Here at Wiley Pup, we are committed to providing well researched informational articles to help dog lovers make important decisions about their beloved canine companions.
This article will provide a look at one of the biggest life decisions many folks will make, should I adopt a shelter dog?
Dr. Rosalie Dench | Doctor Of Veterinary Medicine
Rosalie is Wileypup’s Veterinarian Adviser and helped compose this article to ensure the information is up to date and accurate. For more information on Rosalie click here
Our comprehensive look will consider three main areas of focus:
- Statistical data
- Common myths
- Ethical considerations
If you decide adopting is the right choice for you, but are worried about visiting a shelter, you will find a section devoted to some great adoption alternatives that give you the pride of adopting a homeless pet without the need to actually visit a shelter.
Finally, we have provided a resource section at the end of this article to help you locate more detailed information on this subject for those doing research on this important issue.
By the Numbers: Helpful Statistics
Our first look at the facts about shelter dogs covers statistical information relevant to dog shelters in the United States.
Keep in mind that shelters are not required to report to any central authority, and there are no clear standards for some of the categories represented by the data.
This adds up to slight inconsistencies since large scale estimates are based on partial data sets.
We have used authoritative and up to date sources with links provided so you can follow up as needed.
1. There Are About 3,500 Shelters in the U.S.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, there were 3,500 shelters in the U.S., and about 10,000 rescue groups and animal sanctuaries as of 2014.
Between 6 and 8 million dogs and cats combined entered the shelter system that year.
This number is significantly lower than it was in 1973 when totals reached closer to 13 million. About 4 million of these companion animals are adopted out of the shelter system annually.
2. 3.3 Million Dogs Enter Shelters Annually
This statistic, provided by the ASPCA, is for the United States. It includes both those canines that were later rehomed and those that were euthanized at the shelter.
Depending on the region, 25-50% of all shelter animals are dogs. Variation is largely due to differences in feral cat populations that sometimes overwhelm regional shelter capacity.
3. About 3 Million Shelter Animals are Euthanized Annually
Out of this total, about 670,000 are dogs.
Although some animals are selected for euthanasia because of age, medical conditions, or behavioral issues that make them unsuitable for adoption, about 2.4 million of those euthanized were adoption ready.
This number appears to be significantly decreasing since 2011.
Reasons for the downturn in euthanasia rates is likely due to better animal recovery because of microchip technology, fewer animals being surrendered, as well as higher overall adoption rates.
In addition, new online tools may be making it easier for people to search the dogs in their area that are available for adoption, making finding the perfect match easier.
4. 56% of Dogs in Shelters are Euthanized
Although estimates vary, and are often determined by regional factors, this is the American Humane Society estimate for the percentage of canines that unfortunately do not survive the shelter system.
This unfortunate statistic supports one of the most powerful reasons to adopt a shelter dog – you are saving a dog’s life.
5. 1.6 Million Dogs Are Adopted Annually
Adoption rates are going up, thanks to successful outreach programs that are helping to give shelters a stronger presence in their local communities.
Such programs take on different forms to best serve the unique needs of each locale.
6. Adoption Statistics
Did you ever wonder where people get their dogs from?
7. About 25% of Dogs in Shelters are Purebred
According to the Humane Society, nearly a quarter of the dog population in shelters are pure breeds rather than mixed breeds.
Some of these dogs are rescued from inhumane breeding facilities or “puppy mills.” Others are surrendered by loving families that for whatever reason can no longer keep their pets.
It is a myth that you cannot find the breed that you are searching for if a purebred is your thing.
Call your local rescue shelters to ask about the frequency they see the breed you are interested in. Many shelters also have Facebook pages which you can follow to get updates on new arrivals.
For more information on Mix Breed Dogs & Pure Breed Dogs check out our below Wileypup categories:
- Mix Breeds
- Pure Breeds
In addition, online services, such as The Shelter Pet Project, Petfinder, Adopt a Pet and All Paws give you tools to do regional and breed specific searches to help you find the right dog up for adoption at a shelter or rescue group in your region.
