Friends of the Dog: Changing the lives of shelter dogs



Tanaka Masocha with Starbuck and Craig Phillips with Seattle – both dogs are rescues that are currently being rehabilitated at Fallen Angels Pet Rescue

Written by Linda Piegl Wordart Services – linda@wordartservices.co.za

Shelters face many challenges in their noble mission to save dogs’ lives. Operating with limited resources and dependent on donations, they are fighting an uphill battle made even more difficult due to the sheer number of dogs they rescue, many of which arrive pregnant.

With this comes a lack of space, not to mention massive feeding costs. Many dogs are injured and require surgery or they are ill, which contributes to huge vet bills. Then there are the traumatised and abused dogs that require the intervention of behaviourists to help them heal mentally and emotionally, constituting more costs.

Challenges for shelter dogs
While shelters ensure that stray or unwanted dogs are fed, receive treatment and have a roof over their heads, the shelter environment is unfortunately extremely stressful for a number of reasons, including many dogs being kept in one area and new animals constantly being added to the mix.

According to People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta): “Experts agree that after as little as two weeks in a traditional shelter, animals can begin to deteriorate psychologically and shelter dogs can become de-house trained, noisy, anxious, hyperactive, fearful, lonely and even depressed or aggressive. If adopted, animals that have been confined for extended periods are often repeatedly returned because of behavioural issues – a traumatic yo-yo experience that makes them even less adoptable.”

Canine behaviourist and founder of the Friends of the Dog website, Scotty Valadao, explains that being in a run with other dogs is not only frustrating but also unnatural. “Dogs arriving at a shelter either came from a home environment, even if they were kept in a yard, or they were dumped and became street dogs. While certainly not a quality life, they had freedom of movement. Then suddenly that gets taken away from them.”

The overcrowding makes individual stimulation and paying each dog the attention it needs impossible, and so their “entertainment” revolves around when visitors come, their runs are cleaned, they are fed, go on walks, or other dogs are walked past them. “They are easily overstimulated by these events and, naturally, they’re desperate for human contact, which makes the dogs act out,” says Scotty.

Shelters are also generally understaffed, hence their reliance on help from volunteers.

So what can be done?
Volunteers are invaluable due to the additional manpower they provide to give the dogs the attention they crave by bathing, walking, playing and interacting with them. Due to spending more time with them, they are also able to give the shelters important feedback about the dogs in their charge and identify issues, some of which don’t manifest in the runs.

“For instance, if while out walking a dog is reactive towards a passerby or another dog, or doesn’t like its hindquarters touched while being bathed or petted, this is the kind of information that needs to be shared with the shelter,” says Scotty.

The first instance could indicate the dog has fear issues requiring work with a behaviourist and a thorough final assessment before it can be adopted. The second issue could indicate a physical problem like dysplasia, an injury or former trauma. “I would like to encourage more people to volunteer at shelters – they can make a huge difference.”

In terms of the shelters themselves, there are many practical measures that can be put in place to reduce stress and excitement levels. These can range from changes to the shelter’s daily routine in order to prevent the build-up of anticipation among the dogs, relocating dogs to a camp while their runs are being cleaned, or barricading the view out of the runs to stop fence fighting.

A South African first

Having identified the need to help shelter dogs “on the ground” and long before adoption, Scotty devised the Friends of the Dog Shelter Initiative, a South African first, which is being rolled out one shelter at a time. It’s a two-pronged approach – the first comprises the Canine Behaviour Shelter Course, designed to educate those who work in shelters, want to work with shelter dogs or are already volunteering at shelters.

The overarching goal is to help as many dogs as possible cope with being in a shelter environment and become more adoptable. “In this way we are preventing returns, which are extremely traumatic not only for the animals but also for the families,” Scotty says. “Each time a shelter dog is returned, it causes psychological damage, sometimes to the point that the dog becomes unadoptable and has to live out his entire life in the shelter. This is obviously not something any shelter wants for their dogs – every dog deserves a good home.”

The second prong to the shelter initiative is a newly launched weekend mini-course aimed at members of the public who have just adopted, or are thinking about adopting, a shelter dog. The course gives them the tools to work with their adopted shelter dog and understand its behaviour. “Some of what we teach is how to establish house rules, which need to be defined from day one so the dog knows exactly what is and isn’t allowed, how to recognise signs of stress and read dog body language,” says Scotty.

Adopting a shelter dog

A dog can make an emotional connection with a human in just 20 seconds, and we have all fallen under the spell of those puppy dog eyes. Unfortunately, this means emotional choices are frequently made with a dog going to the wrong home as a result. A classic pitfall to avoid is taking your children to the shelter with you.

The Friends of the Dog website offers two helpful questionnaires – one to assist you in making the decision to get a dog in the first place, with the second being the Meet your Match questionnaire to help you and the shelter determine which dog is best for you. But whose responsibility is it to match the right dog to the right home? This is probably not a question people commonly consider, but it’s an important one.

“While part of a shelter’s work includes doing a complete assessment of each dog to determine what kind of home will suit it best, the person adopting should have done some research and put thought into the kind of dog that would fit their home and lifestyle,” advises Scotty. “So the answer to this question is that it’s a combined effort.”

As a potential shelter dog owner, here are some important points to consider:

  • Are you strong enough to handle and walk the dog?
  • Can you meet the dog’s needs – if it’s high energy, you’ll have to walk it at least once a day. High-energy dogs also need a lot of space.
  • Are you too old (or too young in the case of a child) for this dog?
  • Is it the right breed for you?
  • Does the dog like children?
  • Is the dog reactive to other dogs?
  • Is the dog an escape artist?
  • Does the dog get on with cats?
  • Compatibility with dogs at home – are the existing dogs well socialised and will they be able to accept a new dog? If there’s a female at home, never adopt another female – they will fight to be the alpha dog.
  • What about breed compatibility? Find out more here: https://www.friendsofthedog.co.za/breed-compatibility.html 
  • If you want a toy breed, consider the dangers in your home – uncovered swimming pools, gaps in the fence, uncovered drains, etc. This is why home checks are crucial.

Adopting a dog is not a decision that should ever be rushed. “Remember, this is a commitment for the lifespan of the dog, potentially for 15 years or more,” says Scotty. “You owe it to the dog, yourself and your family to approach this decision with due consideration. Don’t hesitate to seek advice from the shelter, your vet or a dog behaviourist in your area.”

For more information

Friends of the Dog is a Non-profit Company (NPC) and Public Benefit Organisation (PBO). Find out more by visiting their website www.friendsofthedog.co.za.

For the Friends of the Dog Mini-Course: My Shelter Dog and Friends of the Dog Shelter Course, visit www.fods.co.za