Why it’s so important for shelters to really ensure that the dog and potential owner will be a perfect match

27th Nov, 2023

Written by Scotty Valadao – Canine Behaviourist

When dogs are confined to a shelter, they experience multiple emotions that can affect their emotional health in the short term. Confinement in a shelter can also have a long-term mental impact.

Imagine what the psychological damage is when a dog is adopted out (more change and stress), and then when the adoption doesn’t work out, the dog is returned to the shelter (even more stress) – the more the dog is returned, the greater the likelihood of additional behaviour concerns occurring, and the dog becomes less and less likely to have a successful adoption.

That’s one side of the story; what about the impact that an unsuccessful adoption can have on those who actually adopted the dog?

Research on why people return dogs yields results

In a recent scientific report from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (link at end of article), the most common reasons that people return dogs are:

  1. Behaviour problems were the number one reason, and mostly within the first three months after adoption. When we bring a dog into our homes, we have what is called the Honeymoon Perioda period lasting on average three weeks, but can go on for three to six months – where either the behaviour concern is exhibited at very low frequency and intensity, or not exhibited at all. A bit like being on your best behaviour with new people, until you relax and start to act more like you normally would with friends.

  2. Another reason for returns was that there was incompatibility between the existing dog and the new dog.

  3. An interesting one was that the dog didn’t meet the adopter’s expectations.

  4. Other reasons for returning include the adopter’s health, the dog’s health, and adopters relocating.

So, how did the above affect the adopter’s likelihood of adopting again?

In the study done, all the participants found the decision to return the dog to the shelter very difficult, which is totally understandable. Can you imagine the heartbreak, the stress of the decision, kids being upset, the guilt, the sense of failure, when all they wanted to do was give a shelter dog a loving home? This experience could possibly have a major impact on whether these owners would run the risk of adopting an adult dog from a shelter again.

In fact, of all the participants in the study, regardless of why they returned the dog, there were a whopping 41% who said they wouldn’t adopt again, plus a further 13% weren’t sure if they’d go this route again.

From our own experience, we’ve found that in failed adoptions where a dog was returned, especially for behaviour problems, the people that really do still want a dog prefer to look for a puppy as opposed to an adult dog – and not always from a shelter.

What can be done?

One of the foremost ways in which to improve the situation is to improve the manner in which animal welfare organisations do their checks as to whether the dog will suit the home, the family and any existing pets.

We at Friends of the Dog have been very blessed in that the shelters and breed rescue organisations with whom we’ve worked have taken on board as many of our recommendations as possible, and done all they could to ensure the dog is a perfect fit. However, for various reasons (such as lack of staff, time, and knowledge), unfortunately not all the shelters and breed rescues are able to do much more than checking out if the dogs get on via a meeting in a neutral area, doing a home check, and trying to get the best match by way of male and female together.

Some of the more important aspects that should be looked at during an adoption include:

  • Resolving any existing behaviour concerns before the dog in question is adopted. These aren’t always known because many dogs end up in shelters without a history, but anything obvious, such as the dog not liking other dogs, being wary of people, separation anxiety, jumping up onto people, etc. should be attended to first.

  • Consider if the breeds or cross breeds would be compatible. (Check out the handy Compatibility Chart on the Friends of the Dog website for more information.)

  • Never rehome two females together – most of the time this is going to end up in trouble, especially with some breeds. The ideal match is one male and one female.

  • Consider if the existing dog has ever attempted to snap, lunge or bite at either a human or another dog. And what’s the existing dog like when taken out for a walk, with regard to people and other dogs?

  • Dogs such as Pit Bulls and Staffies should be only dogs. These dogs were bred to be closely bonded with their owners and really don’t take well to sharing such an important resource.

  • When shelter staff do the home check, look at the relationship between existing dog and owner to determine if there’s overattachment.

  • Watch for any resource guarding over toys, food, and even owner.

  • Really understanding what the owner is looking for. Do they want a couch potato, a dog to run with, etc.?

  • Asking the owner, “What are your expectations of your new dog?” Just knowing this will help the shelter to find the perfect match.

Above is a rough idea of aspects that should be looked at by animal welfare organisations – and, if you’re the one considering adopting, you now have some other questions to ask the shelter and to consider yourself. Check out the Meet your Match on Friends of the Dog’s website to help you clarify what you want when considering adopting, plus give the shelter much-needed information.

Anybody working with animal welfare knows what a hard, tiring, time-consuming, and very often emotionally draining job, working in a shelter actually is. There’s seldom enough time, enough hands or money to get all the things they need to get done, never mind changing a dog’s existing behaviour and teaching them basic manners, and/or changing any unacceptable behaviours.

This is where we ask all behaviourists, behaviour students, trainers, etc. to really try and get involved with working with shelters and breed rescues to help them provide basic training before the dog goes home, and to assist in changing any behaviour concerns – even if you just work with one dog at a time. For example, at Fallen Angels Pet Rescue in Cape Town, we brought in a Behaviour Session for all new owners, including some basic obedience on the day they took the dog home, and provided the owners with “after care”, where they could contact us if they experienced any problems – this was a tremendous success.

These things all take time, but all of us can do something. We supply knowledge and information, and the end result will be of immense benefit to dogs – and fewer dogs should be returned.

About Friends of the Dog

The brainchild of accredited dog behaviourist and trainer Scotty Valadao, Friends of the Dog is a one-stop website packed with accurate, helpful, trustworthy dog-related information, with a particular focus on behaviour. Articles, which are free of charge to access, are written by professionals and experts within their field. Visit the site at https://www.friendsofthedog.co.za/

Research article:
Powell, L., Reinhard, C.L., Satriale, D. et al. The impact of returning a pet to the shelter on future animal adoptions. Sci Rep 12, 1109 (2022). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-05101-5

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