The Bigger Picture: Myth Versus Fact
Some kinds of questions lend themselves to numerical data, such as those in the previous section.
However, to really get a better sense for the bigger picture, we have to look at other information to fully understand why adopting a dog from the shelter is the right choice for many people.
We will start by looking at several common myths about shelter dogs that keep some well-meaning folks from adopting:
8. The staff will try to push a problem dog on you.
Shelters want you to find a dog that is a good fit for your situation and needs.
The staff at your local shelter are not interested in sending you home with a dog that wont work for your family or lifestyle just to check a box and get one more dog out the door.
In fact, the opposite is true.
Staff want to help you find the right dog for you, even if that means there are no good suiters on the day you happen to show up.
They are well aware that the return rates for dogs adopted from a shelter are already too high. Sending a dog out to multiple homes is not ideal for the dog that may already be pretty unsettled by their experience with homelessness.
Programs such as the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match that train staff to help folks identify the dog of their dreams have become popular employee training in national shelters. This program has been shown to reduce returns by 35.7% and increase adoptions by 14.7%.
You can expect to engage with folks at the shelter that are invested in the success of your adoption when you visit your local shelter.
9. The shelter is full of “bad” dogs.
“Problem” dogs can indicate ignorant or irresponsible owners.
Studies have shown that among the many reasons why people relinquish dogs to shelters, the knowledge of the owner is one important predictor.
That is, people that take the time to learn basic training techniques are less likely to find themselves in the position to rehome a dog.
Among the dogs in the shelter system that were relinquished for “behavioral problems” we don’t know how many of them were actually just living with a person that had no idea how to deal with a dog, then just blamed the dog when they didn’t magically come up with the bright idea to pee outside when screamed at for peeing in the house.
The people-problem aspect of successfully rehoming dogs has become a focus of many in-house training programs that help dogs pick up vital housetraining and basic manners before leaving the shelter.
In other cases, some local shelters have basic training classes available for free or at a very low cost to help new pet owners gain the skills to best serve their new companion.
Contact your local shelter to find out if there are community training resources available to you!
10. Dogs adopted from the pound are aggressive.
Behavioral testing is common before releasing pets for adoption.
Many shelters perform behavioral testing before releasing the dogs in their care for adoption. Such programs help the staff become aware of potential problems, particularly those that might result in an unsuccessful adoption.
These assessments typically focus on factors such as fear, reactivity and potential for resource guarding or aggression.
You can ask your local shelter if they perform such testing. If they do, then you can find out the results for any potential adoptee before you make the decision to take them home.
Keep in mind that the findings may be biased towards identifying problem behaviors in the shelter that may be triggered by the stressful conditions of the shelter itself.
For example, many dogs that show food guarding behaviors while surrounded by kennels full of stressed out dogs may show no such behavior when they feel safe in their own home.
More often than not, such tests might identify areas for work that are not necessarily deal breakers for you.
For instance, some dogs display sensitivity to new environments, but that does not necessarily translate to an aggressive or problem dog.
11. Shelter dogs are more likely to have health problems than purebred dogs.
Purebred dogs get sick too, and are more likely to suffer from difficult to treat genetic conditions.
There is a misconception out there that shelter dogs are more prone to be sick or have expensive medical problems than purebred dogs. This is just not true!
While responsible breeding can mitigate these effects to a degree, unless you are paying thousands of dollars for your purebred from a top breeder, the chances are you are buying from a profit motivated seller less concerned with the long-term health of their bloodline.
Second, you could very likely be buying a purebred puppy that was born in a puppy mill with almost no regard to the health problems endemic to the breed or providing healthy conditions for puppies to thrive. Puppy mills have been routinely proven to have much lower standards of care, resulting in preventable sickness and injury.
Third, although there is not a ton of data either way on the subject, there is some evidence to suggest that mixed breed dogs have some health advantage, particularly concerning several congenital health problems that often do not show up until 2 years of age or more.
