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Why Do Dogs End Up In Shelters?

Updated on March 6, 2013

Dogs In Shelters

Dogs end up in shelters all the time. The fact that many of these animals end up being put to sleep if homes cannot be found and some shelters will automatically destroy certain breeds is definitely a tragedy.

Because of this, many people put pressure on people to adopt from a shelter rather than buying from a breeder. Both options are valid, providing you choose a reputable small scale breeder. (Buying from pet shops should always be avoided).

However, there is another side to the picture, and that is preventing dogs from ending up in shelters (or, worse, ending up back in shelters) in the first place. Preventing that requires an understanding of how dogs end up 'unwanted' and in shelters.

Black poodle watching the world go by.
Black poodle watching the world go by. | Source


True overpopulation (more dogs than available homes) is not as severe a problem as people think, except locally. In fact, it is not uncommon for unwanted dogs to be shipped considerable distances from a place where there really are too many dogs to one where there are more available homes.

That said, reducing the breeding of poor quality animals whilst encouraging the breeding of good ones would go some way to keeping dogs out of shelters. Sadly, most animal rights activists go after the good breeders or produce rhetoric saying no dog or cat should ever be bred. They support MSN laws, which often put more dogs in shelters than they keep out.

Keeping that partly on the table, how do individual dogs become part of the problem?


The hardest issue to deal with is people who surrender their pets because they are no longer able to feed them or are unable to deal with a sudden, large veterinary bill. In the second case, the animals are often immediately euthanized at the shelter.

In a bad economy, also, it is not uncommon for a family to lose their home and be forced to move into a rental. Many apartment buildings will not take pets and most will not take dogs over a certain size. Almost all will not take 'pit bull' type dogs due to the current poor reputation of that breed. In these cases owners may feel they have no choice but to surrender their dogs. Even worse, there has been an increase in the number of dogs and cats simply being abandoned. Homeless shelters seldom accept pets.

As a pet owner, do you have a plan for a sudden change for the worse in your economic circumstances? How pet friendly are the apartment buildings in your area? Do you have friends or relatives who can take an animal temporarily if needed?

For vet bills, consider whether pet medical insurance is worth it in your situation. Your area may also have a low cost pet clinic that might be able to help in an emergency.

Death of the Owner

My childhood dog ended up in the shelter after his elderly owner dropped dead overnight of a heart attack.

Even if you're not elderly and are in good health, then anything can happen. Do you have provision for what will happen to your animals if anything happens to you? Jokes about rich people leaving huge trust funds to their toy poodle aside, it might be worth making a will and including something for the animals.

Make sure you discuss what will happen with your family. While nobody wants to think about end of life arrangements, it's important to know that somebody will take the dog in if the worst happens. On a related note, sometimes pets are surrendered when their owner moves into a nursing home. Many retirement communities do now accept at least cats and small dogs, but full care nursing homes are different. Will somebody take your dog in if you can no longer look after it?


Some dogs are surrendered because they have a poor temperament. While some aggressive dogs were made that way, others have a 'temperament fault'. I once knew a very cute Jack Russell Terrier who would bite anyone who tried to touch her other than her owner, who just got growled at. She was never abused, she was trained and attempts were made to socialize her - she was just a bad dog.

In some cases an expert can train a dog out of aggression, extreme fear (which can lead to aggression) or other temperament faults. In others, a dog may not be salvageable. It is better to have a dog that is consistently aggressive towards humans, other dogs, or both put down if you cannot handle it than surrender it to spend weeks in a cage before ending up facing the same fate.

Needless to say, dogs with temperament faults should not be bred.

Poor Fit

And now to one of the most important reasons dogs are surrendered. Sometimes dogs simply end up in a home that is not right for them.

This is by far the easiest to prevent. First of all, research breeds. If getting a mutt, be aware you are taking something of a risk, as they can develop in unpredictable manners depending on how the genetics mix.

Consider, if adopting, getting an adult dog rather than a puppy. If you have children under four, I would definitely recommend an adult dog...babies and puppies seldom mix well. An adult dog is already house trained, may well already be leash trained and socialized, and you know what its temperament is. The down side is that its previous owner may have taught it bad manners or let it get away with annoying behaviors such as jumping up at everyone it meets.

Get a dog of appropriate size and activity level to your needs. If you live in a small apartment you are generally better off with a small dog. An elderly person with limited mobility is not going to do well with a rambunctious labrador retriever, but might find a greyhound perfect (greyhounds are, perhaps surprisingly, amongst the most quiet and relaxed of dogs and do not demand a lot of exercise).

If buying a dog for your child, bear in mind that it will likely be you who ends up feeding it, walking it, and cleaning up any messes. Nervous and timid dogs are generally a poor choice to have around pre-teens. Some breeds are especially good with children - some of the best are golden retrievers, labrador retrievers and Bernese Mountain dogs. Small breeds good with kids include beagles and pugs. It is often better, if space allows, to get a larger breed if you have very young kids, as they are less likely to injure it.

One of the biggest things not to do is buy a puppy as a gift for another person. Every Christmas, hundreds of puppies and kittens that were bought as surprise presents are dumped on shelters. Even if you are sure your friend or family member would adore a dog, surprising them with one on Christmas morning is a bad idea for them, the dog, and your friendship. Instead, consider putting a small box of puppy 'supplies' under the tree with a certificate or card making arrangements for when to go find the perfect puppy.

Some breeds are definitely not for the average owner. For example, border collies are beautiful, affectionate and generally physically sound dogs - who need insane amounts of exercise, extra training to get them to accept the leash without pulling, and who might well try to herd you if you don't give them a job. Malamutes are notorious for being hard to train and all of the sled dog breeds are prone to overprotective behavior and potential aggressive tendencies. If getting a high energy breed, make sure you have the time to take it for long walks. If you have cats, avoid dogs with high prey drive (Siberians are particularly notorious for eating the family cat).

Loss of Interest

Finally, some dogs are surrendered because the owner has lost interest in them. This often happens when people buy a puppy for their older children and think they can trust the kids to look after them. More often than not, they can't, and then nobody looks after the dog and eventually it ends up either surrendered or taken away after allegations of neglect.

Remember that a dog is, at the very least, a 10-12 year commitment...and can be much longer if you choose a terrier. Cats also live a bit longer than dogs. Also bear in mind that just like people, dogs get old and may develop special needs as they age. It is a sad pattern that some people will dump their 8 year old dog on a shelter and get a new puppy, over and over again.

If you are older yourself and are not sure you can make that commitment, consider adopting a senior dog. They can make great companions and are less likely to end up outliving you.


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