Visiting Dogs at the Shelter
When you get your heart set on a dog you see in an online profile, it can sometimes be a disconcerting experience to meet the dog in person through the door of a shelter kennel.
Sometimes, a dog is able to be completely charming even in a kennel he’s been locked inside for days or weeks (or even months), but this isn’t a realistic expectation. What you are more likely to encounter when you approach a shelter kennel is a dog who is experiencing some level of kennel stress, which is a fancy way of saying that the dog is absolutely miserable.
Why is the dog kennel-stressed? There are a number of reasons:
1. Dogs are wired through evolution to want to be with people all the time. They depend on us for food, companionship and safety. In shelter kennels, their contact with humans is extremely limited. This causes them great mental distress.
2. Dogs like to survey their surroundings, but in a kennel, they often can’t see anything that’s happening around them. They have only a narrow view through their kennel door, in front of which people and other dogs appear and disappear at random. This is incredibly confusing and stressful for a dog.
3. Shelters are noisy, smelly places, with lots of cold, hard surfaces. Dogs have a strong sense of hearing, and an even stronger sense of smell. It’s total sensory overload for them, especially when you factor in the other barking dogs.
4. Dogs find it distressing to eat and sleep near where they relieve themselves, just as we would, but in a kennel 23 hours a day, they are unable to avoid eliminating, and then they have to eat and sleep near it.
5. Barriers, such as the walls of a kennel, naturally create stress, as does confinement. Confined dogs often fixate on barriers, and when you mix in the presence of unknown dogs, who are often barking and in distress themselves, you have a recipe for misery.
6. Dogs are wired to move their bodies, and exercise provides both physical and mental stimulation, but in a shelter kennel, their movement is restricted. They aren’t getting adequate daily exercise or mental stimulation, and excess energy coupled with boredom creates stress.
7. The dogs at the shelter were previously someone’s pet, and in most cases their daily existence involved a comfortable indoor environment, daily affection and fun. In other words, they usually were loved indoor companions. When a dog goes from that level of care to the foreign environment of a shelter, the contrast is highly distressing for the average canine, just as it would be for the average human.
8. Most dogs spend over half their day sleeping, but in shelters, this is usually impossible due to the noise and people coming and going throughout the day. Shelter dogs are sleep-deprived dogs, and as we all know, sleep deprivation creates major stress.
What does kennel stress look like?
Now that you know what kennel stress is and why it exists in the dogs, you’ll better understand why you may see dogs who are:
- jumping on their kennel doors
- retreating to the back of their kennel space
- seeming “shut down” or uninterested in interacting
- overly energetic
- fixating on their kennel doors
The good news is, when we remove a dog from his kennel, most behaviors vanish immediately. Barking and jumping on doors are ways of begging and pleading to be let out. It may seem offensive to us, but to a dog, it seems like a very reasonable way to communicate his frustration. Does it mean if you take that dog home, he will do that in your home? No, it doesn’t. In-kennel behavior is not the same as in-home behavior.
Outside the kennel, you might still see a dog who pulls on his leash, jumps up to greet people, or is generally overexcited or overly avoidant. These behaviors tend to work themselves out with a little exercise, but they don’t mean the dog is going to behave that way on his daily walks or in other in-home interactions. It’s impossible to predict how any dog will behave in any given home, but what we see with most dogs is that their manners improve greatly after 15 minutes or so outside their kennel. In the case of avoidant behavior, you may be looking at a dog who needs to see that you aren’t just another person who’s going to abandon them.
We ask that when you are considering a dog for adoption, never reject him or her based solely on how they behave in their kennels. Always spend some time with him or her in a shelter play yard (at least 15 minutes, but longer is encouraged), where you can toss the ball around, cuddle and interact in a more relaxed manner. Away from stressful kennels, many dogs are able to show their true personalities.
What to bring with you to the shelter for your visit:
- your adoption application
- an open mind
- a willing heart
- a bit of patience
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