Long-Term Sheltering in No-Kill Shelters

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When you have a career that involves dogs, everyone you know sends you memes and articles about dogs. Unfortunately, those little gems, meant to amuse or enlighten me, often aggravate me instead.

Take, for example, this article from People Magazine: a profile of a dog who has been waiting for almost six years to be adopted from a rescue facility. You see, the rescue is a no-kill shelter, and the dog has some behavioral issues that are described as “severe.” An employee of the rescue is quoted as saying, “I think that the ideal adopter would be an adult-only home with definitely some dog experience. She (the dog) wouldn’t do well with dogs, cats, or kids in the home because of her touch sensitivity. And she can resource guard as well.”

I think the intended effect of this article was supposed to elicit sympathy for and interest in the dog, but it made me see red. Personally, I can’t understand how it makes sense to spend years trying to find a home for a dog who doesn’t want to be touched and can’t live with other dogs, cats, or kids.

Most of us want dogs for some positive trait: an ability to be a great companion, to give and receive affection, to go with us when we explore or exercise, and/or to participate in the sports or hobbies that we enjoy. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts to buy or adopt a dog with the traits we want, we end up with a dog who needs a lot of help in order to resemble the dog we had in mind . . . and I’m obviously aware that many problematic behaviors can be improved if not eliminated through caring training, management, and (sometimes) medication. But who actually goes looking for a dog who can’t be around anyone else or go anywhere safely? Very few people want a project – a dog who is going to require very careful handling and management in order to keep from biting them or someone in their home.

And while the concept of a no-kill shelter sounds like a good thing, the reality is, this often means a life sentence in prison for dogs like the one in the People article.

I have always struggled with the concept of spending a ton of money, space, and time on unfriendly, unsocial dogs when there are so many friendly, social dogs looking for homes. But maybe I’m just crabby. What do you think? Who can convince me that housing unadoptable dogs for life is a worthwhile endeavor?

33 COMMENTS

  1. This poor dog has only gotten worse in the current environment. Living in an animal shelter is a death sentence. No, I am not a dog killer, but one must do what is humane. Because very adoptable. Dogs that are in desperate need of homes are being put to sleep because too many are trying to be saved. That will never find a forever home. We need to be humane, not heroes.

  2. Nancy, thank you for your article, and for voicing what so many of us that are involved in rescue know to be true. A 100% no kill shelter is impractical and downright irresponsible. I live in Texas where spaying and neutering is not embraced as much as it should be, and the over crowding of shelters is heartbreaking. An unadoptable dog should not be forced to live it’s life in a shelter.

  3. I agree 100% I worked in the shelter for 10 years. Unfortunately I’ve had to euthanize thousands of animals. While this was never pleasant, I often felt that it is better to relieve suffering, than it was to continue it. Many of these animals suffer from severe anxiety and behavior problems, that even a professional, such as myself would have difficulty managing. I do believe that some of these dogs could live content lives, but it would require large spaces for them to exercise and be simulated in, and interacting with a trusted trained professional who could help them adjust to a world that they’re not comfortable in, unfortunately this would take a great deal of time, money and space.

  4. Agreed. Until there is a home for every dog that needs one, it’s really hard to justify the kind of actions taken by the people at the shelter in the People article. What a miserable existence for that poor dog who is probably on meds to control dog reactivity behavior. The proverbial farm for hard to handle dogs just does not exist for 99.9% of dogs in a timely manner. Once everyone is willing to accept this fact, things will be better for all dogs.

  5. Nancy, you are 100% correct on this. This is warehousing and sentencing a dog to imprisonment. No animal should have to live like that. I have seen this type of “rescue” first hand and have never felt anything but sympathy for the misguided agencies that see this as compassion.

  6. Nancy – I find your article very destructive and disheartening. Point blank — you are wrong. There are many many dogs in shelters who are considered “untouchable”, and, who completely transform when fostered in loving and patient homes. Shelters – even no-kill shelters – are highly stressful environments – and contribute to neuroses and bad behaviors. Every life is worth saving and some dogs need more patience and positive, loving obedience training. Dogs, like people, are born good. Their self defenses and fears arise when in an environment of yelling , physical abuse or being left alone outside (or in a shelter cage) for long periods of time. The vast majority from these environments just need patience and love.

