Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Thoughts on Visiting the Animal Shelter

I was at a professional dog training conference last week, and I had the chance to view video of shelter dogs. Some of the footage made my heart melt with happiness, and some of it was deeply disturbing. It got me thinking about National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month and the fact that many people have never visited their local shelter.

If you have avoided visiting an animal shelter up to now, you are not alone. Perhaps you worry you’ll want to adopt them all, or that the scene will be too overwhelming for you.

Know that shelters come in all sizes and have a wide range of adoption policies. You are likely to see dogs in a clean setting and whose basic needs are being met. Nowadays many shelters provide the dogs with environmental and mental enrichment, get to know them as individuals, and have knowledgeable staff members to help you learn more. Some facilities look very old and some look brand new, but appearance is not an indication of how caring the staff is or how adoptable the dogs are.

If you think it might be emotionally difficult to visit (after all, the dogs are homeless and not all will be adopted, even in a no-kill shelter), consider using one or more of these ideas:

Go with a friend

Decide ahead of time how long you will stay

Make a donation of money or supplies while you’re there (most shelters have a wish list at their website)

Ask yourself what positive things or interactions you notice while you’re there

Whether you go or not, try to stay with your feelings of compassion for just a moment. Granted, it is uncomfortable and much easier to turn away. But if you let the sight or the thought of the shelter dogs linger for just a moment, you honor both your humane impulse and everyone, two or four-legged, who is inside the shelter. You may even feel moved to help. Perhaps you won’t help at a shelter per se, but maybe you will lend a hand further up the chain of events before dogs are found or surrendered. Or maybe you’ll even adopt a shelter dog one day.

What can you do in your life to model compassion? How can you share it with another adult, a child, or a non-human animal? What act of kindness can you offer? These are the very questions I am asking myself after having attended the conference. I am going to try and stay with them, even if for just a moment.


Shelter Dogs and All Their Baggage

A potential adopter recently asked me a question that I’ve been asked by countless folks over the years who are considering getting a shelter or rescue dog: “Is it risky to adopt a shelter dog since we don’t know his or her background?”

In other words, don’t those dogs have a lot of baggage?

The notion that shelter dogs come with a lot of baggage may originate, in part, from some of the very people who are working so hard to help them. Think about the shelter dogs you see depicted on TV or in a donation letter. Given the pitiful photos of fearful, trembling, sick and abused animals portrayed in fundraising efforts, it might seem like shelter dogs are a mess. I suppose the shelter might be trying to tug at your heartstrings, and maybe that brings in donation dollars (which are much-needed), but does it help present shelter dogs as a good bet for a family dog?

The average person, who wants a stable, healthy, friendly dog, could get the impression that a homeless dog has not been adequately socialized or provided essential veterinary care.

There are other reasons I can think of as to why this stereotype has evolved. But to cut to the chase, my answer to the adopter’s question was this:

Dogs have baggage, just like we all do, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the individual. This goes for puppies from a breeder, a box of puppies found on the side of the road, or a dog who has been given a break by a shelter or rescue group and is hoping to find a home. Puppies are not blank slates; they have personalities and life experiences that might have already made a big impression on them. (Dog people, especially those who have experience with buying and raising puppies, say to each other knowingly, “Puppies are a crapshoot.”)

It is possible to get a really great or a really problematic dog from any source. “Great” or “problematic” are defined by the people with whom the dog lives and on whom he depends. One person’s baggage is another person’s charming quirk.

Homeless dogs are not necessarily emotionally or physically scarred. Maybe they are just between homes.

My advice is not to adopt a dog out of pity, but rather because you and a dog who happens to be homeless are right for each other. That means doing what you can to assess a dog’s personality and behavioral tendencies, check out their physical health, and make sure they meet everyone else in the family first (as you should do before getting any dog). You probably don’t have a crystal ball, so it will be impossible to tell how it turns out. That’s part of the magic! (And true for any dog, from any source.)

Would you consider getting your next dog from a shelter?

Regardless of where you get your dog, do you know how to make a good outcome likelier?

If you volunteer with a rescue group or shelter, what kinds of things are you doing to highlight the benefits of adoption?

What do you think needs to happen to change the perception that shelter dogs have baggage?

I’ve got lots of other topics in mind for October’s National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Let me know what you’d like to talk about. I am all ears!