Shelters: Another source for your dog

Adopt a dog, save a life

Animal shelters may be appropriate sources of pets for families with low budgets or the desire to save an unfortunate dog from euthanasia at a kill shelter or a long stay in a no-kill shelter. Shelter dogs, especially those turned in by their owners, may already be housetrained and have some manners. Many are more than a year old and full grown; new owners won't have to wonder how big he'll get or how much grooming she'll need.

Desire to save a life is a strong reason to look for a dog in a shelter, but shelter shoppers should beware that many dogs are impounded or surrendered because their previous owners failed to prevent or solve behavior problems. A 1996 study indicated that dogs acquired from a shelter were at high risk of return to the shelter for unacceptable behavior(1), and studies released in 1996 and 2000 indicated that behavior problems place a dog at high risk of surrender(2)(3).

The vast majority of dogs in shelters are mixed breeds, so even if the dog is full grown, judging its temperament, breed-related behavior, and trainability is difficult for inexperienced pet owners. However, a patient and discriminating person can find a dog that appeals to his own personality and needs at a public or private shelter for a very reasonable price.

Public shelters

In most states counties are required to have a shelter for impoundment of stray dogs and enforcement of state and local animal control laws. These shelters may be run by a private humane society that contracts with the government to provide the services or may be a government-run agency.

Public shelters handle stray dogs by law and owner-abandoned dogs by choice. They keep stray dogs for a specified number of days, usually less than a week, and offer them to new homes when that period is up. Because they must accept strays and provide a specific number of days for owners to reclaim their pets, government shelters cannot keep dogs for long periods while waiting for a new home. Thus many dogs – beginning with those that have any type of health problem – are euthanized to make room for the next truckload of strays brought in by the warden or his deputies.

Owners who abandon their dogs may have a legitimate reason or they may be just passing a problem on to someone else. Owners who could not or would not train their pets may have created a dog that is destructive, ill-behaved, aggressive, fearful, or just plain unsuited for certain circumstances. Many times these owners do not tell the truth when they leave their dogs at the shelter, for they either don't want the dog to be euthanized or they are ashamed that they have failed in their responsibility to the animal.

Stray dogs have no history, so adopters should be ready for anything, including excessive barking, house-soiling, destructive chewing, fear-biting, escaping, lack of socialization, poor health, fear of men, women, children, noises, other dogs, and so on.(3) When little is known a dog's background, a potential adopter must lean heavily on the shelter staff to help match him with a dog that stands a good chance of fitting into his family. Just as a responsible breeder matches particular puppies with particular people and discourages some families from buying a dog of his breed, so the shelter staff should be willing and able to match buyers and dogs and turn away families if a suitable dog is not available. If staff members are ill-equipped to assist in selection or seem too eager to place a dog just to get it out the door, families should go to another shelter.

Public shelters are supported by a combination of dog license fees, fines for violations of state or community dog laws, and sometimes by donations and grants. Generally, the fees and fines pay for housing strays and paying the wardens and the donations and grants cover the care of dogs turned in by owners. The adoption fee rarely covers the cost of housing the dog until purchase, especially if some short-term veterinary care is necessary.

Public shelters may or may not provide additional services such as a discount on pet sterilization, a microchip for identification, or veterinary treatment for minor illnesses, vaccinations, or tests for heartworm and other parasites.

Private shelters

Private shelters accept stray animals turned in by area residents and animals abandoned by their owners. They are generally small or medium-sized shelters run by welfare advocates who like animals, and they are completely supported by donations and grants. Staffs are small and volunteers are many at these facilities.

Although private shelters do euthanize seriously ill or aggressive dogs, they do not euthanize healthy animals merely because they need the space for another dog. This policy frequently forces them to turn away people who want to surrender their pets, but they often soften the blow by maintaining a waiting list or referring owners to other private shelters or rescue organizations in the area. They may also keep lists of dogs that are available from private homes and those that are in foster homes.

