Things to do Before Returning Your Dog to the Shelter

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

According to a very large study of 1,000 shelters across the United States, approximately 60% of surrendered dogs were eventually placed in new homes. The balance of dogs was euthanized, returned to their owners, or transferred to other entities. The sad thing is that approaching 10% of dogs that are successfully adopted are eventually returned to the shelter because they are somehow not meeting up to expectations. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the main reason for these returns is behavior that the new owners find unacceptable in their home. But before they return their dog because of some unacceptable behavior problem, they should think twice because there is usually something that can be done so that the dog’s return is no longer necessary.

When I adopted my dog, Rusty, from a shelter it wasn’t too long before I realized that he suffered from submissive urination and separation anxiety. If I had wanted a perfect dog I would have returned him then and there, but that isn’t what I do. I had made a commitment to him and persevered through several cleanups while I built up his confidence. It wasn’t too long before I had pretty much the perfect dog, now my best friend and an outstanding family member. Below are a few of the things that might cause owners to return their dog to the shelter prematurely and advice on how to handle those problems so that they may emulate my experience with Rusty.

1) Submission urination – Many dogs from shelters have not had the most rosy of lives before they wind up there and some of them exhibit submissive urination. As frustrating that this behavior might be, it is actually a great compliment. It takes the form of the dog expressing his deference and great respect for you (or your guests) by squatting and rolling or wiggling excitedly and urinating on the floor, especially during greetings. Unknowing owners scold their dogs – which makes the situation worse. The dog just thinks well, I clearly need to be more deferent next time and so engages in more squatting, more rolling and more urinating. Instead, it is best to completely ignore a submissive urination. People should avert their eyes on meeting the dog, walk around him in a curved path and become seated as soon as possible. Only when things have finally settled down, should they show the dog any attention. Confidence building strategies like playing tug-of-war – and letting the dog win – help as part of a confidence-building strategy. This program loosely entails ensuring that, for the dog, everything in life is free – no need to “earn” things by obeying a command. Paraphrasing from a Dire Straits song, he gets petting for nothing and his treats for free. Problems will be resolved using this approach in due course.

2) Separation anxiety – This is another condition that affects some shelter dogs after they have settled into their new homes. Once again, this troubling behavior is really a compliment because it means that the dog has bonded closely with you and misses you terribly while you’re away. Strategies for dealing with this behavior are posted on websites like Petplace.com and generally involve attention to four aspects of the dog’s life. Here’s what to do …

1) On leaving – Do not sympathize with the dog. Instead, make departures happy times in which food treats, puzzles, toys, and all sorts of goodies rain from the sky (actually from you) for your dog’s entertainment and gastronomic pleasure.

2) While you are away – The food and treats lying around will appeal to your dog’s sense of taste, while chew-toys and a comfy bed will pleasantly address his sense of touch. A room with a view or Dog TV will appeal to your dog’s sight (vision) and provide entertainment to help keep him interested and distracted. You can also appeal to a dog’s powerful sense of smell with novel scents such as vanilla, anise, and hunting lures applied to plush (but indestructible) toys.

3) On your return – If your dog exhibits an exuberant greeting, it’s okay to say, "Hi, Buddy," but that’s about all until he has totally settled down. The idea is to smooth the emotional rollercoaster of otherwise extreme mood swings from misery (when you leave) to joy (when you return).

4) While you’re home together – The only time you can train a dog is when you’re home with him. The idea is to train independence by ensuring that the dog does not always follow you around or learns that is it unnecessary to be in constant close contact with you. Some (what I call) “distancing” is required. This can be achieved by discouraging Velcro® behavior during the day and having the dog sleep in a dog bed at night.

With all these measures in place, your dog will eventually come around but it takes time and patience – as do most things that are worthwhile.

