I follow the Facebook pages of several national dog magazines. Recently, one of them posted an article about a tiny Chihuahua who had been euthanized at a shelter because he was aggressive.  This story caused a lot of people to post judgmental comments about the shelter and its workers. It was obvious that these people have never been exposed to the difficulties that shelter workers deal with every day. And that it is very, very challenging to find adoptive homes for aggressive dogs, no matter how small. Instead of outraged indignation, I hope that people will read on and then make an effort to educate others.

The shelters in the U.S. can be divided into three general groups: the very wealthy ones such as New York’s ASPCA and North Shore Animal League, the moderately funded ones who have adequate facilities and sufficient staffs, and the very poor community shelters who run on a shoestring with little staff. Shelters also can be further divided into no-kill and kill shelters. No-kills shelters, as a rule, have a limit to the number of pets that they will accept and they keep it at a manageable level.  The pets who get turned away have to go to kill shelters. And that’s a lot.

The wealthy shelters and many of the no-kills, in general, have the time and the resources to work with the animals if they have behavior issues. A great example is Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah who has been rehabilitating the Vick dogs. They have the funds and the staff to keep these dogs forever and enough trainers to dedicate time to their rehabilitation. Even still, some no-kill shelters will euthanize pets due to behavior issues.

 But on the other side of the spectrum, the much underfunded kill shelters are usually inundated with homeless pets and do not have the space to keep pets unless they are highly adoptable. Highly adoptable means two things: the pets are young (over 5 years is considered old at a shelter) and are well behaved. It’s a known fact that in shelters, most adopters are looking for young pets. Sometimes, the highly adoptable pets need to be euthanized as well due to lack of space. It’s a heart wrenching situation.

The shelter workers in these underfunded shelters must make daily decisions about which pets live or die. They hate it. Most shelter workers are in this job because they love animals and want to make a difference by helping them. Contrary to what some posters on Facebook and a few bloggers may lead you to believe, the shelter workers are not demons who take pleasure in killing the animals. Of course, there are some bad eggs who are sick and enjoy torturing and killing the animals but they are the exception. I hope.

A typical day for a shelter worker involves constant cleaning of filthy kennels, feeding the animals, dealing with customers (some are courteous, some can be quite rude), seeing people carelessly surrendering nice animals, taking in strays who have been dumped, seeing pets who have been hit by cars or abused or starved, and dealing with people who lie about the pet’s behavior to assuage their guilt about surrendering them. You’ll hear many shelter workers say, “I hate people.” It’s because of the terrible things and the indifference they see constantly.

Many shelters workers have had little or no training in pet behavior. They also have very little time to work with the animals to help resolve behavior problems. Some shelters have the funds to hire a behavior specialist or trainer to work with the animals, but these positions are rare.

People may say, “Why doesn’t the management of the shelters make sure that the animals receive training to resolve behavior issues?” The issue is partly due to lack of staff because of underfunding but it’s also a problem with uneducated management. Many shelter managers have come up through the ranks and are unaware of the various programs and best practices to rehabilitate pets. And sadly, some managers are simply burned out and the effort is too great to make changes.  The attitude can be: it’s easier to euthanize than to try to change. 

Animal sheltering is a burn-out business because the pets just keep coming in the door – and some of them have suffered indescribable atrocities. Some people become numb from working in this distressing environment.

I’m seeing evidence that the message to adopt and not buy is gaining credence. More people than ever are coming to shelters and rescue groups to find their pets. That means that the pets they adopt need to be good emissaries for adopting and for their species/breed. Pit Bulls illustrate this fact.  Only the best of the best behaved Pits are kept in shelters – because there are so many of them and because shelters know that if an aggressive Pit is adopted and bites someone, the breed’s reputation gets further sullied.

The sad reality is that most people want a perfect pet.  They don’t want to take a lot of time and money to train the pet. When a pet who was adopted from a shelter has a behavior problem and the adopter decides to bring the pet back, unfortunately it leaves a bad taste in the adopter’s mouth. The bad experience is likely to discourage them from adopting again, and they will tell people about the experience. The shelter will suffer because people may stop donating when they hear stories such as these. This bad press directly affects the forward momentum of the “adopt not buy” agenda as well.  These people will be more likely to turn to pet stores to find their next pets.

Obviously, our country’s sheltering system could stand an overhaul because they all operate with different standards and rules. There are no governing bodies to oversee them. No, the Humane Society of the United States does not have jurisdiction over animal shelters, contrary to many people’s beliefs. Changes, therefore, must be at the grassroots level. Our shelters won’t change unless we demand it. More people need to become foster parents so that pets get out of the shelters and have a chance to be trained. People need to accept that their adopted pet may not be perfect and that they will need to invest some time and money into getting the pet trained. And the issue closest to my heart is that people need to let go of the desire to have a puppy (or kitten) and opt for a previously owned pet. There’s nothing like the gratification of saving and living with an older pet.

Sorry for the long post and I could have gone on further. It’s a very complicated issue. I’d love to hear your opinions.  Please send your comments!