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Returning a Shelter Pet: Expectations and Stress

shelter pet



Adopting a shelter pet is considered to be the most ethical method of obtaining an animal. Moreover, most adopters are satisfied to be new pet parents of a shelter animal.

On the other hand, it sometimes happens that the pet is returned. This can decrease the chances of future adoption for both the animal and the owners.

In most cases, owners had too high expectations for their new pet’s behavior. In other words, they did not give him enough chance to be comfortable in his new environment.

Nevertheless, counselors make sure that the adopter understands the known behavioral and medical problems in the animal.

This article aims to inform adopters or future adopters of what to expect with a shelter cat or dog, in order to avoid post-return adoptions. You will understand how to have realistic expectations and the impact of returning an animal to the shelter.




What Are the Factors for an Adopter to Return a Shelter Pet?


Between 7 and 20% of animals return to the shelter within 3 months of adoption.

There are 3 factors according to which an adopter returns a pet to the shelter:

  • The animal’s behavior
  • The general health of the animal
  • The human-dog emotional bond


The number one reason an animal is returned to the shelter is that some adopters have too high expectations of their new pet’s behavior.

It often happens that people underestimate the work that goes into owning a dog. This influences their perception and increases the likelihood that the pet will be returned to the shelter. Thus, they realize that they do not have time to take care of him, which becomes discouraging and stressful for them.

Behavioral problems are the main reason given by adopters who return a pet. It is proven that dogs with more behavioral problems are more likely to be returned.

Here are the dogs that are most likely to be returned to the shelter:

  • Male dogs
  • Medium breeds (from 19 to 59lbs)
  • Stray or abandoned dogs
  • Dogs aged 6 months to 2 years


In some cases, the return is due to an incompatibility between the new pet and the one the owners already have.




How to Have Realistic Expectations When Adopting a Shelter pet?


Some adopters expect to be happier and less stressed by adopting an animal, while others expect to feel less alone.

To have realistic expectations before adopting, it is important to be optimistic, to be well prepared for his arrival, and not to expect him to meet our emotional needs.

Indeed, having an emotionally balanced dog can help reduce stress. Conversely, dogs with behavioral problems can increase stress.

Speaking of which, most shelter dogs are abandoned for behavioral reasons. This is why it is important to resolve all behavioral problems in order to reduce long-term stress for both the owner and the dog.

In order to be well prepared for the arrival of a new pet, ask the counselor about his behavioral problems. Then you can consult a dog trainer, or a behaviorist or take an online course to find out how to fix them.

You can also get a book on dog training, cat training, or any other animal you wish to adopt.

In addition, it is possible to take information from blogs or videos posted online. On the other hand, make sure that the techniques used are based on positive reinforcement.

For example, dog trainer Victoria Stilwell is the author of several books on dog training and uses positive reinforcement. She also has her website where you can find of a lot of information about dog behavior, dog training, and more.

Then, it is possible to contact the shelter for post-adoption advice on the behavior of your new pet. A person qualified in animal behavior will advise you on what you can do to improve your situation.




What Is the Behavior of the Animal Following the Return to the Shelter?


Short-term adoption can be beneficial for the animal depending on his temperament and genetics. For example, he might have temporary stress relief.

On the other hand, returning to the shelter increases the animal’s stress level. The change in environment can be very stressful, especially for those who find it more difficult to adopt. He may stop eating or eat very little during the first few days.

It is more difficult to adapt for animals that lack self-confidence, are more stressed, anxious, or show signs of aggression. This is why it is important to follow the 3-3-3 rule when adopting an animal.




What Is the 3-3-3 Rule?


When adopting from a shelter, it takes time for the animal to adjust since his whole life is turned upside down. He’s with new people he doesn’t quite trust yet, he has a completely changed routine and he now lives in an unfamiliar place.

The 3-3-3 rule is that it takes 3 days to decompress, 3 weeks to learn your routine, and 3 months to feel at home.

