October is National Adopt a Shelter Dog month in the U.S., so my blog posts will be all about shelter dogs! I’ll talk about picking the right shelter dog for you, give you pointers for helping your new pet adjust to your home, and provide several resources for adoption. This week, though, I’m focusing on what life in a shelter is like.
Living in a shelter is rarely easy for a dog no matter their reason for being there. Stray dogs find themselves trapped in a kennel after experiencing the freedom to wander wherever they chose. Dogs whose families have to surrender them leave their familiar environment for someplace completely foreign and scary. All dogs coming into a shelter endure the intake process, which usually includes a behavior assessment and, in most cases, suffering though vaccines and microchip implantation before being led to a kennel and left alone.
Once there, dogs must cope with a variety of stressors. Even in the best, fully-staffed shelters with many volunteers, dogs spend most of their time alone, which, for a social species, can be brutal. For dogs who enjoy other dogs, shelter life can be frustrating because they hear and smell other dogs but they cannot interact with them. Dogs who fear other dogs, however, are often distressed by their proximity. Though the staff and volunteers of shelters do their best to provide enrichment and exercise, the dogs generally don’t get enough of either to override the effects of the overstimulating environment. Finally, most shelter dogs suffer from sleep deprivation because they can't relax enough during the day to take restful naps.
If you walk through a shelter, you will probably see a variety of stress-related behaviors like dogs licking their lips, yawning, or sniffing aimlessly. You might also see more intense manifestations of stress in dogs who jump repeatedly, chase their tails, or bounce off the walls of their kennel. Without relief from the shelter environment, some dogs may decline and show aggression toward other dogs or humans. For these dogs a foster home can be life-saving.
There are never enough foster homes, but there are other ways to give dogs relief. Some shelters have staff or volunteers dedicated to taking dogs on hikes or for a run. Others host playgroups, allowing dogs who enjoy each other to socialize as they get much-needed exercise. Bringing a dog into an office gives her a break from her kennel, plenty of human attention, and extra sleep (plus all the toys she wants!). Sometimes even a short outing, like meeting a potential adopter, can make a huge difference for a dog who spends most of her time alone in a small space. All of these opportunities to interact with humans or other dogs give shelter staff and volunteers more information about the dogs to pass along to their new families.
When you adopt a dog from a shelter it is crucial to understand what they may have experienced because then you will be better prepared to help your new dog settle into your home.