Private shelters depend heavily on volunteers to exercise and socialize the animals and to help raise money. They usually spay and neuter every animal before it is placed, provide initial vaccinations, and sometimes do parasite checks and treatments and provide additional treatment for minor illnesses.

Some private shelters operate in areas where spay and neuter programs have been so successful that few small and medium-sized dogs are available for adoption. Rather than refer potential adopters to other facilities or to breeders, these shelters may import dogs from other parts of the US or from offshore islands or foreign countries.(4)(5) Those searching for a shelter pet should find out where the shelter gets its dogs before making a decision to adopt.

The no-kill movement

The no-kill movement has gained popularity, and with that popularity has come controversy. Some shelters that claim to be no-kill actually euthanize a large number of dogs that need veterinary care or behavior modification simply by labeling these dogs as unadoptable. Some welfare organizations claim that no-kill is a ploy by shelters that avoid handling dogs that need treatment or training before they can be placed in a new home.

A good no-kill shelter markets its animals to the pet-buying public, makes sure the dogs and the adopters are compatible, and does whatever training, socialization, and medical care is necessary to provide healthy, stable pets to new homes.

For more information about the no-kill shelter movement, see Maddie's Fund at and the No-Kill Advocacy Center at

Internet adoptions

The Internet has been a boon for shelters looking to market their animals to a wide audience. is the granddaddy of Internet pet adoption services, but hundreds of public and private shelters put pictures and descriptions of available pets on their own websites.

Appealing as it is to sit at home and browse the country for a new family pet, those who do so should narrow their cyber-trek to shelters near home so that they can see the facility, meet the dog and the staff, ask questions, and assure themselves that the match is a good one.

Adopting from a shelter

Those who choose to get a dog from a shelter can increase their chances of a successful adoption by making some observations and asking some questions.

Visit the shelter several times and watch the interaction of staff members and animals. Watch the staff clean the runs and feed the animals if possible and note their attitude towards the dogs during these chores.

Even if the dogs are vaccinated against common canine diseases when they enter the shelter, they do not get immediate protection, especially if they have already been exposed to disease. If the dogs have nose-to-nose contact through chainlink fences, be aware that illness such as distemper and kennel cough are possible in any dog adopted from the facility. If the feces are not picked up before the runs are washed and are instead rinsed from run to run, be aware that worms and other feces-spread diseases are possible.

If the shelter imports dogs from other parts of the US, an offshore island, or another country, check into the prevalence of diseases in the dog's home area. Dogs from tropical and sub-tropical regions can bring parasites and diseases that may have been eradicated in your area or never existed in temperate climates.(4)(5)

Questions to ask shelters

A buyer who chooses to adopt a shelter animal instead of buying a puppy should be just as careful in his choice and as selective of a place to adopt as the puppy buyer should be in his choice of a breed and a puppy. The critical question to ask is "Will this dog fit my family?" If the answer is yes, a shelter dog may be the perfect choice.


(1) "Risk factors for relinquishment of dogs to an animal shelter," a study conducted by Gary Patronek VMD, PhD; Lawrence Glickman VMD,DrPH, et al, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol 209, #3, August 1, 1996. This study indicated that dogs adopted from shelters were at high risk of return to shelters.

(2) "Behavioral Reasons for Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats to 12 Shelters," a study of the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3(2), 93-106 Copyright © 2000, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.,

(3) "Factors associated with the decision to surrender a pet to an animal shelter," a study by Deborah Miller MA et al, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol 209 #4, August 15, 1996. This study indicated that 30 percent of dogs were surrendered to shelters because of behavior problems.

(4) "Dog imports raise fears of a resurgence of disease" by Alan Gomez, USA Today, October 22, 2007.

(5) "Stray pet relocation brings rabies to Massachusetts," National Animal Interest Alliance press release, June 1, 2004, at

Norma Bennett Woolf

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