We May Be Making Dog Adoptions Too Complicated
Companion animal shelters want all of their adoptions to succeed. However, this often doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons. While it seems logical to assume that behavior is the primary culprit for failed adoptions, this does not appear to be the case, at least for dogs. Results vary, but surveys show that less than 10% of dogs come back to shelters because of how they acted in their new homes. Most of us who care for dogs can name at least one thing we wish they would or wouldn’t do, but we don’t give them up because of it. So where does this misperception come from? And how can we fix it?
In the 1970s, in response to increasing populations and rising euthanasia rates, shelters and researchers started collecting data on why people were relinquishing their dogs. These early studies cataloged a variety of guardian financial, health, and lifestyle issues. They also documented canine health problems and a long list of undesirable behaviors.
Researchers in this study reviewed prior research on reasons for the relinquishment of dogs to shelters. The results challenge commonly held views on why dogs lose their homes. The authors termed canine behavioral issues as “incompatibilities,” rather than “problems,” to account for the fact that they don’t fit their human caregivers’ desires. They compared these incompatibilities with how prevalent the behaviors were among dogs who remain in their homes. As they note, a reason for surrender becomes a risk factor only when it is more common in the relinquished population than in the population of dogs who remain in their homes.
One of the challenges in assessing these issues arises from how the collected data are categorized. Behavioral reasons for dogs’ surrender may be grouped or “lumped” together, while other reasons are defined more granularly. This may paint a misleading picture that surrendered dogs are somehow behaviorally different. Furthermore, a lack of consistent definitions of canine behavior, or how those definitions are applied, may skew the data. How relinquishers are asked about their reasons for surrender can further muddy our understanding.
Still, as shelters continue to gather this data, staff create screening tools for potential adopters. Dog behavioral profiles often define which dogs would be suitable for which adopters, even despite a lack of credible evidence that such profiles are effective, or that behavioral assessment in the shelter accurately predicts how a dog would fare in a home setting. In fact, the two risk factors that may predict a failed adoption, inappropriate elimination and unwanted chewing, can’t be reliably assessed in a shelter.
Results of this literature review failed to find that behavioral problems drive relinquishments. Indeed, the data showed that dogs who remain in their homes are not necessarily models of ideal canine conduct. Thus, when shelters restrict adoptions because of behavioral issues, they may be doing dogs a disservice. Behavioral assessments and modification or limiting who can adopt certain dogs are practices meant to prevent failed adoptions. But it’s not clear that these strategies work, and they may simply leave more dogs unadopted. Dogs left in the shelter may become more stressed while reducing the shelter’s capacity to take in more animals and consuming staff resources.
Since the authors admit that existing data on behavioral incompatibilities is weak, advocates have an opportunity to correct the record by pushing for more research in this area. We need to definitively answer the questions of how dog behavior is linked to rehoming success or failure and adjust shelter practices accordingly. Only then can we reach the ideal of a 100% dog adoption success rate.