What We Can Learn From Kill Shelters

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There were so many dogs surrendered to this already full shelter before the holidays, they had to tie many of the dogs to the fence just to make room.

There's nothing glamorous about open-intake shelters that take in unwanted dogs from the community. In many cases, most of the dogs that walk in the door don't walk back out. That's the sad reality of the state of pet overpopulation in the United States.

I recommend that everyone takes a walk through their local animal control at least once--it's important to educate yourself on the system in your community. Despite the fact that the thought of coming face to face with such an institution makes many dog lovers' stomachs turn, there are actually a few things that we can learn from these open-intake shelters.

#1: Any breed can end up there. Contrary to popular belief, dogs of all breeds are euthanized on a daily basis in our nation's shelters. Purebred dogs make up a large percentage of dogs found in shelters. Although you may not have the fancy pedigree to go along with the dog, (and who cares about that, anyways?) you can still find a dog that has the breed characteristics and temperament you're looking for.

#2: The staff is not the problem. I've seen far too many cases where shelter staff are blamed and harassed for the euthanasias in their shelter. While there are certainly cases in which shelter staff have done something wrong or there is corruption in the county's system (you'll find a perfect example below!), in most cases, shelter staff are the dogs' biggest advocates. I know many animal control officers who go above and beyond to help the dogs that they pick up in the field. They have no control over how many owners dump dogs at the shelter or how many unwanted dogs are picked up as strays--they can only do their part to try to get the dogs out alive.

#3: There is nothing inherently "wrong" with the dogs there. If you've ever read some of the reasons people surrender their dogs to a shelter, some of them will literally make you want to laugh...or cry. I've seen dogs surrendered because the dog tried to sleep in the bed with a child, because an 8-week-old puppy couldn't go an 8 hour day without toileting in the house, because the family was going on vacation and couldn't be bothered to find somewhere for the dog to stay for a week--I could go on and on. You'd be surprised how few dogs are actually surrendered for real behavioral issues.

#4: Something has to change. Don't get me wrong--there's nothing better than the feeling of saving a dog from a high-kill shelter. But despite the best efforts of adopters and rescue groups, that empty cage will soon be replaced with a new dog in need of a home. We're just putting a flimsy bandaid on a wound that won't stop bleeding.

Educating people about responsible pet ownership and the extraordinary need to spay and neuter is the only way to truly solve this problem. There are too many abandoned dogs and unwanted litters, and not enough homes.

#5: Change is possible. Even huge county shelters can turn the corner. A perfect example is Fulton County Animal Control here in Atlanta, one of the most overcrowded shelters I had ever seen. The shelter used to be managed by an extremely corrupt non-profit organization. But 2 years ago, Lifeline Animal Project took over operations and everything has changed. The euthanasia rate has gone from 60% to 17%, thanks to the dedication of staff, volunteers, and the general public. The shelter has implemented a "retention counseling" program that helps educate the public and keep more dogs in their homes and out of the shelter. This type of education is critical to keeping the shelter's intake numbers down, and helping people have better relationships with their dogs.

Do your part and please spay and neuter your pets, or keep them safely contained where they don't have any chance of causing an unwanted litter. Take it a step further and get involved in a local organization that's committed to educating the general public about responsible pet ownership. It can and will make a difference!


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Positively Expert: Alex Andes

Alex Andes is the owner and head trainer of Peach on a Leash Dog Training & Behavior Services in Atlanta, GA.


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5 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From Kill Shelters

  1. Lori

    To the author, Alex Andes...what do you see as the biggest challenge to changing the culture of some areas of the country to the notion of spay and neuter? Where I live in the Northeast, it seems to be the norm; most rescue dogs come from other parts of the country.

  2. Joyce Aubrey Grabush

    I agree with everything stated in this article, with the exception of pet overpopulation. Pet overpopulation is a myth. There are more people in this country than there are homeless animals. If everyone in this country chose to adopt vs. shop or go to a breeder, our shelters would be nearly empty. Shelters and pounds carry a stigma and so many individuals believe the animals are damaged goods and don't ever consider entering a shelter or entertain the thought of adopting. You may wish to investigate further through No Kill Nation and Nathan Winograd.

  3. Positively

    Hi Lori! Alex here. Being from Georgia, most of my experience has taken place in Southern shelters. Up North, you guys are so far ahead of us! I think the biggest issue comes down to a lack of effective laws coupled with a system that either can't or won't enforce those laws. Beyond that, there is such a huge percentage of the general public that needs education on responsible pet ownership and spaying/neutering. I think it should start with mandatory programs in schools. We are lucky that the Northeast especially is so forward-thinking--they have saved so many unwanted animals down here!

  4. SherlockCantHunt

    Alex, great article. I'm from the Atlanta area. We've made a lot of progress with our shelters over the last several years but I agree with the statement that until we get serious about cutting into the source of all these dogs we will simply spin our wheels. Breeder licensing and laws that encourage responsible pet owners to spay neuter are the only cost effective sustainable solutions.

  5. Susan Mansour-Hammond

    I grew up in Boston and also lived in Vermont for five years. Everyone I knew had their dogs spayed and neutered. In my five years in Burlington ,VT , I found one stray dog. It had a tag and I had him back to his owner in less than half an hour. I now have lived in Nashville for over four years and I have found about 15 stray dogs. Only about a third had a tag. We also have a huge population of shelter dogs because the "good old boy" mentality will not spay and especially not neuter. Dogs are property to many people and a huge amount of them live on chains in all weather extremes. With that said, our biggest shelter has made great strides in the past two years, largely in part because of pressure from the community. I am proud to work with a group that help chained dogs and tomorrow is our Hay Day event where we deliver straw, food, toys, etc. and try to educate the owners.

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