Keeping It Real When Adopting a Dog – Step Three: Shelter Shock

I had originally planned to talk more about what to do on our visit to the shelter in this post. However, the amount of e-mail I have received from people who felt that they have been misguided by shelters and rescues has caused me to change that a bit. It seems many first time adopters have a vision of shelters that is somewhat out of touch with reality, so that is what I am going to address in this post.

Before I start let me say that the people who work and volunteer at shelters are heroes. They work in a system that has become completely overburdened. Their daily environment is constant chaos and it seems the stream of animals in need is endless. Yet they are willing to work in this environment because of their love for animals and they are willing to do a job that many cannot bring themselves to do. However, just because someone works in the shelter doesn’t make them an expert in animal training or behavior and there’s the rub. Before you go to a shelter, you need an understanding of who and what you’ll find there in order to have the best chance of bringing home a good match for you and your family.

Although many shelters have trainers working at them and some that have behavioral evaluation programs as well, there are many more that don’t. The majority of people working at shelters are good hearted people that love animals, but they’re not trainers nor do they have the necessary experience to evaluate animal behavior.

Many of you may think that working at a shelter for any period would provide a good education in animal behavior. But without the proper study and education behind it, it’s akin to taking your car to a car salesman instead of a mechanic to get it fixed.

Another problem is the behavior of the animals themselves at a shelter is sometimes not the best representation of their normal personality. Imagine you are driving down the highway and you narrowly miss being involved in an accident where someone has been seriously injured; how would you react to this? Would your adrenaline be pumping? Would you be talking and gesturing in an overly exaggerated fashion? Or, would you been withdrawn and uncommunicative as a result of your narrow miss? If someone were to meet you for the first time at that moment, would they see a normal example of your true personality and behavior?

The dogs we meet at the shelter are operating in a highly stressful environment where they may behave in ways that are not normally a part of their personality. There are many parts of a dog’s personality that shelter workers may never see simply because the dog doesn’t display that behavior in the shelter environment.

If all of this sounds like I am really trying to drive home the point of my last post on finding a trainer, it wasn’t my plan, but there it is.  Having realistic expectations and bringing along an experienced trainer or behaviorist on your visit to the shelter is one of the best ways to keep dogs out of the shelter cycle.

I promise next time we will talk about meeting dogs at the shelter and some of the things we need to look for.


Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha, Elbee

3 thoughts on “Keeping It Real When Adopting a Dog – Step Three: Shelter Shock

  1. Folks looking to adopt a dog should pick up a copy of Sue Sternberg’s book, Successful Dog Adoptions. Shelters and rescues would benefit from having a look at it as well.

  2. I agree so much with what you have to say about dogs being in a high stress environment and not showing their true personalities whilst in the shelter. As a result of this I question why you recommend a prospective family would bring an experienced trainer or behaviourist in to the shelter to assess their potential pet. Could they be able to change the way the dog is behaving to show how it might behave 3 weeks later in its new home once it’s gained some confidence, or had a reality check? Assessments are so tricky to get right as they are always so contextual! I think making sure they get expert advice as soon as the dog is home, before any “return policy” has expired might be of more use.

    • Good point, Katrina. Even though the dog will be behaving under high stress conditions, I still think having a good trainer or behaviorist with you increases the odds of finding a better match. Also a good behaviorist should be able to draw the dog out somewhat just by engaging with them in a manner that will be expected of them at home. I realize that not everyone will want to incur the cost of taking a trainer to the shelter with them, but for me, I think it’s worth it.

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