

The facility is situated on 3 acres, which gives the dogs plenty of space to exercise, and there’s also a building where they take part in programs that help them acclimate and adjust to a new lifestyle. The average dog spends about a week at Gigi’s before moving to a destination shelter. From Gigi’s website:

“Dogs that graduate from Gigi’s are healthier and often find a home within weeks instead of waiting sometimes months to be adopted. In addition because of the support, vaccines, and supplies Gigi’s provides to our shelter partners, all of the dogs in their care are healthier and better prepared for adoption.

By working together we’re helping more dogs find permanent homes sooner, shortening the time they spend in a shelter, and increasing the network’s ability to reach more dogs and more organizations in more communities.”2

Austin Pets Alive! No Kill Shelter

From its meager but ambitious beginnings in 2008, Austin Pets Alive! in Austin, Texas has become the gold standard of no-kill animal shelters. Some of the goals the shelter has set and achieved in the last 10 years include:

  • Finding a foster home for every pet on the daily euthanasia list at the city shelter
  • Securing a facility and setting up a shelter
  • Creating programs to treat sick animals so they, too, can be adopted
  • Setting up a bottle-baby nursery to stop large-scale euthanasia of orphaned kittens
  • Caring for feral cat populations

Another of the organization’s early goals was to create programs to rehabilitate pets with behavior issues. Toward that end, Austin Pets Alive! assembled a behavior team to rehabilitate dogs with behavior issues. It's one of the shelter's biggest programs, and it was created to address large dogs with behavior problems — one of the populations of at-risk animals least likely to come out of a shelter alive.

The shelter also has a cat behavior program in which a volunteer behaviorist works with cats and their families to keep them in the home if they're having behavior problems. Cats living at the shelter who've been abused or traumatized also get behavioral help so they can have a successful adoption down the road.

Austin Pets Alive! is a great example of how sheltering can be done in a much more constructive way. Their goal is to help build other no-kill communities. Not just individual no-kill shelters, but entire communities. They're prioritizing teaching other shelters and communities how to replicate their success.

Muttville Senior Dog Rescue

In 2007, Sherri Franklin opened Muttville Senior Dog Rescue in San Francisco. Since then, the organization has saved over 6,000 senior dogs and found them homes.

Some of the dogs at Muttville come from loving homes and have never known anything else, while others have lived their entire lives in the backyard. All need lots of love, and fortunately, according to Franklin, there are adopters looking for well-loved dogs, and others looking for the saddest, worst-case scenario, so there’s plenty of love to go around no matter a dog’s background.

The Muttville shelter is a home-like environment. There are no kennels. Most new dogs take from 24 to 48 hours to warm up to their surroundings. Some come in ready to hide or run from anything that moves, but 48 hours later, they’re crawling into someone’s lap.

Muttville’s minimum age for dogs is 7. Franklin picked that age because in her experience volunteering at shelters, dogs 7 and older are the ones who are passed by. Every dog who comes to Muttville gets veterinary care to give them the best quality of life possible.

For terminally ill dogs there’s Muttville's “Fospice,” a hospice and foster care program that pairs the dogs with foster homes and covers the cost of palliative care. Franklin was initially worried that she wouldn’t have many foster families signing up to care for dogs who are dying, but as it turns out, the caregivers in her Fospice program feel it’s a rewarding experience to offer an animal a happy final chapter.