15 Things Dog Shelters Need You to Know

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By Krista Carothers, Reader's Digest

The people at the shelter know the dogs

Which pups like kids? Which need loads of exercise? Which dog might try to eat your shoes when you go to work? 'The shelter workers who provide daily care—feeding, watering, enrichment—or assess their behavior are the ones that know the animals best,' says Laura Chavarria, executive director of the Nashville Humane Association. Don't be shy about asking them loads of questions: 'They'll be able to tell you if the animal knows simple commands, is housebroken, would do well with cats, etc. Shelter workers are a wealth of knowledge—just ask!' Chavarria says.

Don't get your heart set on a pup you see online

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Looking at shelter websites is a great first step—many now have photos, videos, and notes about the dogs they have available for adoption. But you won't really know how you feel about a pup until you meet it in person, so keep an open mind, and plan to find out all you can from the humans you see when you visit. 'If the front desk person doesn't know the dog you're interested in personally, ask the folks who care for and walk them every day—the animal care attendants and volunteers,' says Trish McMillan, a professional dog trainer who spent three years as the director of the animal behavior department at the ASPCA's New York City shelter and currently co-chairs the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants' Shelter Division.

Be honest with them about your situation

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Shelter workers aren't just trying to make sure you find a dog you love—they're also trying to avoid a bad match for the dog's sake. It's important for them to know if you regularly work very long days, have rowdy kids, or if someone in your house might be allergic, so don't gloss over anything. 'Every animal is perfect in their own right, but not every animal is perfect for every person,' Chavarria says. 'If a family comes in with an active lifestyle, our aim is to find them an equally active animal.'

Heed their advice, even if it's discouraging

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'If you have a house full of cats and the terrier you can't take your eyes off has injured cats in a previous home, it would probably be best to pick a different pet,' McMillan says. 'Or wait for a more cat-friendly terrier to come in.' The shelter workers are just trying to save you and the dog from the heartache of bonding with a pet that isn't going to fit into your lifestyle.

If you want a lot of choices, look for a high-volume city shelter

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McMillan says many city animal control facilities receive lots of dogs, so they're good places to meet a wide variety of potential adoptees. 'Go on a Friday,' she says. 'The most desirable pets are often all adopted over the weekend.' Keep in mind, though, that workers at this type of shelter might not have had as much time to get to know the furry candidates.

If you're not sure what kind of dog you want, consider fostering

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Many shelters and dog rescue operations don't have space for all the animals they're caring for, but that's not the only reason they love having people volunteer to take a pup home temporarily. Some dogs need a little extra care because they're recovering from an illness or medical procedure, and some show signs of stress while living among all the other animals at the shelter—if someone can take them home for a few days, it's easier to tell what types of environments will allow them to thrive. So by fostering, you're helping out the dog and the shelter while testing your own compatibility with that animal, and your own tolerance level for barking, housetraining, and the other stresses of being a dog-parent. 'I've lost count of how many animals I've fostered,' McMillan says. 'It's certainly more than 100 by now. And in my multi-species, multi-animal home, I've found this the best way to get great matches.' She says that when she's fostered a dog that isn't a perfect fit, she can help that dog find a new home without any guilt.

You can also volunteer at the shelter

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Laura Chavarria says that the Nashville Humane Association uses volunteers for all sorts of tasks: 'Volunteer your time by walking dogs or brushing cats!' You'll be helping out and meeting the pets at the same time. Even if you're not in a position to adopt a dog yet, volunteering at a shelter is a great way to be able to spend time with them and learn about caring for them, while also making their lives better. McMillan says she never realized how much she loves Dobermans before she spent time working with them in shelters, and now she's had four of them. Chavarria suggests that if you're looking for ways to help, you can donate towels and bedding, too, but the most important thing you can do is to advocate. 'If you have friends and family looking for a new furry family member, direct them to the nearest shelter! The biggest hurdle shelters face is having the public know that we exist and that we have so many loving animals in need of homes.'

Dogs are in shelters for lots of reasons

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In Nashville, Chavarria says about half their animals are surrendered by owners who can't find housing that allows pets. Her organization is working with city groups to improve this issue because it would obviously be preferable for beloved pets to be able to stay with their families. But in the meantime, these dogs—many of whom have been house-trained, kept healthy, and socialized their whole lives—are often great candidates for new homes. Other dogs have been brought in as strays, and some puppies are handed over after females give birth to unplanned litters. Chavarria says that the Nashville Humane Association also takes in dogs from shelters in other states with fewer resources and potential adopters. Occasionally, there are dogs that are taken from situations where cruelty or neglect are alleged, and the shelter provides medical and behavioral rehabilitation.