Fourth, although regulation is often left to individual shelters, the fact is that due to pet overpopulation, shelters do have to select animals for euthanasia.
Known medical problems make dogs much less adoptable. Often out of a need to serve the most animals in their care, such special needs dogs are selected for euthanasia.
If a dog was relinquished for health problems by their owner, and the shelter decides to give that dog a chance, then they will share that information with you to make sure that you are prepared to handle the time and cost investment of a known medical problem.
Once again, shelter staff are concerned with finding the right forever home for the dogs in their care.
12. Purebred dogs are more well-behaved than mutts.
All dogs need training, support, and guidance to learn to be appropriate in human spaces.
There is a misconception out there that if you get a shelter dog, it may have some behavioral issues.
The fact is, any dog that is not receiving basic training on how to be appropriate will have behavioral issues, including purebreds. Behavioral issues in dogs are created by, and can be fixed by, people.
The only way to really be sure that you won’t end up with a dog that has severe behavioral issues is to get a puppy (note, this includes both shelter and pure-bred puppies) and train it yourself using sound positive training techniques.
Then you can rest assured that pretty much anything that you don’t like about how your dog behaves can rest on your shoulders.
If getting a dog that does not have any behavioral issues is your primary concern, then it is age and your own training knowledge, not where you get a dog, that most predicts success.
13. All shelter dogs need professional rehabilitation.
Many dogs at the shelter come with basic housetraining and doggy manners that they learned in a previous home.
In fact, one of the great benefits of adopting an adult shelter dog is that many already have the groundwork training for life with people.
Since many dogs are surrendered due to factors like sudden loss in the family, moving, financial hardship and other reasons completely unrelated to behavior, you may find that a shelter dog is much less work than starting with a puppy.
Senior dogs are also often overlooked, but many older dogs rank lowest on the scale of maintenance. They already know the ropes, they have lower exercise and food needs, and often just want to enjoy your company and affection more than just about anything else!
If your primary concern is finding a dog that is house-ready, then make that priority clear with shelter staff who will make sure you find a good fit!
14. Adoption fees are too high at shelters.
Adoption fees offer an extraordinary value.
People are sometimes shocked to find out that you will have to pay a fee at most animal shelters before taking your new dog home.
Sometimes they might think “Wait a minute! You got this dog for free so why are you charging me to take it off your hands?”
Of course, this way of thinking ignores both the costs of housing animals as well as the extras that you will actually be saving on in the long run.
Since animal shelters work with local vets and volunteer organizations to provide basic care at bulk pricing, they pay much less for the same services charged at private veterinary practices.
In addition, donations and government grants help lower overall costs.
Here are some of the things your adoption fee usually covers:
All of these services are recouped in the standard adoption fee, but at a fraction of what you will have to pay most veterinarians.
In fact, it is more likely than not that adopting a dog at a shelter is a net financial gain for most responsible dog owners in terms of the cost of care.
15. You know what you are getting with a purebred. Adopting a dog from the shelter is a lottery.
How we train and socialize our canine companions has a huge effect on overall temperament – purebred or not.
Good dogs are made, not born.
The truth is that if you buy a purebred puppy from a breeder, you will be doing a quick assessment during your visit to try to make a decision about a dog you know very little about.
While breed type can be a predictor of certain tendencies (ball drive, prey drive, pack drive), it won’t guarantee you a balanced dog. Only love, proper training, and care can give you the best odds of that.
Take your time at the shelter and ask to play with or walk the dog you are most interested in. Give them a chance to show you who they are and see if you build a connection.
If you need to, go home and think about the choice and come back again the next day.
The fact is that every animal we bring into our lives brings an element of chance, with a little advantage going to those that are knowledgeable about the emotional signals that dogs use to communicate.
When you find a good fit, invest in some basic training classes to give yourselves the best shot at a happy fur-ever home!
