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How Does Being in a Shelter Affect Dogs?

senior adoptable dog with ASPCA team member

If you are interested in adding a dog to your family, it is highly encouraged to consider adopting. Whether from a rescue, animal shelter, or humane society, when you choose to adopt, you are providing a dog in need with a loving home, opening space for another dog to be rescued, and monetarily helping a great cause.

As you begin your search for your canine companion, it’s important to realize that not every dog is a perfect fit for every household. By talking with the shelter’s staff and spending time with a dog, you can better find the canine that will be a good match.

In order to receive the most helpful information, we reached out to our strategic partner The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) for their knowledge on what to expect with dog behaviors during the adoption process. Sydney Bartson Queen, Senior Manager, Shelter Behavior Science, ASPCA® Behavioral Sciences Team, was kind enough to offer her expert advice.

  1. What should a potential adopter consider when seeking a new dog to add to the family?

    Families should first examine their personalities and lifestyle, along with challenges such as housing restrictions and time spent at home. Can all members of the household, including children and resident pets, accommodate the addition of a new dog? Draw up a schedule of who will help with their care, including exercise, feeding, and grooming.

    Consider how your schedule might change as well. For example, you may need to wake up earlier to feed and walk the dog. Establish a plan for introducing your new dog to any resident pets slowly so your new dog has time to settle in first and you don’t overwhelm your current pets.

  2. What are the benefits of adopting a dog from an animal shelter?

    Adoption saves lives and frees up space in a shelter for another homeless dog. The adoption fee you pay will support the care of other animals in need! Another huge benefit of adopting from an animal shelter is that their staff can show you different dogs and tell you about their behavior to help make the best match for you and your family.

  3. What sorts of questions should potential adopters ask to learn more about a dog's temperament and needs?

    Identify in advance what you’re looking for—a snuggly couch potato or an energetic hiking buddy? Ask shelter staff questions about the dog’s background, level of socialization, if they’ve been in playgroups, their energy level inside the kennel and out on walks, any medical needs, and how they might get along with children and resident pets.

    Open your mind and heart by giving the staff a chance to use their knowledge about the animals in their care to help you find a great match regardless of breed, age or appearance. Keep in mind that, typically, animal shelter behavior assessments begin the day they are brought in and continue to the time they leave. With this in-depth knowledge of how a dog’s behaviors have changed over time, the incredibly helpful staff at these facilities can give you an insight into a pup’s personality.

    When the time has come to bring your new best friend home, make sure your house is ready. Buy supplies like bowls, beds, food, toys, brushes, a crate, leash, and many poop bags.

  4. What can you expect when bringing a shelter dog home?

    Many dogs, just like people, need time to adjust to new environments, so we encourage new adopters to be patient. Some may settle right in, while others may take a few weeks or months before showing their true personalities. Certain dogs need time to rest and recover from the often loud and stressful shelter environment. Some may be slightly anxious about the sudden change.

    Knowing basic dog body language can help you read how your dog feels moment-to-moment and ease their transition into your home. Give them time and try to find things they enjoy, such as playing with toys, resting in a cozy bed, or going on leisurely walks. Resist the urge to have lots of visitors or go on big outings if they aren’t ready.

    young woman walking recently adopted dog

  5. What are some common behavior issues dogs may exhibit during a meet-and-greet at an animal shelter?

    During a meet-and-greet, don’t be too discouraged by dogs jumping or pulling on the leash. They may not know the “right” behavior or are simply excited to be out of their kennel. You may also encounter a shy dog who is hesitant to interact with you. Sit back and let them decide to come to you. Try tossing them some tasty treats. While you give the dog time to warm up, ask the adoption counselor about their experience with the dog, as they can probably shed light on their personality once a relationship is established.

  6. Are there certain behavior issues dogs may exhibit that are specific to being in a shelter environment?

    Some dogs might retreat to the back of their kennel. Perhaps they just arrived at the shelter, are upset by all the commotion, and need time to decompress. Like dogs who retreat to the back of their kennel, a dog who’s jumping or barking in their kennel may also be reacting to the stress of shelter life.

    These behaviors are often not an accurate representation of the dog’s true personality and temperament. Try to visit with such a dog in a calmer, quieter area, and give them a chance to get some energy out first.

  7. What should adopters look for when seeking professional behavior support?

    Often, problems can be prevented by consulting with a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) or certified professional dog trainer (CPDT) early on. The trainer or behaviorist can share tips to help your new pet adjust to your home and help identify any potential challenges to address proactively.

    It may be helpful to enroll in a basic training class, too. The shelter may host classes or have recommendations. Either option helps set the dog up for success, provide a great relationship-building opportunity, and aid in a smooth transition into your home.

  8. How else can someone support animals if they're not able to adopt?

    Every community has different needs, so getting in contact with your local shelter is the best way to find out what kind of support they need most. If you’re not ready to adopt, you can still support your local shelter by fostering, volunteering, or donating.

    Adopting a puppy? Consider puppy-proofing your home. Put away rugs, shoes, and cords that could be chewed, lock up toxic materials or medications, and keep breakables on high shelves.

So, how does being in a shelter affect dogs? It provides them with food, water, shelter, medical care, and love. Although a dog ending up in a shelter is never the end goal, this could be the first step to a happier outcome. Being at the shelter means that at least the dog isn’t loose or living in an unfit environment.

That said, for many pups, a shelter can be a stressful environment that could cause their behaviors to change. For instance, kennel reactivity in shelter dogs is not uncommon. A normally happy-go-lucky pup could turn timid, or a typically shy dog could become reactive or defensive. Barrier reactivity in shelter dogs could also occur. With most rescues keeping dogs behind fences, gates, or walls and people often passing by, it’s possible for a dog to be reactive to the stimuli that they aren’t able to interact with.

As any pet parent who has adopted would attest, there’s nothing quite like giving a shelter dog a safe, loving home dog. By getting your dog the care, attention, and training they need, plus giving them the time and space they may want, they will be returning the favor with companionship and love.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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