If Everyone Read This, The Shelters Would Be Empty
For anyone who has ever dropped off a pet at a local shelter, it's mostly a passing hell.
There's some paperwork. Probably some tears. Occasionally, people from a local animal welfare group will camp out front, hoping to change your mind.
No shelter, of course, can refuse an animal. But they can euthanize them - and often do, in a matter of days. Those days can be some of the most stressful, confusing and sad days of a dog's life.
Do people who drop their pets off at high-intake shelters really know what they are doing? If they knew just what happens to dogs after their owners walk out the door, shelters might be a lot more empty.
If you can no longer keep your pet and want to find him a good home, dumping him at a shelter may not be your best option. Every year, around 1.2 million dogs are put down at shelters across the U.S.
It's simply a matter of volume.
Zach Skow, founder of California-based rescue Marley's Mutts can't say it loudly enough: "The vast majority of dogs don't make it out alive."
They are up against the greatest odds. No dog deserves to end up with the cards stacked against him - especially one who was once cherished as a family member and stalwart companion.
Anyone considering dropping a dog off at the shelter should consider a few sobering points first.
Public shelters take in way more dogs than they adopt out
There are about 13,600 community animal shelters across the U.S. managing an intake of about 7.6 million pets ever year. And how many animals actually leave the system in that span? Around 2.7 million.
To be sure, there are a handful of heroic shelters that manage to uphold a no-kill policy. Best Friends, for example, has shelter facilities Utah and California that don't put a single animal down. North Shore Animal League America follows a similarly humane mantra.
But a shelter is only as good as its volunteers are plentiful. Some shelters simply become inundated.
Consider Miami-Dade Animal Services, pictured below, where the crowds of incoming castaways can get so thick, members of the public frequently leave their dogs tied to the fence outside. There just aren't enough people to process so many animals.
A shelter in Los Angeles County has gained notoriety for its acute shortage of volunteers.
"They don't even have enough volunteers to take the animals out of their kennels to give them a little exercise or sit in a play yard for 20 minutes," says Amy Klein, a regular visitor to shelters in the county. "So there are some that never get outside."
A shelter dog is a scared dog - which makes him even less adoptable
For a dog, the shelter is an immediate sensory overload. A dizzying diversity of scents, sounds and strangers.
"What you can expect is your dog to be put in a very loud, very sensory-overloaded environment that will, no doubt, have a dog out of its element and experiencing various levels of fear," Skow notes.
And what does fear do to a dog? Well, at the very least, it ensures a first impression with shelter staff is not a true one.
A scared dog won't behave like himself. He may not get along with other dogs. He may cower. Or resist human touch. It all rings up a less-than-stellar first impression with animal control staff - people who only want to see a dog find his way out of there, but haven't the time to wait.
"If your dog has any sort of behavioral problems where they don't react well to a shelter environment, your dog has very little chance of survival," Skow says. "They can't adopt out dogs that don't show well."
Amy Klein remembers one dog who couldn't get out of his shell. At least not fast enough.
When she met Calhoun, he was just too terrified to walk on his own.
Shelter staff had to carry him to a play area, where Klein was hoping to take his picture for an adoption site. An organization she's affiliated with, Shelter Me, tries to photograph shelter dogs in anything but the unnatural light cast by their stressed-out surroundings.
But Calhoun, the one-and-half-year-old boy, pictured here, wasn't quite ready.
She succeeded, at least, a little.
"I spent a good hour with him. I finally got him to take treats out of my hand."
Klein followed up days later, only to hear Calhoun was no longer available.
"They put him to sleep because he was too fearful."
Yes, it's true. His days are numbered.
One way or another, a dog gets out of the shelter. Within days, sometimes hours, of arrival every dog is given an exit date - the all-important day when a dog can be put down.
"They have a commitment usually to keep the dog for five days, especially if it's a stray," Zach Skow says. "They have a commitment to try and find the owner."
Along the way, that date can change. Depending on a slew of other numbers and letters. Like how many people have shown interest in a dog. Or, how a dog fares in a series of tests.
Foremost among them? The temperament test, which basically measures a dog's responses to humans and other animals.
"The ones who score an A are obviously desirable," Klein explains.
And those who fail? They're deemed a danger to the public. Rescue-only.
Only approved organizations can adopt them.
Trouble is, a dog can fail for so many reasons that are actually developed within shelter walls.
"It could be a failure because they become food aggressive and any dog can become food aggressive if they're in a shelter and they share a kennel with three other dogs," Klein notes.
No one ever asks how much is that black pit bull in the window
Some dogs are just born under a bad sign. Or breed. Or color. Or anything that may mark them as imperfect to a potential adopter.
"If your dog is old or an undesirable breed, you can expect him to be euthanized," Skow explains. "Any sort of bully breed dog has very little chance of being adopted."
According to dog advocacy group C.H.A.I.N.E.D., pit bulls are the most overbred dogs in the U.S. They also are the hardest dogs to find homes for, with only one in 600 pit bulls finding their way out of the shelter.
In some areas, like Prince George's County, Maryland, breed-specific legislation results in their automatic euthanization with no chance for adoption.
Color can be another strike against a shelter dog.
"Black dogs are 50 percent less likely to be adopted," Skow notes.
And age? It's not a dog's best friend. A dog's likelihood of leaving a shelter drops precipitously with each passing year.
If anyone has the best chance of making it out of the shelter alive, it's puppies. "Unless there's a deformity or major injury, those usually get out pretty quickly," Klein says.
And even the ones with medical needs will often be saved by a rescue group because puppies are highly desirable.
Seniors, not so much.
Know someone planning to drop off their pet at a shelter?
You might want to share this with them. Although it's easy to vilify someone who surrenders a former companion to a shelter, we know it's not so black and white. There are a host of reasons why people do it. Frequently, it's the harsh reality of an economic situation. Or an unexpected health issue. But there are alternatives. The American Humane Society offers a wealth of options on its website worth checking out - before you check in at the shelter.
And Craigslist, as we've seen over and over again, should never be an option.
What you can do
As grim as the reality of shelters is, there is hope. You'll see it in tails wagging, even at the busiest shelters. And you'll see it in the army of animal lovers and organizations who dive into shelters, looking to give even the oldest, saddest, least desired dogs a second chance.
If the steady stream of unwanted dogs into shelters makes you angry and sad, you can help the people working to slow it. Here are a few organizations doing great work:
The Frosted Faces Foundation, a California-based nonprofit, will help cover an older dog's medical costs for the rest of his life if that dog finds a foster home.
And there's Bark Avenue Foundation, an organization that offers free spaying and neutering in inner city areas like Compton and East L.A.
There's Shelter Me, where dogs from shelters throughout the U.S. are listed - and staff try to take pictures of the dogs in a more natural state.
And, of course, there's you. Have you visited a shelter lately?
Just about every animal shelter in the world is looking for a few good hands. In fact, as we've so painfully seen, the quality of a shelter dog's life is directly proportional to the number of volunteers at a shelter.
So reach out to your local shelter through its website.
You can also, of course, give an incarcerated dog the greatest gift of all: Freedom.