Evaluating Your Local Animal Shelter
The best thing you can do for a lost or stray dog? Your homework.
One day in November some 17 years ago, my husband and I (both humane officers in California at the time) were conducting undercover surveillance of cockfighters in San Jose, when a scruffy little Terrier mix ran across a busy road in front of our car. Without a word, Paul pulled the car over to the curb and I hopped out to rescue the youngster from imminent danger.
I knelt down and called to her, and she crawled to me on her belly. I scooped her up and deposited her in the back seat of the car, where she settled on a blanket Paul laid out. We continued with our work, agreeing we would take her to the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley (HSSCV), where Paul was Director of Operations, on our way home. At that time, HSSCV housed all stray animals found in the San Jose area.
The Terrier rode quietly with us for the rest of the afternoon. In fact, her presence gave us an excuse to stroll past cockfighters’ homes rather than just drive by – we had to walk our dog! By the end of the day, Paul and I agreed that this dog was too exceptional to take to HSSCV, where the high volume of animals handled (40,000 per year) made her prospects dim despite the many good programs the shelter offered.
We decided to keep her until Monday, at which time I would take her to the shelter where I worked as Director of Operations, the Marin Humane Society. Her chances of finding a lifelong loving home there were far better than at HSSCV. Meanwhile, Paul filed a “found” report with a detailed description of her at his shelter, in case someone came in looking for her.
If you’re like most dog lovers, sooner or later you’ll find yourself rescuing a stray dog. If she’s lucky, the dog will be wearing a tag with current owner information, and all you will have to do is make a quick phone call so the owners can come retrieve her.
All too often, however, there are no tags, and you must decide what to do with the foundling. You have several options:
• Take her to the nearest Animal Services shelter. These are the shelters that provide government services: impounding and housing strays, investigating complaints, selling licenses, inspecting kennels and other animal-related business, doing rabies control, and issuing citations for violations of animal control laws.
• Take her to a private shelter. While some private shelters contract to provide the previously listed services, many do not. They may or may not accept strays, and are more likely to accept and adopt out owner-surrendered animals, offer spay/neuter services, and conduct fundraising events and public education programs. Private shelters may be full service (accepting all animals) or limited intake (which can include shelters sometimes known as “no-kill”).
• Take her to a rescue group. This is a viable option especially if your foundling appears to be a purebred or near purebred dog. Some rescue groups may ask that you take her to a shelter for the legal holding period first, and they’ll rescue her from there. Some will ask (beg, plead with) you to keep her at your home while they work to find a foster home or adopter. Some will take her immediately and willingly.
If she is a mix, or a member of a commonly found breed such as the Labrador Retriever, rescue groups are more likely to be full to the brim, and less likely to leap to your rescue. If she is an unusual breed, such as the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, there is probably a readily available rescue/foster opening. A quick search on the Internet will turn up rescue contact information for just about every breed of dog you can imagine.
• Take her home temporarily. This gives you a chance to find the owner yourself or, failing that, rehome her, without the risks inherent in taking a dog to a shelter. However, you must take all the steps described in the sidebar “If You Take a Stray Dog Home.”
• Take her home permanently. While this is sometimes a viable solution, it only works if you have the right environment and enough resources to care for your canine foundling. You can’t keep them all.
Of course, even if you were tempted to keep the dog from the moment you found her, you must still make every effort to find her original owner.
Shelters: pro and con
It’s best if you know what shelters are located in your area before you need one. It gives me comfort to know exactly where I would take a stray dog – even as I’m trying to catch him – to give him the best opportunity to be returned safely to his owner or find a new, more secure home. I’ve toured shelters in areas where I was house-hunting even before I’ve toured potential homes!
Understand when you go to look at shelters that even the best facility in the world is not a good place for a dog. Dogs do best when they live in small, stable social groups in a structured environment. Shelters, even good ones, are noisy, chaotic, and stressful. Dogs rarely get enough socialization, exercise, or mental stimulation; thus long-term confinement is not conducive to good mental or physical health.
Countless dogs suffer from kennel stress at shelters, often to the degree that their behavior deteriorates to the point where they are considered unadoptable. Some grow increasingly dog-aggressive and obsessively engage in fence-running and fence-fighting. Some begin to display aggression to people – it’s pretty much impossible to get adopted after that. Some attempt to relieve their stress by nonstop barking, spinning, tail-chasing, pacing, or chewing on themselves. Dogs like this are almost always euthanized for humane reasons. Even the best full-service shelters sometimes run out of room, and dogs must be selected for euthanasia for “space” reasons.
Having said that, however, a good shelter is a wonderful temporary haven from the hazards of running loose on the streets: bad weather, starvation, disease, injury, theft, poison, shooting, and more. I never hesitate to take a dog to a good shelter; he has access to a warm meal and a soft, dry bed, and prospects for long-term survival are much higher than on the streets.
I did at one time, I regret to say, live in a community where the local shelter was so wretched that I judged dogs’ chances for survival were better on the streets than in that shelter; it was the only time in my life that I passed by stray dogs rather than automatically stopping to pick them up.
So how do you tell if a shelter is “good enough” to give a dog his best chances for survival? You’ll need to make personal visits to the shelters in your area, for starters.
A good shelter doesn’t have to be brand spanking new. The Marin Humane Society, originally built in the 1950s, with an Education Center added in the early 1980s, is still considered a leader in the animal protection field. Regardless of age, a shelter should be clean and well-maintained. Lack of cleanliness fosters disease, and deferred maintenance allows for dogs to be injured and possibly escape. Conversely, a poorly designed and constructed new shelter poses as many risks as a poorly run old one.