    Our own dog was a 3 year old rescue, living in a house with 5 other dogs — she was so timid and shy and afraid that as a result, when I first met her I was doubtful whether we could accommodate her fears. She could not be around other dogs -she tucked her tail and ran in the other direction when meeting other dogs on our walks. Long story short, within 2-3 weeks, she began to feel safe and then gradually, completely transformed. Now, 7 years later, she is the queen bee of our household and the joy of our lives.

    Never, never judge a book by its cover — every dog will respond to love and is worth saving.

  7. The real answer is extensive breed-specific education of the public, generally, and especially for anyone who wants to purchase or adopt a dog. Most people don’t have a clue as to what is involved – emotionally or financially. They don’t understand the necessity of a lifetime commitment to an animal that is completely dependent, and exists only to love their owner, that their owner and the family is the center of the dog’s life. They don’t understand that different breeds have different requirements for exercise and outdoor space. they don’t understand the emotional devastation they impose on a dog when they leave it at a shelter or abandon it in a canyon or forest to fend for itself.

    I don’t know how this massive education can take place, but until the greater public begins to understand the needs of dogs and specific breeds, this tragedy of “untouchable” shelter dogs will likely continue.

  8. If there is anything I have learned so far in my dog journey, it is from the words of a shelter attendant in 2006: This dog will be completely different away from the shelter. He was terrified of the other dogs, he didn’t trust people, and when they got him out for me to meet in a quiet place he flattened on the concrete and refused to walk. I agonized for days about whether I would be doing him a favor or a disservice to bring him home to 5 other dogs, a cat, and 2 mostly-adult human children. Once he was in our home, he bonded with me instantly and became best friends with the extended family. We had him over 9 years before he succumbed to undiagnosed hemangiosarcoma. He has been one of my 2 heart dogs so far; I grieve for him and am grateful for him every single day. I cannot imagine not having known him and not having shared that bond because his non-agressive but fearful behavior in the shelter marked him as unsuitable.

    I don’t know the answer to the dilemma; I guess it is one evaluation at a time, and more education to people on how to be a responsible pet parent so shelters become places only for the occasional accidental escapee whose family is desperately hunting for them but hasn’t found them yet.

  9. Dog rescue should be just that “dog rescue”. The people running these shelters should be aware of the condition and problem of the dog. Then a reasonable plan for the care of the dog. In my opinion a dog that is overly aggressive, a danger to owners, injured or ill without hope for recovery are in need of humane treatment. In most cases this is euthanasia. We have a rescue group in our area that attempts to save every dog even against Veterinary advice. They have caused parvovirus and distemper outbreaks in our county by bringing in sick dogs from outside our community to shelter. They have wasted money trying to save injured dogs after Veterinarians have advice against treatment. The dogs end up suffering before dying or end up maimed and unadoptable. These resources could be used for spay clinic, dog behavioral training, etc.

    In medicine some of us have switched from the term “DNR”, do not resuscitate, to “AND”, allow natural death. Could a better term than “Kill Shelter” be used? Compassionate Shelter?

  10. I had a Chow (she passed in 2019) who was considered a behavior problem dog and aggressive since she bit 2 people while in the shelter. I took her originally as a foster and took her through HW treatment. When she first came she didn’t want to be touched and I had to leave a drag leash on her to be able to move her or take her for a walk. Within a few days that was no longer necessary and she was letting me pet her, which I did gently and only a few pets at a time. She as still very defensively aggressive to people on walks or who would come into my home (she was fine with my other dogs, and dogs out in the world, after a few days). Again, using relationship based training techniques and feeding her a raw diet so her nutritional needs were finally being met she came to see me as the only important thing. People could come in my home and she’d just watch me. Neighbors could come over and talk to us on walks and she’d just watch me. But when I was actually threatened by an aggressive person while I was out climbing she put herself between me and that person and made it clear he wasn’t to come any closer. She didn’t lunge at him or bite him because he listened to her and when the cops came to get him and I told her it was ok she moved off and let them take him away. She became an off leash dog and traveled with me in my RV with my other dogs and never had a problem again. I have another dog now, a little deaf pit mix, who was also considered unadaptable because she also bit several people in the shelter and was seen as unpredictable. She is 13 now and spent the first 11 years of her life in shelters but she has been with me for two years and is a great cuddler and is doing great overall. Finally, not a shelter case, but a client of mine had a dog for 8 years who wouldn’t let anyone touch her, wouldn’t take treats from anyone, and would never come in from the yard when called. After doing one lesson with them and getting them to make some basic changes they texted me 4 days later to say Kona was soliciting attention, taking treats, and coming in. Where there is life there is hope. These dogs just need to right approach, one that builds trust and gives them a voice and brings them out of survival mode.