Most shelter dogs aren't damaged goods

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If you go to a shelter expecting to see only sad, abused dogs, you'll be surprised. McMillan says that three of her current dogs are 'second-hand'—one was a stray, one was given up by a previous owner, and one was treated cruelly by an owner who ran a dog-fighting operation (he's currently in prison). 'All three are delightful, friendly, social dogs, who live on the farm peacefully with horses, goats, and cats, and help me out in my dog training business,' she says. 'I think if you adopt a dog who's had a less than perfect life, they are the ones who appreciate it the most when you give them a wonderful life with the attention, food, love, and training they crave.'

There might be reasons to consider dogs that others have rejected

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Some people write off certain breeds or don't think they want a dog with a disability or medical condition, but when they meet a pup in the shelter they rethink all their preconceived notions. 'Our three-legged dogs tended to fly out of the shelter quickly,' McMillan says. She adds that one of the best dogs she's ever owned was a senior with cancer: 'She only lived 18 more months, but I made sure they were the best months of her life, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.' In Nashville, Chavarria says her team prides itself on being transparent about any special needs that dogs have so people are aware and prepared. 'It takes a special adopter that can provide financially and commit the time needed, but those adopters are out there,' she says.

Adoption fees aren't meant to discourage adoptions

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In Nashville, fees cover food, water, bedding, enrichment, sterilization, vaccinations, and a microchip, says Chavarria. 'We care for more than 4,000 animals a year, and the average length of stay for each one of them is two weeks.' But when shelters get very full, McMillan says many will have special events where adoption fees are lowered or waived. Some shelters or rescue groups are registered non-profits, so you're adoption fee may be tax deductible as well.

Be careful about adopting a pet as a gift

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Some shelters don't allow this at all, but Chavarria and McMillan both say it actually can work out, as long as you're totally sure your giftee actually wants a pet. 'Adopting a pet is a lifelong commitment and we want to be sure that everyone is on board for that promise,' Chavarria says. 'We have seen pets make great gifts and even be incorporated in engagement proposals!' Some shelters also offer gift cards, so you can let your loved one choose their own pet after you've paid the adoption fees.

If you do adopt a dog, stay in touch with the shelter

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Workers who've cared for, cuddled, and romped with your dog at the shelter will actually miss him when you take him home—they love getting reports and photos back from you about how happy he is. But they're also anxious to help you if you run into any problems. 'If you're having difficulty post-adoption, reach out to the agency where you adopted,' Chavarria says. 'They have a plethora of knowledge and resources.' They're invested in making sure your dog is happy, so they'll gladly offer advice on training, supplies, and health issues.

If you need to return a dog, bring it back to the same shelter

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Maybe, despite all your preparation, you find that you really aren't up to the task of caring for the dog you've adopted. (Or maybe you've discovered that you're allergic to her, or that your cat isn't able to acclimate to having a dog in the house.) If you can't make it work, don't try to find her a new home on your own. Call the shelter you adopted her from—they will want to take her back and try again. 'If the dog is not a good match for you, the time in your home will allow us to know them better, and make a good match next time,' McMillan says.

If a shelter says you can't adopt, find out why

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It used to be common practice among animal shelters and rescue organizations to reject adopters if they had unvaccinated animals at home, worked long hours, or didn't have an unfenced yard, among other reasons. McMillan says there are still organizations that have strict requirements, but most progressive shelters now follow a 'conversation-based' approach, where staffers discuss the dog's best interests before allowing him to be adopted but don't have hard-and-fast policies about who qualifies. 'Turning people down for adoptions often just sends folks to the pet store or puppy mill down the street,' she says. The Nashville Humane Association follows the conversation-based model—Chavarria says staffers check to make sure adopters don't have a history of animal abuse, but if you pass that hurdle and you're anxious to take a dog home, they'll work with you to make sure the pup you adopt will be a good fit. 'Each adoption situation is different and we'll always err on what is in the best for the animal,' she says. In other words, they probably won't let you take a puppy if you work 14-hour days, but they'll try to help you find a less energetic adult, and they'll make sure you're aware of the time commitment the dog's going to require.

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Pets Magazine: 15 Things Dog Shelters Need You to Know
15 Things Dog Shelters Need You to Know
When you're looking for your new best friend, staffers and volunteers at dog shelters can help.
Pets Magazine
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