By: Valarie Ross, CDBC, CPDT-KA, CFFP

When Covid initially broke out here in the States in early 2020, animal shelters across the nation rejoiced. People wanting to foster and adopt went through the roof! There weren’t enough dogs to fill the demand! WHAT A GOOD PROBLEM TO HAVE!

I admit I was excited, too. See, I started this dog behavior journey in the world of sheltering and rescue. I am not a shelter behavior expert by any stretch of the imagination, but that is where I started. I walked shelter dogs, I volunteered for events, and I fostered. When I had a dog in my home I worked with trainers if the dog needed something more than learning some basic manners. This was almost always at my own expense, but I had the means to cover it, plus I really enjoyed it.

I was a diehard “Don’t Shop, Adopt! We need a No-Kill Nation!” person.

Then I started on the career path I am now on.

I am now, decidedly NOT that, even more so after seeing what I have seen over the last few years.

I am pro-shop or adopt responsibly. Do not purchase dogs from backyard breeders, auctions, pet stores, or puppymills. These are not responsible sources to purchase a dog. Also, no matter how “good” a mix breed (read doodle) breeder is, it’s still unethical.

But there are also unethical rescues and shelters. Ones that don’t screen for behavior or medical issues in the dog, ones I consider dog flippers, ones that don’t support the adopter after the adoption, ones that turn and burn dogs (only have in rescue long enough to be spayed/neutered then adopt the dog out within a few days), and ones that train their dogs using outdated and harmful methods.

Another problem in rescues and shelters that really popped up during the pandemic… placing behaviorally marginal dogs. Dogs with major anxiety, fear, and even aggression problems. Dogs that went on to seriously injure people and other animals. Dogs that behavior experts were saying “This dog isn’t adoptable.”

I know, I KNOW, in a shelter environment dogs don’t always behave as they would in the “real” world. I have seen dogs I thought were fantastic in the shelter devolve into hot messes once in a home. I have seen dogs that I thought should probably be euthanized do absolutely amazing in a home. So, I admit, it is not a black and white world we live in, especially when talking about dogs with questionable breeding, poor early socialization, and trauma.

Entering into the sheltering/rescue world is traumatizing for a dog. Period. Please don’t argue with me about it. Dogs enter one of a few ways. The 2 most common being, that they were left to be stray or they were surrendered to a shelter. If this happened to you, you would be absolutely scared and traumatized.

A shelter in and of itself, no matter how nice and modern, is a jail for dogs. They are loud and smelly, and the routine is inconsistent. If there are enough volunteers that day, maybe the dog will get a nice long walk and the option to do its business outside. Most days, however, they’re lucky if they get a quick potty break. Those walk and potty breaks aren’t just that, they are a moment’s relief from the small kennel, surrounded by other dogs that are likely barking or howling, and from the smell. It is not enough to balance out the stress shelter life brings.

So, shelters and rescues, understandably so, were SO EXCITED that adoptions and fostering went through the roof! I know I was.

But with the demand for came a relaxing of the standards a dog needed to meet to be adopted. Since the time of the pandemic I have had more clients rehome and euthanize dogs they adopted than ever before. I was attacked and seriously injured by one of these dogs. These are terribly difficult. 

This relaxing of the rules to meet demand was not a good thing. Not for the long-termto future of dogs available for adoption.

It’s not a good thing that as of May 2022 we have a post-pandemic sheltering crisis. There are more dogs in the system now than maybe ever before. Why? I don’t know and not the point of this blog post.

But there is good coming out of this.

Shelters are now saying they are going to be more stringent on what dogs they deem adoptable. Which is, honestly, a good thing. While it does mean more dogs will be euthanized, these are dogs that are not behaviorally healthy. Dogs with extreme fear and anxiety, potentially aggression issues.

These are dogs that would cost families a lot of money if they are dedicated to doing the work to help their dog be happier.

These are dogs that put the community at risk.

These are the dogs that cause heartbreak.

All things that are not necessary. Why? Because we have many dogs that aren’t any of these things and they are available for adoption.

When marginal dogs are adopted out it ends up not only affecting that dog and the life of the family that adopted them, it also affects all rescue dogs. Especially those pit bull type dogs.

Pit bull type dogs are found in rescue more than any other type of dog. They come with often unfair assumptions about them. They aren’t more prone to behavioral problems than any other breed when you look at percentages, but we hear about it more due to the sheer number of them.

When any breed or mix does something bad that requires extensive training, behavioral meds, or euthanasia it is not good for any shelter dog.

Adopters talk to their friends, their family, and the world on a larger scale through social media. And when they talk about how much heartache adopting a marginal dog brings, it turns off others to adoption.

When you’re turned off from adoption then you turn to purchasing a dog. Usually from an unethical source. 

Now I am not saying that ethical breeders and shelters can 100% guarantee a dog won’t have behavior issues, even if they do everything right. But if a shelter is more stringent when evaluating dogs, then this is a good thing for dogs. All dogs. Especially the dogs that are available for adoption.

I call for all shelters and rescues to get to know the dogs they’re adopting out better. Make sure you’re putting out quality dogs. Trying to save them all is often just outsourcing euthanasia and ends up hurting the greater good.

I haven’t ever had to go through my own behavioral euthanasia, only that of clients. Some adopted dogs, some purchased dogs. I can tell you, regardless of the source of the dog, the heartache is so extreme, that often the thought of even getting another dog, let alone adopting one with an unknown background, moves right out of a person’s possible options.

I know I will be significantly more careful the next time it’s time to add a dog to my family. And I have the knowledge, skill, and financial ability to deal with a more difficult dog. But I won’t. I don’t know where I’ll get my next dog from, but I can say I will likely not fully commit to a dog until I know them really well. That opinion came from the number of marginal dogs I have come across in my practice in the years since the pandemic hit. 

If you are a shelter or rescue group and you aren’t sure what this all means or you need someone to look at a dog, please reach out to us here at Sits n Wiggles or another local positive reinforcement trainer that has a special interest in behavior and pet dogs.

If you are someone who is looking to bring a pup into your home, either via adoption or purchase, again, reach out to us or your local positive reinforcement trainer for guidance. That is what we are here for. Trust me, we’d love to work ourselves out of a job.