  11. I volunteer at a no-kill shelter that also picks up stray dogs for the city. It is small, underfunded as all shelters, and swamped right now with strays. Euthanasia, except for extreme medical issues, is only a last choice. There are staff trainers, volunteers who are certified trainers, and professional trainers who work with the dogs. The volunteers are enthusiastic and dedicated because the CEO and staff are so amazing. They work with the dogs. There is a daily enrichment program run solely by volunteers. Yes-some dogs have emotional issues that make adoption almost impossible. For them there is a committee to evaluate the situation and a set of steps that must be taken before euthanasia is considered. Most of the dogs put in the protocol succeed and happily adjust to a home. In any other shelter they would be put down without much thought. I adopted a dog on death row in a different shelter. She was pulled by a staff member from another shelter and given that second chance. Need I say that is wonderful? Funny, adorable, loving, goofy and absolutely terrified by any type of barrier. Who can blame her? I love her antics and make sure that no barriers enter her life. She is so very lucky to be alive. Yes – every effort should be made to save ALL the dogs.

  12. Thank you for this, Nancy – you are absolutely RIGHT ON. I worked at an open door/full service shelter for 20 years before starting my dog training business, and have done my share of euthanasia. So-called no-kill (SCNK) started a few years before I left Marin Humane to start Peaceable Paws, and even then we were seeing the warning signs. SFSPCA the first SCNK in the country would adopt out dogs and when they didn’t work out, refused to take them back so we, in the first county north of SF, got them surrendered to us. When I first started speaking out against SCNK at my seminars I got a lot of puzzled looks. Now I get standing ovations. In the last decade, the percentage of clients I’ve seen with dogs who are *never* going to be even close to behaviorally normal has skyrocketed, and many shelters and rescue have deliberately not fully disclosed their knowledge of the behaviors or what it means in terms of quality of life for the dogs *and* the humans who care for them. Not only is housing unadoptable dogs for life (Or placing them in homes with unsuspecting adopters) NOT a worthwhile endeavor — it is also inhumane.

  13. I hate to dignify your ridiculous challenge with a response, but people who understand exactly how this dog feels because we feel the same way, realize the value in every life.

    I wouldn’t do well in a shelter either, and I love that they’ve given this beautiful creature her own space.

    How would you like to be euthanized for just being who you are… who you can’t help but be?

    Are you paying for this animal’s care? If not, you are in no position to judge whether it’s worth the life that money is saving or not.

    I am grateful that this wonderful organization is doing this for sweet Lightning. I will be adding Dog Tales Rescue and Sanctuary to my donation list.

    Every life matters. Shame on you for suggesting otherwise.

    Nancy Matthews
    Dana Point, CA

  14. As can be seen from the responses to this article, the mention of euthanasia can really raise hackles. I hate to think of a dog being put down because of mistakes humans make with them. This dog wasn’t born this way. But there are other problems to consider: injury from dog bites, the subsequent lawsuits, and yes, it would take a very special person to take on a dog like this. However, this dog has been in the stressful environment of the shelter for so long I wonder if his brain has been changed beyond saving. If no one has stepped up to take this dog in six years, what’s left for him? If every life matters, are those people who are against euthanasia willing to take him, or any dog like him, into their homes?

  15. I could not agree with you more on the point that long term sheltering is not the answer. Unfortunately, you can’t convince the individuals who believe love can solve all problems associated with aggression or those that think all of these dogs would do great on a farm with no one around and LAND to run on. I can tell you those of us in rural areas don’t want those dogs around either. There are two huge organizations that started the warehouse the dogs until the are unhealthy mentally and physically movement and they have made a lot of money in the process. One near me houses the dogs in the worst conditions. It floods, it freezes, they have no cool in 110 degree temps and they medicate every single one of these dogs that enjoys no attention for the months upon months they live there. Imagine solitary confinement and that is what these dogs live in until they don’t. I’ve been in the shelter world long enough to know this is not humane. It is profitable for these organizations though.

