8 answers to questions asked by potential dog adopters

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Recently, TheDogs covered the difference between Kill Shelters and No Kill Shelters. Both have a place in the world of animal rescue. But taking in a dog from one or the other may involve different levels of commitment, time and knowledge.

If you’re thinking of getting a rescue dog, here are some things to keep in mind:

Should I go to a kill shelter first?

I usually suggest people look at the local kill shelter, aka “The Pound,” before they go elsewhere to find a cat or dog, because these are the animals who are most in danger of being put to sleep imminently. In New York, the Department of Health’s Animal Care and Control is required to take all unclaimed/stray and confiscated dogs and cats into their facility. Their three city shelters are almost always full and overwhelmed. They do not have the funding to pay enough staff members, and the volunteer program is poorly run. Dozens of animals are euthanized each day. Sometimes it’s because of  poor health or serious behavioral problems, but often it’s because they just don’t  have enough space.  Even if you can only commit to fostering a cat or dog for a few days, you’ll be doing a majorly good thing for your intake, since the longer a cat or dog stays at the shelter, the higher the chances that he or she will never leave.

Isn’t a kill shelter a terribly sad place to go into?

You don’t have to actually go to the kennels, although you can. Many kill shelters have adoption events held outside of the shelter, and they often have open hours when you can come and meet adoptable dogs in a relatively spruced up part of the building. Some post photos of animals on their websites or on Petfinder.com. New York’s Animal Care and Control puts available animals on their website.

What questions should I ask before bringing home an animal from a kill shelter?

You should always be given a behavior evaluation, but these should be taken with a grain of salt. Depending on the volume of animals coming in each day, the behavior evaluators may be rushed and not thorough.  What’s more, a behavioral evaluation is just a snapshot of that particular dog’s behavior at that particular time. Behavior changes depending on the context. It is also a skewed snapshot because most dogs are slightly (or severely) stressed or anxious in a shelter setting, and that can affect his/her behavior in any number of ways. Even though a dog may have gotten a 1 on all behavioral tests (the best score) that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have an easy pet on your hands. Likewise, a bad behavioral test score isn’t necessarily an adequate representation of the cat or dog’s behavior in a home.

What’s the difference between taking in an animal that came to the shelter as a stray and one that was relinquished by another owner?

The benefit of taking in an “owner surrendered” animal is that there might be more information available about his or her previous life and behavioiral tendencies. (In New York City, animals that are marked as “strays” often also were owner surrenders, but the owner either lied on the intake form or never filled one out). If the animal was relinquished by another family, you might be given some information that they gave when they dropped off the pet. Sometimes the information is thorough and will state things like known health issues; sometimes there are very sad explanations as to why the animal couldn’t be kept. But even thorough intake forms should be read with skepticism, since the information is never checked and is rarely specific. There are no consequences for a person who doesn’t give an honest representation of the dog or cat’s previous lifestyle, preferences, etc.  One of my clients, a cat owner, took in two dogs whose previous owner had indicated that they’d lived with cats and never had a problem with them. She was unaware of the best protocols for introducing an untested rescue dog to a home and assumed that they’d be fine with cats. A few days in, the dogs killed the cat.

What if I get an animal from the “pound” and realize I can’t keep it?

A kill shelter will always take back a pet, but they will not be able to guarantee you of its future–it could be put down. If you are invested in an animal you’ve taken from a kill shelter but you realize you can’t keep it, you can try contacting rescue groups or no-kill shelters.

Some kill shelters have resources to help people who do not want to relinquish a dog. Many have trainers who volunteer or offer low cost sessions for people who take in dogs, either for foster or adoption. In New York City, Pets For Life is a Humane Society organization that helps to pair trainers with ACC-adopters and fosters. (School For The Dogs is part of this program).

If you know from the outset that you probably won’t want to keep the animal, that’s okay. Consider becoming a foster home if and when your schedule allows for your to take in a dog for a few days or weeks here and there; fostering is a good way to test the waters of dog ownership. Fosters help take the burden off of shelter systems, which, in many municipalities, are overrun with strays.  An animal that is in a foster home is less likely to get sick than one in the shelter, and also frees up a cage that another animal can take. The more fosterers a city has, the fewer needless euthanasias take place.

How do I find a good no-kill shelter or rescue group?

Most rescuers mean well, but some are what I’d call “bleeding hearts” — rather than focusing time, effort and resources to help a select amount of adoptable animals, they save every one, which can mean resources are unevenly spent on problem while the health and behavior of easier adoptees decline because they aren’t given enough consideration. Ask the rescue how they pick their animals and if they go and meet each one before taking them in.  Rescuers should be familiar with the behavior of every intake, and should be committed to finding them the right home. That means they might have a lot of questions for you and could ask you to fill out an extensive application. While this can be off-putting, it’s generally a good sign that they’ve invested their energies wisely and are doing all they can to make sure that a successful match is made.

What questions should I ask the rescue group or no-kill shelter?

Before you commit to taking in a rescue, you should be clear on the terms of the organization from which you’re getting the animal. Some will provide financial and educational support to you. They should ideally give you a full run down on the animal’s health, and will already have a plan in place for dealing with any known problems. Ask if they have a force-free trainer that you can consult with, and find out what will happen if you can’t keep the dog. A rescuer should make it as easy as possible for you to bring back or rehome your dog if you decide that the match isn’t right.

How do I introduce a rescue dog into my home?

The safety of you and your family (and any other household pets) should always come first. You are bringing a dog with an unknown history into your house and even though most will behave perfectly you should take the following precautions to set them up for success:

  • It’s very helpful to have a way to confine the dog to a space. This means a crate or a secure baby gate or a door the dog cannot get through.
  • Allow the dog some “recovery” time alone in the new space without any stressors (ie lots of visitors, new animal introductions, visits to new places, etc.)
  • New things should be introduced in small doses. If you already have a dog, have another handler walk your dog on leash at a safe distance away (not so the dogs are head on, but maybe walking side-by-side on opposite sides of the street.) Reward each dog with something they like for loose leash walking in the presence of each other. (If you are unsure how to proceed with the introduction, contact a local force-free trainer.)
  • You can introduce new people to the by having them toss food into the crate while the dog is inside it.
  • Always supervise your animal with any others in your household until you are completely confident that you know how the new animal will act when you’re not present.
  • If you have any concern that a large rescue may in any way hurt a smaller animal already living in your home, I’d suggest rewarding the rescue for ignoring the small animal while you’re present. Consult a trainer if you are unsure of how to proceed.

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