Shelter Savvy

Shelter Savvy

One dog professional’s loss of innocence!

Names have been changed to protect the privacy of all concerned.

Before you surrender your dog to a shelter, you’d better be darn sure that he/she “shelters well”! That’s right…”shelters well”. Those words keep ringing over and over in my head.

Sally, my client was recently divorced, had just started a new job, and moved into an apartment. Her new job was 50+ miles away, so with the commute every day, raising a 5 year old on her own and trying to do the best by her 2 dogs she was exhausted and felt like she was failing them all. She was asked by her new employer to re-locate closer to the hospital where she works. She approached me about helping her find a new home for the dogs. She and I both put the word out to everyone. Each time someone stopped me on one of our walks to pet them or told me how beautiful they were, I told them they were looking for a new home. I posted their pictures on my facebook page. A few folks seemed interested. One young man even asked for my business card so he could contact me…which sadly he never did. So, upon my suggestion she made an appointment to surrender them to the local Humane Society. While volunteering in the shelter I had witnessed how caring and dedicated they were to placing dogs in the perfect home. I had seen person after person come in looking for a dog only to be disappointed because there weren’t any available. I was sure these two wonderful dogs would be adopted almost right away.  With much sadness and I would guess guilt, she surrendered them on Saturday August 20th.

So, with my childlike naiveté firmly in place I began going to visit them each day to comfort them as well as myself while they waited for their new forever family. Plus I have to admit, I do love them and I missed our daily outings. Upon my second visit, I was told that they, the shelter staff, didn’t like what they were seeing. Rufus was being aggressive to staff and volunteers. He had started muzzle punching their hands and they were afraid he was going to bite. He had also growled at the vet twice during his exam.[1] The vet told me directly that she wasn’t a fan of Rufus. I was told this while on my knees in their room with both of them happily climbing all over me and trying to lick my face! I was a little concerned, but figured after a few more days they would settle in and adjust to this new and very strange place. After all they had each other for comfort. And that this shelter would do all they could to help him adjust. The next time I visited, the shelter was very busy with a Cat adoption event that was taking place. I asked if I could go in and visit them again and was told I could. They were so happy to see me, and I them. After the initial excitement, I sat down on their bed (which they brought from home) where Rufus proceeded to curl up in my lap and fall asleep with this head in the crook of my arm. Rachel lay down beside me so I could stroke her throat and chest. I stayed for a half hour while they relaxed and I soaked up the love and calm from these two beautiful souls.

So here’s where things take an ugly turn…The morning of my fourth visit I was going to wait to stop by until I had finished with all of my other client’s dogs, but something told me I had better go there first, while the shelter was closed and I wouldn’t be bothering anyone or in the way, because, like most animal shelters these days they are understaffed. When I arrived I came face to face with the canine coordinator, asked if they were still there and if I could visit for a while. She began to tell me that yes, I could visit, BUT…Rufus wasn’t doing well at all. He was becoming more and more aggressive with people going into his room, which by the way is a six foot by 8 foot concrete cell with a closed door at each end. One door that leads to the outside pen and one that leads to the shelter lobby. The dogs can’t see through either door and have no control over who comes through them. The building has other rooms some that are pens inside bigger rooms and some that are surrounded by windows. Maybe one of these areas would have worked better for him. Rufus had no choice when he was feeling threatened but to react and to try to get the scary new people away from him. When dogs are in threatening situations they usually will react one of two ways. Run away (flight) or aggress toward the scary thing (fight). Most dogs, given the choice will run away because fighting is dangerous. Rufus’ choice to move away was taken from him. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do. He was frightened. I want to add here that the first time I arrived at their house to walk them I had to sit in the kitchen and let them both get to know me better. I had met them at the initial meet & greet with their family. I did this by being calm, sitting still, and tossing them yummy treats until they were comfortable with me. It only took about 30 minutes and yes, I timed it. (A valuable lesson taught to me by my Mentor) Since that day we’ve been the best of friends. When we were out on walks, they both happily greeted people on the streets and enjoyed being downtown with all the hustle and bustle of society[2]. But I digress…the short of it was, the shelter was going to contact Sally to see if she could take him back, if she couldn’t take him back he would be euthanized[3] because he wasn’t “sheltering well”! This was day 6 of Rufus & Rachel’s stay at the shelter. I can’t say if he was ever really evaluated outside of his cell other than for his initial intake physical exam, I truly hope he was, but everyone seemed so frightened of him that I have my doubts.

Rufus’ fate was sealed. They were going to throw him away because he was stressed and frightened in this new and strange place. He no longer had his family, his dog walker, his own crate or toys or anything familiar to him, except thankfully, Rachel!  I asked if I could foster him and work with him so that he would have a better chance of being adopted. They told me no. No reason why, just no. And it’s not like I’m just Joe Schmo off the street. I worked there teaching dog training classes. AND, I knew the dog! I was told that I could adopt him if Sally wouldn’t take him back. I would then be free to work with him and re-home him on my own. My thought on this…it came down to money. They weren’t willing to invest time or money on Rufus. They were going to keep Rachel and put her up for adoption that day. It was an easy decision for me as well as for my husband. Rufus had visited my house many times and loved my husband as well as my own two dogs. I wasn’t the least bit worried about taking him home or about taking him anywhere. I already knew he was a great dog and felt pretty confident in my own skills to help him adjust and overcome his shelter ordeal.

So how does Rufus’ story end? Thankfully Sally took him back and re-homed him with her ex. He now lives with a black Lab and is back to his happy, friendly self. As for Rachel…she stayed behind at the shelter, alone without Rufus. But, at least she was moved to a room with an open door so that she could see who was approaching her. I continued to visit her on a daily basis because I was very concerned that she might begin to not “Shelter Well”. I was so worried about her that on days when I couldn’t go to see her, I would send other people and have them report back to me on her status.

How does my story end…with disbelief, disappointment, sadness, and the words “he just doesn’t ‘shelter’ well” running through my head! Isn’t it the responsibility of the so called “no-kill” shelter to help him overcome his fear, to make his surroundings comfortable so he can be the best dog he knows how to be[4]? How many other dogs haven’t “sheltered well”? How many other dogs given a chance and some guidance could have made wonderful pets? So…to ALL who read this, make darn sure your pet “SHELTERS WELL” before you need to surrender them. And my advice, look for a breed rescue first! Maybe I’ll feel differently as the pain of this event fades, but I am forever changed. I’m so thankful that we didn’t lose Rufus, but I grieve for the loss of my innocence![5]

UPDATE: I left my teaching job at the shelter because of this situation. I could not continue to support an organization that is supposed to have the animal’s best interests at heart and then just throws their lives away with total disregard like they did to Rufus. And Rachel…don’t think for a moment that I left her behind…she now lives with my husband and me and our two goofy Labs. We all love her and she has turned out to be one of the greatest joys in my life!


[1] A growl is a dogs warning to you that he/she is uncomfortable with the interaction. A dog will almost always warn you before acting unless the warning behavior has been suppressed by training or abuse.

[2] Rufus & Rachel lived with a 5 year old girl. I witnessed with my own eyes her pulling his tail. He turned his wiggly body around and licked her face!

[3] There was a place to mark “yes” on the surrender forms if you wanted to take the dog back should it need to be euthanized.

[4] Rufus has no history of aggression toward anyone human or animal. He even likes cats.

[5] Thank you EW, for knowing my heart and loving me anyway. Thank you to my Mentor for her ongoing support!

Shelter Savvy