  16. What is the alternative? This dog needs extensive behavioral training the shelter is not equipped to provide. The choices are to get that training to become adoptable, be housed until adopted as is or euthanasia. Ideally the shelter could release the dog to a rescue or foster with the knowledge, experience and time to work with her on her issues until she is adoptable. After six years in the shelter she will be a senior dog by then and getting senior dogs adopted has its own issues. We cannot ask a dog is she would rather spend the rest of her life in a prison and routine she knows or be humanely euthanized. I expect all living creatures would choose life, unless they were in great pain and dying anyway. The cruelty lies in housing and feeding this dog and yet doing nothing to make her life better.

  17. After over 40 years of rescuing these ‘problem’ dogs, I believe there is no absolute answer and pretending otherwise is no kindness. Some dogs have triggers such as undiagnosed epilepsy which manifests in visible seizures later. I have had 5 such dogs, only 2 survived: one had a normal life on Keppra. The repeat-cluster seizure dogs did not. The sad truth is, some dogs are so damaged they are unable to enjoy any quality of life at all. Euthanasia is a kindness in these cases. Most dogs are resilient enough to recover and go on to successful placements as pets/working dogs.
    After being given every chance to succeed, and a balanced and careful assessment, responsible caregivers reach the best decision we can. Euthanasia is not the worst fate a dog can suffer.

  18. Nancy, I usually treasure your articles but this one is atrocious.
    In this article you are reducing dogs to a commodity that performs to what people expect from them. These are lives you are talking about not things to be disposed of just because they are inconvenient due to having been mishandled before they entered the shelter or who are just overwhelmed and too sensitive to be able to bear the shelter environment.
    I have news for you: there are people like myself who go out and look for poor souls like that to adopt them to better their lives. And, guess what, these dogs turn out to be great dogs. Thank you Nancy Matthews, Patricia Noland, Rona Diestenfeld and Sheila Wasserman for speaking up for life and not subscribing to this authoritarian backward thinking. I guess they called us bleeding heart liberals in the sixties. I thought we had come a way in our thinking. Please reconsider.

  19. Nancy, I commend your bravery in bringing up this issue. As with so many issues of our time, it can be extremely difficult to understand nuance. A dog living in a shelter for 6 years does not have a great quality of life; better than on the street, perhaps but living in a cage 365 days a year for 6 years? If there was an adopter out there who could handle all the challenges, wouldn’t that person have come along by now? How many others dogs were shut out of a chance to be adopted out of that shelter because this dog has been taking up a slot for 6 years. I know these discussions are hard. It’s very easy to say every life matters but the reality is that dogs are euthanized for space every day all over the country. There are not enough homes for them all, and those deemed the most adoptable deserve the top priority in getting a chance. I really wish they could all be saved.

  20. Brave Nancy, it must be challenging to be 100% wrong while also being 100% right, depending on who is writing. I think that people who have worked in a busy open-admission shelter (that takes in all dogs, can’t pick and choose) probably have a different perspective on this than those who have not. Yes, every life matters, but what about the lives of the millions of adoptable dogs whose lives get cut short every year because there just isn’t enough room to house them for very long? The shelters are not at fault; this problem is caused by our ignorant, selfish and immediate-gratification culture where you just “get rid of” (abandon, rehome, or send to the shelter) any pet that is inconvenient or no longer satisfies your wants. Most shelters are doing the best they can with what resources their communities are willing to give them. The shelter in this article evidently has the capacity to house a dog for years. Most shelters don’t. In busy shelters with limited space, you have to constantly make decisions about how to save the most dogs with the kennel space you have, knowing that you don’t have the resources to keep and work with them all. What use of that kennel will save the most lives: housing a very-difficult-to-adopt dog for six years and euthanizing dozens of others who would use it and get adopted, or saving those dozens of others and saying an “I’m sorry that humans failed you” goodbye to one? And then quality of life also matters; as others have said, this dog’s quality of life is terrible for a social animal who is going to spend 14 hrs of every day alone (evening and overnight) and only have brief contact with a few trusted staff each day for a few minutes at a time, amidst a chaotic and usually loud and anxiety ridden setting. I don’t believe dogs should be kept in this kind of misery. Having a life means more than physically surviving. There are fates worse than death.

  21. Another very good article. I am only writing a comment because the 2nd comment I read went to spaying and neutering. The people who have dogs and do not do this are contributing to the problem of the overpopulation and poor quality of lives that these caged animals have. I just feel compelled to bring up the other contributors to this problem. It would be the people breeding dogs for sheer profit with a total disregard for the lives of these animals. One group of people does it out of a lack of understanding. The other group does it for money. Over the years I have worked with half dozen people whose pets have had accidental litters. There have been 3 dozen people at least that let me know they are/have bred their dogs and want to see if I want to buy a puppy from them. Just because the breeder has “buyers” lined up before the pups even come out still means they are adding dogs to an already overpopulated society.