5 More Reasons Why to Adopt a Shelter Dog
The human-animal bond is complex and not entirely rational.
Emotion and morality play a role in the choices we make in life and impact our reasoning about family, friends and even our pets.
Thinking through why rescuing a dog from a shelter may be the right choice for you includes taking an inventory of what aspects of the human-animal bond you are most interested in exploring with your dog.
16. Shelter dogs know that you rescued them.
This is not a fact-based reason, after all, we still can’t read a canine’s mind.
However, it is a perspective many people with a beloved rescue in their home will confirm.
In my experience with adopting several dogs from animal shelters, every single one seemed to sense that they were being given a second chance to find the pack that would accept them.
Whether or not canines understand being rescued in the same way that we humans do, what we do know is that they are social animals, dependent on others to validate and make them feel secure and happy.
For domesticated pets, humans are the ones that provide the essential components of a pack: food, shelter, companionship and security.
Even though animal shelters have come a long way in the last few decades towards building more spacious facilities with more opportunities for exercise and decreased stress levels, it is none-the-less traumatic for many dogs to be torn from what they knew as home and thrown into a place where they are surrounded by the sounds and smells of other stressed out dogs.
When you take a dog out of homelessness and provide for their needs, there is a sense of gratitude that comes with that. Plus, you get to totally be the hero!
Who doesn’t love that?
17. Supporting shelters means you are helping to combat animal cruelty and neglect.
Rescue organizations like the ASPCA help pass legislation to root out, prosecute and punish people that profit from the inhumane conditions of such disgusting practices as puppy mills and illegal dog fighting.
Local shelters often work with local animal control officers in the day to day work of dealing with such offenders and the animals they leave behind.
They also maintain phone and online hotlines for folks to report animal abuse in their local communities.
Once you have really loved a dog, then the suffering of other canines is likely something that can break your heart into pieces. By rescuing a dog from a shelter, you can make a choice that contributes to the well-being of dogs everywhere.
18. Supporting shelters helps cut down on pet overpopulation.
Perhaps the biggest impact humans can make on pet overpopulate is to spay and neuter our pets.
However, such services are sometimes out of reach for lower income folks who have plenty of time and love to give to their furry friends, but lack the financial means to pay for expensive vet services.
Most shelters partner with local vets or organizations that offer low or no cost spay and neutering services to lower income folks. In some cases, basic vaccines are also available.
The price you pay to adopt a pet from the shelter is not making anyone rich, in fact, it is helping to make sure stray and surrendered animals are not contributing to more neglected domestic pets.
Animals that are old enough are always spayed or neutered before being released for adoption, usually at a fraction of the cost of private veterinary care available to the public.
19. Putting puppy mills out of business.
The most effective way to stop inhumane puppy mills is to raise awareness of the problem, and encourage people not to support such practices with their dollars.
When breeding is no longer profitable, only those dedicated to the love and well being of the breed will go out of their way to bring new puppies into the world.
The problem is, that unless you adopt from a shelter, or buy from a known friend or responsible breeder, you just don’t know where your money is going.
Please, never buy a dog online!
It is the easiest way for puppy mills to sell their pups without you knowing the truth of their abusive practices. That is, if you even get the dog you were promised since puppy scams are rampant online.
20. Save a dog’s life.
We chose to end with this parting thought because we here at WileyPup think it is the most critical:
No matter how you cut it, choosing to adopt from a shelter is saving a life.
Even if your chosen dog is not at risk of euthanasia, (either because you are supporting a no-kill shelter or because of other reasons like high adoptability), you are making room for another dog to find their forever home in that shelter.
When you purchase from a breeder, you are buying a dog that basically has almost no chance of ending up homeless.
Responsible breeders charge exorbitant fees for their dogs and for good reason. They are committed to each puppy in their care, including their long-term health and safety.
Preserving quality breeding stock for purebreds does have value, and many responsible breeders are fighting the good fight with excellent breeding and care policies.
