M. F. Jones  

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

A Heart for Shelter Dogs


Posted by M. F. Jones on July 8, 2021 at 1:05 PM

When I tell people I volunteer at an animal shelter, I sometimes see their faces fall, and they'll say something like, "I could never do that. It would break my heart." I believe this reaction is based on certain misconceptions and would like to try to correct them here. 


Misconception #1: Shelters are sad places. A well-run shelter is actually quite a hopeful and cheerful place. First of all, in the words of the volunteer coordinator who trained my class of new recruits: “Don’t feel sorry for these animals. For many of them, this is the best they ever had it.” In a good shelter, the dogs are safe and comfortable in their climate-controlled kennels; they have adequate food and water, medical care when they need it, and lots of loving attention. Too, a staff of committed and well-connected animal advocates is working to find permanent homes for them.

Perhaps the biggest and best change for many is that there are no cruel chains around their necks tethering them in yards with no shelter, water, or human contact.

Misconception #2: Strolling through a shelter is like walking along Death Row. Let’s name the elephant in the room, the thing that makes people most wary of shelters: euthanasia. Northside Animal Shelter, where I volunteer, has contracted with the city to take in all homeless domestic animals and is not a no-kill shelter. If animals are incurably sick or dangerously aggressive they are euthanized in a humane manner. But our shelter does not euthanize adoptable animals, or to alleviate overcrowding. Neither is there a deadline, as there is in some shelters which may set a limit of 7-10 days for adoptions, after which the animal is “let go.” Some of our animals stay with us for months before they are adopted or chosen by one of our partner rescue groups.

Caring people can reduce euthanasia by spaying and neutering their own pets, and by adopting from shelters, which saves not only the life of the one adopted but also that of the next animal for whom space has now been made in the facility.

Misconception #3: Shelter dogs are defective, rejects. All our adoptable dogs are temperamentally tested on intake, and subsequently every six weeks. If problems arise, the staff will try to place that animal in a foster home to address health issues, or work with him to correct behaviors that might put off potential adopters. I have seen nearly miraculous transformations once animals feel safe and experience kindness from humans.

As for why animals wind up in shelters, there are many reasons having nothing to do with their natures or behavior, and everything to do with the fact that human lives are unstable. Some people lose their jobs and can’t afford to keep their pets any longer. Some have to move and can’t find a rental that will allow them to bring a dog over 25 pounds, or of a certain breed. Some owners can’t manage the cost of medical treatment for heartworm or common, curable skin diseases like demodex. Divorce, death, illness, legal problems cause good pets to be surrendered to shelters.

So does a lack of understanding that having a dog is a big responsibility; my husband and I have often observed that it’s like having ¾ of a kid, one main difference being that you can leave a dog alone for a few hours without courting disaster or getting a visit from a social services agency. Some owners, unprepared for the fact that ready-made ideal behavior doesn't come standard in pets, refuse to expend any effort on training and turn their dog over to the shelter.

Misconception #4: Shelter dogs are all mutts and pits. Looking back over my past year in the shelter, here are the purebreds I've seen: Great Pyrenees, St. Bernards, Rottweilers, Labs, Chihuahuas, Bichon frises, cocker and Springer spaniels, dachshunds, German Shepherds and huskies, hounds of all kinds: coon, blue tick, blood, basset. To name just a few.

And there are, indeed, many just plain AGDs – American Good Dogs.

And yes, lots of pit bull-type dogs pass through our wards – many of whom I have loved for their sweetness, loyalty, and sense of fun, and I rejoice whenever I see them return for a visit or hear about them from the families who adore them. (For an update on the latest position of major animal welfare organizations on pit bulls, please see my post "The Pit Question.")

You’ll find dogs of every age from puppy to senior. It’s the older ones that really get to me. They have lived in homes and often have perfect manners, and they are obviously bewildered to find themselves in such a strange environment through no fault of their own. Some people swear that older shelter pets are so grateful to be given a home again that they make exemplary and devoted companions.

Misconception #5: Shelter dogs are less healthy than purebreds. Geneticists talk about hybrid vigor, defined by the American Heritage® Science Dictionary as “the increased vigor or general health, resistance to disease, and other superior qualities that are often manifested in hybrid organisms, especially plants and animals.” Purebred dogs can sometimes lack these characteristics. Shelter mutts can possess them in spades.

* * *

I have loved with my whole heart each of our three, purebred, show-quality golden retrievers. But I must say that, in terms of obedience, devotion, smartness, sociability towards humans and other dogs, attractiveness, good health, and unrestrained affection, our stray boxer/Staffy/St. Bernard mix, adopted from Northside (more about her in my post "How I Got Chosen") is their equal and, in some ways, superior to each of them.

This is never to say I love her more, or them less. It’s just a testimonial to how lucky you can get when you let a shelter dog choose you.



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