  22. Great and much needed article, thank you. Most dogs can be saved, but we must realize that some cannot. I have worked in rescue for 20 years and seen amazing turnarounds and also dogs who are miserable and warehoused. All the comments are valid, but the first rule of rescue is “you can’t save them all”. Volunteers, time, money, medical treatment and safety all have their limits. Many won’t agree with me and that is your right, but please look at this article with an open mind.

  23. The issues is finding the correct situation for the animal. The fact spending money was mentioned as a reason to consider killing the dog tells me you are no true animal person! Convenience and budget are never valid reasons to kill an animal. If someone would take the initiative to remove the dog from the shelters, this dog would probably make an excellent pet! The no kill movement has produced shelter managers who find every reason to kill as legitimate reasons. Behavior is a major one. Any scared dog is at risk! Kennel cough is a reason to kill for health! The list goes on! More time needs to be spent with spay/neuter legislation and banning puppy mills! Less time killing.

  24. I believe you are wrong to certain extent. I know of a case in our local humane society where this dog was considered unadoptable and sat in the shelter 2 1/2 years. There is a gentelman (S&B Kountry Kennel) that works with dogs and boards dogs. He picks adoptalble dogs from a shelter to work with and trys to find a home for it. He picked Diesel, worked with him, which, didn’t take much. The dog was totally misread and actually is a very sweet dog. He now has his own facebook page with updates on how he is doing. Everyone in the area fell in love and was rooting him on. Check out his Facebook page it’s Diesel’s Destiny he has 293 followers! Sharon

  25. I would ask how the dog feels about living in the high stress environment of the shelter with a complete lack of agency and minimal (if any) enrichment. There may be dogs that would choose this existence over euthanasia but not many that I have run into. Surprisingly, deaf dog do better in the shelter, probably because they can sleep. The shelter environments that I have experienced erode confidence, create reactive behaviors and chip away at resilience. And, I’m talking about the good ones with behavioral teams offering playgroups and individualized training plans, volunteers doing regular enrichment and vets who know when to use medication to reduce stress. Each dog has his/her own limit to how long they will hang on waiting for an adopter or foster, but, it’s not unusual for the transition to present difficulties requiring management and professional training to make it work. Sanctuaries can be a solution for a few animals but are cost/space prohibitive for most. The only way I can find to make any real impact on this growing problem is a move toward regulating back yard breeders. These are the dogs that end up in the shelters in large numbers usually at the age of adolescence when behavior stops being cute and starts becoming dangerous. Thanks for this article.

  26. Thank You, Nancy! I feel there is no such thing as a “no kill” facility. No kill just means someone else is doing it for you. Some humanely, some not. A fabulous shelter in Oklahoma has a program that actually does something. BAT (Breed, advertise and transfer) keeps backyard breeders from selling poorly bred, overpriced and innocent dogs to the public. Again, thank you for voicing what so many of us feel!

  27. I strongly disagree with your opinion that dogs with behavior issues don’t deserve to live a loved life. Keeping a dog incarcerated for 6 years is inhuman, lazy and shameful. Too many shelters ( in my book those are pounds and not shelters), warehouse homeless pets. I have volunteered in several shelters in different states and too often staff sit all day in the offices at their computers while desperate animals are going crazy in their cells. Shelters have to interact with the communities they are located in, have positive relations with reputable rescues, find the resources to have behavior issue dogs evaluated by a certified animal behaviorists and receive appropriate training from a positive reinforcement trainer. Many shelters once the dog or cat are in their cells do nothing to help and promote the animals. And ALL shelters that do not have regular “Dogs playing (literally) for life”, daily play groups are POUNDS!

  28. This article hurt my heart. I worked in a high kill shelter and my husband was one of the behaviorists who assessed wether dogs could be put up for adoption. He realized after hundreds of assessments that some dogs who do are assessed poorly, do really well in a home environment. Other dogs that have great assessments turn out to act aggressively after adoption. Dogs are individuals and can’t accurately be assessed by the 10 minute shelter assessments. It’s like judging someone’s intelligence by the SATs. (He now suffers from PTSD as a result of the hundreds of dogs that were euthanized based on his assessments.)