When you visit, let your nose and eyes judge the facility. Are cages, equipment, and trash cluttering the grounds, kennels, and hallways? Are you assailed with eye-watering odors as you enter the front doors? There will be some smell, of course, but it should be the occasional tolerable essence of freshly deposited urine or feces, not the pervasive odor that denotes long-term inattention to sanitation.
Walk through the various shelter kennels and catteries. Are they reasonably clean? A pile or three somewhere in the facility kennels can be expected. Piles of poop and puddles of pee in every kennel shout of unacceptable lack of attention to cleanliness. Is the chain link in good repair? Patched wire is okay, but protruding wires that can cause punctures, and holes that can trap and strangle dogs or allow their escape, are not.
Ideally, there is no more than one dog per kennel, possibly two dogs housed together, except for litters of pups, which can stay in a group. Municipal shelters don’t have the luxury of turning animals away, so they must sometimes, out of necessity, house larger groups of dogs. If dogs are housed in pairs or groups, are they segregated by sex and size? Males should not be with females, small dogs should be kept safe from large ones, and timid dogs should be housed separately from assertive, aggressive ones.
If group housing is the norm, does the shelter make maximum use of all kennels? One shelter I know of at one time housed as many as 10 to 15 dogs per crowded run, while keeping other runs totally empty – just because it was easier for staff to clean a few very dirty runs than lots of moderately dirty ones. Totally unacceptable.
After observing the condition of the physical plant, spend a little time talking to staff. Shelter staff members are usually quite busy and won’t have time to stand around and chat, but they should be friendly, courteous, and willing to answer a few reasonable questions. Customer service staff in the front office, if there is one, are probably better equipped to answer your questions, but animal care staff should be pleasant as well. Here are some good questions to ask:
• How long do dogs stay at the shelter? Best answer – there is no maximum time limit; better shelters keep dogs as long as they have room, and as long as they are physically and mentally healthy.
• How often are dogs euthanized just for “space” reasons? Best answer – rarely. In reality, many shelters must euthanize for space daily, or near-daily. This doesn’t make them bad shelters – incoming numbers may be beyond their control – but it might influence whether you leave a dog there.
• How are animals euthanized? The only acceptable answer is “by injection of a barbiturate” (sodium pentobarbital). This is the fastest, most painless method available.
Sadly, a number of quite inhumane methods of euthanasia are still in use. Decompression (high altitude) chambers and gas chambers have been outlawed in some states. Carbon monoxide chambers are considered more humane than these because the gas induces drowsiness before death. Unbelievably, gunshot is still used by some shelters, despite its violence. None of these methods are considered acceptable by most animal protection professionals due to their potential for inflicting a painful and terrifying death.
• Do you do behavioral assessments of dogs prior to making them available for adoption? Best answer – yes; but then find out what the criteria are for passing an assessment. If your foundling is sensitive about having her ears or paws touched, for example, she may not pass some assess-ments. Some shelters are rigid about the results of “temperament tests” and may euthanize animals that are quite capable of rehabilitation, if more time and attention were taken with their placement.
• Can I adopt her if she isn’t reclaimed? Best answer – you will need to go through the normal adoption process, and if approved, pay all adoption fees. Be forewarned – if you don’t think you’ll qualify for adoption and aren’t willing to risk that you might not get the dog back, keep her and leave a “found” report instead. If the shelter doesn’t have an adoption process, your foundling could go to any potential home, including unsuitable ones.
• Do you require spaying and neutering of your adoption animals? Only acceptable answer – yes, for obvious reasons.
• Will you call me if she’s going to be euthanized? Likely answer – sorry, they can’t. It’s reasonable for staff to expect that if you want to adopt the dog you’ll do so when she’s available, not as a last minute lifesaving intervention. The reality of life at many shelters means it’s very difficult for staff to call at the last minute, then hold the dog for you, especially if it will take you several days to arrange to come in and adopt.
• What percentage of incoming dogs are reclaimed by their owners or adopted? Sadly, the national average rate of shelter euthanasia is somewhere between 50 and 70 percent. Shelters in southeastern states tend to have the worst euthanasia averages – 80 percent and higher; while those on the West Coast tend to have higher adoption and reclaim rates. So, any shelter that manages to get 30 to 50 percent of its animals reclaimed or adopted is doing better than the national average.
Please note that your shelter’s adoption numbers may give you some idea of your foundling’s chances for avoiding euthanasia, but averages mean nothing for the individual dog who is selected to be euthanized for any of the above-mentioned reasons: illness, injury, stress, or space.
Keeping the dog?
When all is said and done, you’ll need to decide if you’re willing to accept any risk at all that the dog you found may be euthanized. If you are, and feel that one of the shelters you’ve evaluated can offer her humane housing and care and a good chance for a lifelong loving home, then surrendering her is a reasonable choice.
If not, consider a rescue group, or look for a responsible limited intake shelter within driving distance – and know that good limited intake shelters are often full with a long waiting list, as well as selective about the dogs they accept (see sidebar).
If you’re not willing to risk euthanasia, or no decent shelters near your community can accept the dog, then you’re faced with taking him home. If you cannot locate the owner, you’ll then have to decide whether to make an effort to rehome the dog yourself or let your heart rule your head and add another dog to your pack.
That’s what happened with that scruffy little Terrier that Paul and I found in San Jose so many years ago. Fortunately for us, no one ever responded to the “found dog” report we filed at the shelter in the community where we saved her from certain death on the road. I have never once regretted our decision to keep her. She was an exceptional dog, bright, loving, and sensitive. She brought much joy to our lives and was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. It was Josie who taught me that there was a better way to train than the use of choke chains and painful ear pinches, and started me on the path to positive training. It was a fine day for us when she ran in front of our car, and an even finer one when we decided to give her a permanent place in our home and our hearts.
-Pat Miller, CPDT, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She is also author of The Power of Positive Dog Training, and Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog. For contact information, see "Resources."