3) Fear aggression – Some dogs in shelters have been mistreated by people, often men and children. Quite understandably, they develop a fear of individuals who remind of people who have mistreated them in the past and they react accordingly. While shrinking violets may cower and run away, dogs with a more defiant character will stand their ground and bark and circle or even lunge, nip at or bite at visitors to the home or strangers they encounter on walks. This is problem that can be controlled by making sure the dog has plenty of exercise and has clear communication and leadership from you. We find head halters like the Gentle Leader™ extremely useful for demonstrating touch for what you want the dog to do. You can organize your reaction to adverse circumstances and enact the sequence you deem acceptable. For example, you can bring the dog to the door when visitors arrive, tell him to sit – with a one word command – and enforce the “sit” by gentle upward pressure on the Gentle Leader™ (not opening the door until he complies). Strangers should enter ignoring him, but come bearing gifts. That’s the bones of a program that will control a good percentage of dogs with this issue whether encountering visitors to the home or meeting strangers out on walks. With fear aggression toward other dogs, it’s the same story.

4) Owner-Directed Aggression – Some confused dogs endowed with a mite of willfulness, anxiety, and mistrust may growl, show their teeth, snap or lunge at new owners in the context of possessiveness of valued assets like food, toys or their bed, or may resist being touched in certain ways, stared at or admonished. This is a relatively easy problem to solve in little more than two months by engaging in the famous Nothing-in-Life-is-Free-Program. The essential ingredients of this program are:

5) Avoid all confrontations – There is no point in butting heads – that just makes things worse, and
Having the dog earn all food, treats, and maybe some other valued resources by obeying a one-word command in order to receive them. Lack of compliance simply means the dog does not get what is in the offing. Dogs soon learn which way is up – that you, the new owner – are in charge and the conditional supplier of good things.

6) Thunderstorm Phobia – Some people adopt a dog only to find out at the first thunderstorm that the dog panics and becomes hysterical. When at home, perhaps new owners may cope by simply complying with its need for comfort and support – but when a thunderstorm occurs when they’re out, serious destructive and escape behavior can result. Thunderstorm phobia can be addressed by using any one of a number of anti-anxiety wraps. Our preference is for the Storm Defender®, which has an anti-static lining as well as providing a swaddling effect. Also, the dog can be taught to go to a safe place in a room that is prepared to be relatively sound-proof and preferably windowless (windows can be blocked with screens, curtains, etc.). In some cases, “as needed” medication may be helpful to control severe storm phobia.

7) House soiling – Some owners adopt a dog only to find that their new friend is not properly house trained. Perhaps as a result of spending days or weeks in a shelter, he may have lost his house training ethic. Rather than returning the dog to the shelter because he has a glitch, it’s best to retrain him. It doesn’t take long. In fact, a New York best-selling book rightly was entitled How to Housebreak Your Dog in 7 days. Retraining is simply a matter of taking the dog on lead to a selected bathroom area outside for several minutes several times a day, praising him and rewarding him immediately when he performs the desired function. If the outing meets with no success, the dog should be temporarily confined in a crate or behind a kiddy gate for 10-15 minutes before trying again. Confinement is designed as a punishment; it is a preventive measure to help the dog not make “mistakes.” Thorough cleanup of previously soiled areas with an odor neutralizer, preferably Zero Odor®, is essential. House soiling is one of the easiest and quickest problems to resolve and need not be a show stopper.

Conclusion: With these solutions in mind, you can see that it’s just a matter of identifying the behavior of concern and addressing it appropriately, not giving up on the dog and returning him to the shelter. Returning faulty products to the store is something we don’t think twice about but dogs – living things – should not enter into that equation or be part of that mindset. Careful thought prior to adoption to make sure that the dog is the right dog for you is the starting point for successful adoption. Sometimes things can be a little rocky to start with as you get to know each other. I can tell you from personal experience with my dog, Rusty, and my other adopted dog – Jasper – that honoring your commitment and patiently working through problems is something that produces enormous rewards. Don’t give up, hang in there, and seek advice from a knowledge professional if you find it difficult to go it alone.


Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

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