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“Becoming a Shelter Dog, Part I”

Sue Sternberg for APDT

Gimme Shelter
Becoming a Shelter Dog, Part I


Editor’s Note: In this three-part article, Sue Sternberg describes how a typical dog ends up in her shelter, Rondout Valley Kennels, and what shelter life is like. Part I discusses the shelter environment and staff in general terms; Part II will introduce you to her shelter dogs; and Part III will follow up on each dog’s progress.

It takes all the behavioral and training knowledge I can muster to get through each day at my shelter, Rondout Valley Kennels. My staff and I face never-ending responsibilities, decisions, and choices in all areas of the business-administrative, service, training, and direct care-but the most critical area is the care of our shelter dogs. We dedicate countless hours to getting to know each dog, providing a loving shelter environment, assessing the need for training, and trying to maximize the likelihood of his or her adoptability into a suitable home.

Every day is gratifying, yet humbling. Every day I find my beliefs about the behavior of dogs and humans reinforced, yet challenged. The more I work with shelter dogs, the more I realize that each dog’s experience is unique … and each dog and owner has a story to tell. I would like to share some of these stories with you, not because they are extraordinary but because they are important. They remind us that dogs do not control their own destinies, and that we humans, who do hold control, can either acknowledge or ignore the opportunity to do right by them.

What My Shelter Looks Like

Before I introduce you to my shelter dogs, I want you to picture their environment. Our shelter is quite small, with only ten runs/rooms. During the spring and summer, our canine head count may be as high as 20 to 25 when we’re boarding two dogs per kennel and perhaps holding some dogs in the boarding kennel (which is a separate facility on the property). In the winter, our kennels are usually much emptier, but it depends on how many adoptable dogs we bring in from outlying high-volume shelters. As I write this article, it’s March and we are relatively empty.

The indoor portion of each kennel is a unique prototype design: a tiny wooden room, a glassless window and Dutch door facing the aisle, and a high window and a guillotine dog door to the rear that leads to a traditional chain-linked concrete outdoor run. Our kennel design has been phenomenal in lowering stress levels in shelter dogs, reducing barking indoors almost completely. Because we add an old, soft, cozy, overstuffed (donated) chair to most rooms, the dogs already accustomed to a home environment experience much less of a jolt coming into our shelter, and most dogs who have never lived indoors in a home acclimate easily to their homelike kennels.

We cannot, of course, guarantee that every dog will adapt comfortably to shelter life. Even in my shelter-where we provide incredible care, a homelike physical environment, behavior modification programs, training, playgroups, and an abundance of affection- dogs occasionally deteriorate emotionally, behaviorally, and mentally.

Not-For-Profit Decisions

While most of our shelter dogs are looking for homes, we occasionally accept boarders on a short-term, temporary basis. Such is the case with two dogs and two cats who were surrendered to us because their owners were forced to leave their former residence and take up temporary residence in a trailer park that doesn’t allow pets.

I was raised to believe that surrendering family pets because of relocation shows a lack of commitment and responsibility, and that belief has stayed with me into adulthood. But the truth in this case is that the family is just as loving, caring, committed, and responsible as I am. However, they are facing hard times. With two dogs, two cats, three kids, and limited finances, the task of moving from one rental to another is difficult. The family cannot live in their car, nor can they afford to board their pets while in limbo.

We are holding their pets while the owners make a last-ditch effort to find housing. And we’ll absorb most of the costs (although the owners donated $25 toward upkeep) because we care about these animals, and we believe their best chance for a loving home is to remain with their original family.

Each abandoned and surrendered dog who comes through our doors may cost us hundreds of dollars in sterilization, vaccinations, and heartworm screening and prevention. Each effort to assess a behavior problem, provide basic training, and screen a potential adoptive family takes significant manpower, both volunteer and paid. As a shelter owner, I must regularly make decisions that reflect the value of a dog’s life in terms of doing what’s right, not what’s cost effective.

Our “Training Wheels” Program

I’ve written in a previous column about “Training Wheels,” our mobile outreach program that helps us intervene with local pet owners needing assistance in keeping, caring for, or giving up their pets (see the March/April 2000 issue). This program is an integral part of our shelter services because it helps meet needs not often provided by conventional shelters. Within the limits of staff availability and sponsor support, “Training Wheels” gives us a chance to help people with free dog training, vet care, supplies, and rehoming. We visit people in apartments and trailer parks, at malls and in rural areas, all to reach a population unable or unwilling to come to us. This is shelter work outside the shelter walls.

Being a Shelter Worker Versus a Dog Trainer

When I’m working in my shelter, I assess each dog in terms of how he may behave with his next owner. As I try to identify the needs, problems, and issues he may face in his next home, I likewise try to determine the level of commitment and follow-up behavioral care his new owners will need to provide. In this context, I am wearing my shelter worker hat, not my dog trainer hat.

If I were evaluating this situation strictly as a dog trainer, I would most likely have access to the owner. Consequently, I would probably be able to obtain information on the owner’s willingness, commitment, time availability, and likelihood of follow-through with the dog.

And yet, to some extent, I must juggle both roles. As a shelter worker, I am aware that even the best shelter environment is not as desirable as a loving home. As a trainer, I recognize the importance of improving the dog’s behavior-thereby increasing the likelihood of adoption-before the shelter’s inherent conditions and physical environment have a negative effect. It’s an ongoing challenge.


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