Reasons For Large Dog Relinquishment Differ By Community
In the U.S., millions of dogs enter animal shelters each year, and more than half have been relinquished by a human companion for various reasons. Within the shelter system, large dogs are at the highest risk of euthanasia, and if they do survive, they tend to take much longer to rehome. The longer they stay in the system, the more their physical health and mental wellness can be affected, thus making them harder to adopt. It’s a negative, repetitive cycle that’s detrimental to the dogs. Many studies have been carried out to see why certain kinds of dogs are relinquished to shelters more frequently than others, though most have considered breed, age, and reproductive intactness, rather than their size.
The purpose of this study was to examine the factors that lead to the relinquishment of large dogs in New York City and Washington, D.C. The researchers gathered dog and human demographic data for the relinquishments to try to determine as much as possible:
(1) the original reasons for the acquisition of the dog and any reservations owners may have had at that time; (2) what may have changed to precipitate the relinquishment and other reasons for relinquishment; (3) options that owners had explored before relinquishment and the timing of their deliberations; (4) owners’ perceptions of resources or support that might have helped them retain their pet; and (5) whether the dog and owner demographics or the responses mentioned in Objectives 1–4 varied across two communities.
The goal of the study was to develop a thorough understanding of the challenges faced by big dogs, and to try to come up with a plan that would help these (and hopefully other) communities to decrease the number of large dogs entering the shelter system.
By comprehensively surveying two large animal welfare agencies in the respective cities, the researchers found important similarities, as well as some key differences. Although the majority of dogs in both locations were over one year old and sexually intact, in DC nearly all of the dogs that were relinquished were reported to be mixed-breed. The majority (60%) of the dogs relinquished in this study were male, though there was no gender difference between male and female dogs in relation to how many had been desexed.
Interestingly, the demographics of the humans in this study were diverse and didn’t fit with what might be considered to be the stereotype of a “typical” relinquisher that “some animal welfare professionals would assume, with lower levels of education and income.” This study showed that the majority of people surveyed in each city (61-66%) had a bachelor’s degree, which fits with the respective U.S. census data for their cities. Most people in NYC lived in apartments, while 30% of the people in DC lived in detached homes, showing some of the regional differences in housing. Overall, the findings show that there is no single type of person that relinquishes their dog to a shelter, so there is no stereotypical relinquisher.
An important finding is that most of the dog owners said that it was some kind of change of circumstance in the home, often to do with people or housing, that meant their dog had to be given up. Reasons such as behavior issues, or the cost of caring for the dog, were given with much less frequency, or in combination with other non-behavioral factors. Likewise, the shelter was not generally the first line of defense for most people, with the vast majority (85% in NYC and 69% in DC) reporting that they had explored other options before turning to the animal shelters.
For companion animal advocates, this study is an important reminder that we should not typecast people who relinquish their companions. Generally speaking, people want to keep their pets, and respondents to the surveys stated that concrete factors could have helped them to keep their dogs. If we want to help companion animals stay out of the shelter system, we need to understand the best ways to tailor adoption programs to work with people’s personal constraints in a way that helps retention, rather than stigmatizing or stereotyping owners or potential adopters.