I’ve been working in animal shelters as a volunteer, professional, advocate, and rescuer for the better part of 20 years, yet dogs still find ways to surprise me -– especially when it comes to their behavior in the shelter compared to when they get out.
My organization, Southpaws Express, rescues dogs from high-volume shelters in the Southeast and places them into foster care and ultimately into their adoptive homes (usually in the Northeast). Along the way, dogs have provided many such behavioral surprises, but most surprising have been the times when shelter dogs, once placed in homes, display behavior at complete odds with what the shelter staff experienced.
Shelter dogs aren’t always how they’re described.
One example was a phenomenally beautiful, petite long-haired Dachshund named Piper, who turned up at a municipal shelter in south Louisiana where we have a longstanding partnership.
On our first call, we were told that the dog was dysfunctionally phobic. The shelter staff reported that she did nothing but cower in the back of her cage and showed no interest in interacting with anyone.
“Oh, poor little terrified thing,” I commented to my rescue partner, Lucy.
We figured that Piper would need some rehabilitation and it might be quite a while before she came out of her shell enough to be considered adoptable. Our heartstrings were pulled, however, so we were willing to work with her.
At the time, we had a relationship whereby the local no-kill shelter in Louisiana could pull a dog for us and hold her until we could arrange a northward transport. Piper was soon transferred to the boarding area of the shelter, from where staff sent similar reports of a dog who shrank in her cage, wanting no contact.
So imagine our surprise when Piper settled like a champ into her foster home (with me, incidentally). She may have been a little shaky when she arrived, but in less than a day, her true colors shone through. She was a little diva!
A total clown, she adored attention and loved to leap on furniture and into someone’s arms. She was affectionate and silly. She played like crazy with my dogs, all of whom towered over her. She was not even remotely shy or anxious. It had all been a product of the shelter environment itself –- and the moment she was out of there, she regained her happy confidence, the Dachshund-typical sense that the world revolves around her.
This, happily, meant that Piper was soon able to be adopted — and she scored the perfect home for a diva dog. Her mummy is a groomer hobbyist who dotes upon her and even knits her fashionable sweaters! Alice Luna, as she is now named, is her mummy’s pride and joy, and she pretty much thinks that’s how it should be.
Another dog we found at that same Louisiana shelter was a female German Shepherd we named Dagmar. Our contact had only glowing praise for her. She was said to be gentle and mannerly, and knew some commands. Yet, she had been turned in to the shelter as a “stray” -– the person dropping her off claimed to have found her on the street. We committed ourselves to rescuing her.
When Dagmar arrived from the transport, she was everything the shelter had promised and more. Not only was she exquisitely well-behaved, she was much more lovely than her shelter pictures had captured. She met my toddler daughter with a kind touch of her nose. She traveled quietly in the car. Wow, what an angel of a dog, we thought.
It was my rescue partner Lucy’s turn to foster, so the surprises were in store for her this time. Dagmar offered no objection to being crated when Lucy left her alone the first time. But while Lucy was away, Dagmar managed to break out of the crate -– and then proceeded to ransack the house.
Not only did Dagmar drag anything that smelled of her into various piles strewn throughout the home, but they were mouthed and gnawed upon. She jumped up on the kitchen table and cleared its entire surface, breaking many things. It looked as if burglars had stormed through Lucy’s home!
Lucy tried several other types of crates, but all were conquered by Dagmar, followed each time by another rampage of incredible destruction. Fortunately, Lucy’s other dogs -– who are free in the house during the day -– got along fine with Dagmar, so there was never any concern about safety or problems between them. In some sense, we were rather amazed by Dagmar’s apparent enthusiasm for tearing up rooms, particularly since she had such a calm demeanor in human company.
Separation anxiety, which Dagmar may have been displaying, is not easy to identify in a shelter setting. The dogs are rarely bonded to anyone in particular; shelter staff come and go, so the dogs often see different people in the course of days and weeks. There also isn’t much of anything to destroy in typical shelter surroundings of concrete and steel.
Even if a dog tears up toys or beds in her kennel, we’d assume it was because they’re stressed or bored. Besides, many dogs do rip up their toys and bedding in a normal home environment -– they just don’t usually wreak havoc on Dagmar’s level.
In Dagmar’s case, our focus was not so much on changing her behavior but matching her with an appropriate home and preparing the adopters for her challenges. Indeed, she was adopted by a retired couple who were home most of the time and able to take her along on many of their typical outings. They also were dog-loving and dog-savvy with plenty of experience. They had learned a lot from a relative who had had a dog with severe separation anxiety, so they felt confident in their ability to manage the issue.
So yes, shelter dogs can come with some surprises. But if you’re considering adopting a shelter dog, don’t let this scare you off! Do your homework, talk to shelter staff, and be prepared.