very year in North America, over 3 million dogs enter shelters, either because they were lost and found stray, or because they were relinquished by their owners.
About 1 in 10 dogs adopted from a shelter or a rescue center is no longer in his adoptive home 6 months later, and a third are kept less than a year before being given away again.
In my experience working at shelters as a behaviorist, the reasons for giving away a dog are not always the ones reported by owners, and the underlying cause is often due to a combination of unrealistic expectations about dog ownership, lack of awareness of dog breed characteristics, and difficulty in assessing a dog’s temperament and personality for compatibility prior to adoption.
The American Pet Products Association (APPA) reports that 34% of dogs are purchased from breeders, while 23% of dogs are obtained from an animal shelter or humane society.
The number of dogs given away could decrease dramatically if potential owners were better informed about the things that must be considered before adopting. A dog shares your life for over a decade, you cannot afford to make adoption decisions based solely on emotions, breed trivia, or esthetic criteria.
Dog shelters in North America
Shelters are understandably motivated to get dogs adopted and don't always have the resources to best match each dog with compatible owners.
When adopting a dog, the breed, the dog's age, history, emotional state, and personality should ideally be taken into consideration, but we must remember that dogs are often under a lot of stress in shelters, and the emotional state of a dog you first encounter may not be a true reflection of his temperament or personality.
Dog overpopulation has decreased dramatically since the 1970s when American animal shelters euthanized between 12 and 20 million cats and dogs every year. In comparison, today, 3 to 4 million animals are euthanized annually.
Accurate data from shelters and rescue groups are difficult to obtain because there is no central data reporting system for these institutions, and most U.S. states don’t require reporting. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is currently working to change this with Shelter Animals Count, an initiative formed to share a national database of sheltered animal statistics.
Common reasons dogs are returned to shelters
An ASPCA survey shows that the most common reason cited for giving up a dog is “pet problems”, accounting for 47% of dogs relinquished per year. Pet problems were defined as problematic behaviors, aggressive behaviors, or health issues. While people may not always be truthful about their real motives, the most common reasons evoked for giving up their dog are the following:
- More expensive than anticipated, or surprise expenses such as for healthcare
- Human health issues that make keeping and caring for the dog difficult
- Destructive, disruptive or antisocial behaviors
- Aggression (with strangers, children, other family members, or other animals)
Things to consider before adopting a dog
When thinking about adoption, there are some important steps you need to take and questions to ask yourself to make sure you can provide the best possible environment for the welfare of the dog.
To develop a harmonious relationship with your new dog, several things must also be assessed about the adopted dog and breed to ensure the best possible compatibility.
The expense of dog ownership
On average, people spend between $800 and $1200 each year on their dog. Over the lifetime of the dog, and with an average expected lifespan between 10 and 15 years, the expenses can amount to $15,000. The most typical recurring expenses are:
- Health (insurance, vet consults, worming, vaccines, supplements)
- Accessories, toys, and treats
- Professional training
- Pet-sitters, kennel boarding, dog walking
Expenses depend on your lifestyle and on the type of breed. While health expenses are impossible to predict and food expenses can be controlled by making informed choices, you should take into account that some breeds are more fragile or genetically susceptible to illness than others. Some dogs may also require more frequent grooming or need professional training. It's important to research the specifics of a breed before adoption.
If someone in your household is allergic to dogs, it may not necessarily be a deal-breaker, but you should consider choosing a hypoallergenic dog breed such as an Affenpinscher, Bichon Frisé, Schnauzer, Bolognese, Maltese, Poodle or Yorkshire Terrier.
If the allergy is not severe, your doctor can advise you about symptomatic relief. If you’re unsure about allergies in your family, try spending some time with friends who have dogs and monitor any sign of allergic reaction.
Destructive or disruptive behaviors
Many dogs coming from shelters suffer post-traumatic stress and anxiety. Read our detailed article on the subject of dealing with dog separation anxiety. You should be aware that some breeds should not be left alone for long periods. If you cannot take your dog to work, expect to have higher expenses for dog walking and pet sitting.
You should consider crate training, and if the problem becomes unmanageable, seek professional help from an experienced trainer or a behaviorist. Don't give up on your dog, most behavioral problems can be solved by adequate training and a good dose of patience.
The choice of breed and the size of the dog should determine the compatibility with the living conditions that you can offer. Dogs such as Border collies or German shepherds have high energy levels, require a lot of daily outdoor exercise, and need generous space to thrive. This can also be the case for smaller high-energy breeds such as terriers.
You should also consult your landlord if you are renting, and ask your boss about company policy regarding dogs at work if you intend on bringing your dog to the office.
If you have young kids, get advice from a professional trainer or a behaviorist to assess the dog's temperament and behavior for compatibility. Poorly socialized dogs can be easily spooked by young children and can react unpredictably, others are docile and more reliable. Don't rely on general breed trivia to make a decision, each dog may be different.
Depending on where you adopted the dog, his history and temperament may be known and revealed to you before adoption. You should be aware that shelters don't always test dogs for behavior. In many cases, it's up to whoever adopts the dog to judge whether any sign of aggression is fear motivated or more deeply ingrained in the dog's temperament. A nervous, fearful, or anxious dog may suffer some degree of stress at the shelter and may hopefully settle once returned to a calm and loving home environment.
Aggression triggers that did not occur in the previous environment may sometimes reveal themselves in your household. Shelter dogs that show signs of not having been properly socialized with other dogs or people may require professional training or rehabilitation.
Energy compatibility and leadership
An important compatibility factor between owners and adopted dogs is the capacity of the human to act as the calm and assertive leader that each dog needs and can respect.
Some dogs need an experienced owner with firm authority, calm energy, and confident leadership. A handler who is anxious or less assertive may inadvertently encourage a dog to become dominant, or overprotective. In that case, serious aggression issues may be experienced when trying to handle the dog safely in social situations. From a training point of view, this type of compatibility problem is much harder to correct because it requires rehabilitation work with both the owner and the dog.
You should be aware that dog breeds with high sensitivity levels, high energy, or strong prey drive can be more difficult to train. They can also be particularly stubborn or reactive, and are best adopted by experienced owners. This can be the case of Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Akitas, Weimaraners, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, Fox terriers, Bulldogs, Greyhounds and Bloodhounds.
In general, the level of energy, assertiveness, or dominance of a dog has less to do with the breed, and more with the dog's unique temperament. The size of the dog can also be deceptive —a Jack Russell terrier or a Fox terrier can be much more dominant or aggressive than a German shepherd and present a bigger challenge for a owners with low energy levels and a less assertive personality.
Whether you get a purebred puppy from a reputable breeder or adopt a dog from a shelter, adoption requires that you do your homework ahead of time, assess the dog's behavior and temperament, and have realistic expectations about dog ownership.
Choosing the right breed and a dog with a compatible temperament and matching energy levels requires a minimum of research. Don’t generalize you choice based on breed trivia or esthetic criteria, but do consider the characteristics and specific needs of each breed.
A visit to a shelter can be an emotionally challenging experience. But if you let your emotions overwhelm you and you feel sorry for the dog, you may end up making a wrong adoption decision that you will regret and that's not best for the dog. Save yourself potential heartache and struggles down the road by remaining as objective as possible.
If the shelter does not test dogs for behavior or cannot provide a reliable history, I would recommend that you seek the help of an experienced dog trainer who can assess the dog's temperament, compatibility and social behavior before you commit to an adoption.