Also, if it’s a dog that had a family before, maybe he had the right to climb on the couch for example, but in your house, he can’t.

Maybe he was used to spending his time outside or maybe he was allowed to behave badly like destroying shoes. So he has to get rid of his old habits in addition to adapting to the new environment and routine.



The First 3 Days

All of these changes are very stressful for your new pet, even if he doesn’t seem stressed. This is why he may not want to eat or drink.

He does not understand what is happening and he is not yet comfortable enough to be himself.

He may want to hide or stay in a small corner where he feels safe.

The dog is an opportunist, so he will with no doubt test the limits to try to gain advantages. Thus, there should be strict rules that will remain the same throughout his life.

The first few days are very important for instilling discipline. For example, if you don’t want him to get on the sofa or your bed, you should never let him, not even once.


What You Can Do

Give him a quiet place where he won’t be disturbed, like a quiet room. If you’re using a crate, make sure it’s in a quiet place. He will have to get used to new smells, new noises, new people, etc.

To build a strong bond with your pet, let him come to you, and don’t force interactions. Have a calm and positive attitude.

When you look at him, blink slowly and sit on the floor with your shoulders relaxed. These are calming signals that cats and dogs recognize and will respond to in return.



After 3 Weeks

Your dog is starting to trust you. He is getting used to your routine and slowly realizes that you will be his forever family. You’ll start to see his personality a bit more, but he’s not quite comfortable yet.

Behavioral problems may appear. It is time to show him how to have the right behavior and to know how to use punishment correctly so as not to affect the bond.

For example, your dog might:


During training, make sure he is in a neutral or positive emotional state. If your dog is stressed when you train him, he will make the association that having the right behavior is stressful.

For example, if you show him the cue “sit” when he is stressed, he will be stressed whenever you ask him to sit down in the future.


What You Can Do

Start showing him the basic cues in a place where he feels safe, like a bedroom, near his bed, or near his food bowl. The place chosen should not have too many distractions.

Using high-value treats, such as cheese or sausage, will help your dog learn faster.



After 3 Months

Your dog finally feels like he belongs. You will be able to see his whole personality and the bond is established.

You will finally be able to have that connection you were looking for with your dog. He knows your routine and knows what he has the right and not the right to do. He expects his meals and enrichment at the usual times.




What Is the Impact of Returning a Shelter Pet on Future Adoption?


The return of the animal to the shelter can have advantages and disadvantages for future adoption.

The advantage is that the staff could have additional information concerning the behavior of the animal outside the shelter. Indeed, certain behaviors can be inhibited. So, when the animal finds himself in a new environment, he could return to his old habits or develop new behaviors.

The downside is that it increases the likelihood of the animal being euthanized if returned due to medical or behavioral issues.

Returning a shelter pet can also be stressful for owners, decreasing the chances of them adopting again from a shelter. Indeed, owners who have had a bad experience are more reluctant to adopt a second time from a shelter.






Bibliographic sources:

POWELL, Lauren, LEE, Brittany, REINHARD, Chelsea, MORRIS, Margaret, SATRIALE, Donya, SERPELL, James, WATSON, Brittany. “Returning a Shelter Dog: The Role of Owner Expectations and Dog Behavior”, PubMed, 2022.

POWELL, Lauren, LEE, Brittany, SATRIALE, Donya, REINHARD, Chelsea, MORRIS, Margaret, SERPELL, James, WATSON, Brittany. “Characterizing unsuccessful animal adoptions: age and breed predict the likelihood of return, reasons for return and post-return outcomes”, Scientific Reports, April 2021.

dresseur de chien

Élodie Roy MCP

Dog Obedience Trainer

As a certified dog trainer and cynologist, I offer an approach based on positive reinforcement to help you strengthen the bond with your canine companion. My methods are based on an approach scientifically proven to be the most effective, without the use of coercion, fear or pain. Through my experience, I have put together several important tips to improve your relationship with your dog.

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