However, the vast majority of people looking for a dog seek the unconditional love, loyalty and dedication that canines bring into our lives.
Saving a dog from a shelter gives you the best of both worlds: The knowledge that you saved a dog’s life and a caring companion that loves you just the way you are!
Adoption Alternatives to a Shelter
For some folks, visiting a shelter can be a traumatic experience that keeps them from visiting the shelter all together.
If you happen to be one of those folks that is likely to be disturbed by leaving any animal behind at the shelter, then there are other options that might work better for you.
The good news for sensitive folks is that they can visit potential dogs in a less chaotic environment that is closer to how the dog will behave in a fur-ever home situation.
Also, it is much easier to walk away if the fit isn’t good knowing that the dog is well cared for until they find their perfect match.
Many pure-bred breeds have regional rescue operations devoted to them that are in touch with shelters and facilitate finding forever homes for abandoned dogs.
The usually use a foster system full of local volunteers that have experience training basic house manners to give the dogs in their care the best chance for long term placement in their new homes.
These groups help to keep dogs out of the shelter system by both intervening before a dog is placed, or by working with local shelters to move canines out of the shelter to private foster care.
The foster parents often have special breed-specific knowledge and are more than willing to share their wisdom with new pet owners.
Another place to find rescued animals without the discomfort of going to a shelter is to find a local dog rescue operation that places abandoned dogs in private foster homes.
Similar to breed rescues, these volunteers understand the needs of a dog, and often have some training expertise.
Often such groups maintain waiting lists if you have special requirements for a dog. For instance, if you are looking for a non-shedding small breed, then you can get your request on the list and wait for an appropriate candidate to show up.
Become A Foster
Finally, becoming a foster home for a rescue organization gives you the benefit of screening potential dogs for fit for your home.
Along the way, you can better refine your own expectations for the perfect companion. You will have a chance to “try on” different breeds and ages of canines so that you will be more confident when you meet the rescued dog that is just right for you.
Online Search Tools
These days, most shelters have a presence online that showcases the dogs available for adoptions. Many local rescue organizations have pages on Facebook that keep their communities informed of the latest abandoned canines looking for their forever homes.
Additionally, some awesome websites have popped up in the last decade. These sites partner with local shelters and rescue organizations to provide comprehensive and regionally specific searches so that you can easily find the dogs looking for a home in your area.
Search by breed, age, color and other characteristics to find the dog of your dreams without multiple trips to the shelter.
Here are some great sites to check out that offer search tools for adoption ready dogs in your area:
Sources for More Information
One of the complications when it comes to understanding the research data on animal shelters is that often standards of measurement differ from study to study, state to state, or nation to nation.
This translates to sometimes confusing and conflicting information about the dogs in shelters as well as pet overpopulation more generally.
Another problem with collecting data on shelter animals is that there is little government regulation in place to force shelters to report to any central authority. This results in partial data that can be difficult to comb through for insight.
For these reasons, no single study or statistic can represent the whole picture when it comes to understanding animal shelters.
We did our best to include only reliable statistics from authoritative sources. However, even the best research in this area will sometimes yield a slightly different perspective on the issues.
If you are looking to take a more detailed look at collected data on the state and local levels, one great resource is Shelter Animals Count, an organization devoted to improving the data collection and analysis for animal shelters.
The data sheets provided are extensive and detailed, providing a more nuanced look at shelter activity over time and geographical differences.
Another great source for more research on this topic can be found at the Center for Shelter Dogs hosted by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
Their research tends to look at the shelter system itself as a mitigating factor in dog behavior. They are working to improve assessment and training programs at shelters as well as improving the overall facilities to better serve the dogs housed there.
Finally, much of the information in this article was sourced from rescue organizations themselves.
Sharon Elber (M.S. in Science & Technology) - Professional Dog Trainer
Sharon is a professional dog trainer with over 10 years experience. She is also a professional writer that received her M.S. in Science & Technology Studies from Virginia Tech.
For more info on Sharon click here