What not to say at the animal shelter

What not to say at the animal shelter

Looking for an animal companion (or two) to brighten up your life? Look no further than your local animal shelter. (You can browse a nationwide database of shelter animals at Petango.com).

Back in the bad old days, animal shelters were basically jails where animals were held for a short time until they were either adopted or euthanized. Today, the best shelters are like boarding schools for animals. They not only house orphaned animals but also work hard to socialize them and get them ready to become someone’s beloved pet.

Staff members are usually dedicated animal lovers who form strong bonds with the animals in their care. Most progressive shelters today also have a large number of volunteers who live and breathe animals. They truly want only the best for the critters in their care. There is nothing they want more than to see each animal adopted into a forever home where he or she will become a full-fledged family member.

That’s why adopting an animal can be a little bit tricky. A progressive, no-kill shelter, like the one in Southern California where I volunteer, is not a second-hand store and animals are not released to just anyone. The last thing shelter workers want is for an adoption to fail, since this means the heart-broken animal will return to the shelter with the “stain” of having failed to be a successful adoptee, even though the fault often lies with the new family.

In other words, you don’t just walk in, point to an animal and say, “I’ll take that one.”

Watch what you say

Here are a few things you should avoid saying to the shelter volunteer or staff member you’re dealing with:

“I’m looking for a big mean dog to keep an eye on the house.” Shelters aren’t selling burglar alarms. We’re trying to provide socialized, well-behaved pets who will not be a hazard to you, your family and your neighbors. Most good shelters spend many hours working to retrain aggressive animals. We also want to be sure the adopted animal will be treated well by its new owner. That doesn’t include someone who wants to train a dog to be mean.

“Fence? No, we’ll just put him on a chain in the backyard.” Sorry, we want our dogs to live inside. In fact, talking about chaining a dog outside is the way to get your dog into the shelter, not the way to get a new dog out of the shelter. In most cities, chaining a dog outside all day and night is a good way to get a visit from the Animal Control Officer, who may well take the dog away from you and bring it to us for safekeeping, retraining and adoption to a more loving family.

“I’m looking for a purebred bulldog.” Good luck with that. The vast majority of dogs on earth today are “mixes” — a combination of two or more breeds. Mutts, in other words. Many experts will tell you that mixes tend to be healthier and better behaved than purebreds. That may or may not be true but what the shelter staff wants to hear is that you are looking for a dog or cat who will be a loving companion for the rest of its life, regardless of its parentage.

“Where do you all get your animals?” Where do you think we get them? From a pet store? Animals in shelters are, for the most part, strays who have been turned loose by their owners, animals that have been taken away from their owners because they were being abused and animals that have been surrendered by their owners. If they were humans, they’d be called orphans.

“These dogs must be mean or they wouldn’t be here.” Not true. It’s more truthful to say their owners were mean. Many of the saddest cases we deal with are old or pregnant dogs and cats who are released — thrown out of a car, usually — in posh neighborhoods. They often are wearing expensive collars and have embedded identity chips that help us find the owners (who generally don’t return our calls).

“My dog ran away so I want to get another one.” Oh really? Keep in mind the first thing we do when starting the adoption process is to run the would-be adoptee through our system. A surprising percentage of the time, we find that person has previously reported their dog was “lost,” “stolen” or “ran away.” We’re not really eager to put another animal in that person’s hands.

A common variant of this: “My dog got stolen out of my backyard.” There’s an easy and humane way to prevent this: Don’t leave your dog unattended outside. Would you leave your credit card outside by itself?

“I don’t have to pay anything for an animal do I? They’re just strays anyway.”  Nearly all shelters charge a token adoption fee, usually ranging from $50 to $150, depending on type of animal, age, size, etc. Older animals usually have lower adoption fees because they are harder to place. Keep in mind a shelter may spend many thousands of dollars providing medical care, food, training and socialization. It’s not unreasonable to ask for a small fee.

“I can’t afford to pay anything. My husband just died, I’m on Social Security and my house is in foreclosure.” Like most good things in life, animal companions aren’t free. Beyond the adoption fee, there’s the little matter of food, vet check-ups and probably medicine and treatment at least occasionally. We don’t really want to release an animal to someone who can’t afford to take care of it.

“I don’t want any old dogs. Or any sick ones.” First off, we call them “senior dogs” and they are often, if not usually, the easiest to introduce to a new home. Contrary to the popular saying, you can teach an old dog new tricks — usually much more easily than you can teach a younger dog. They are less likely to chew up your furniture or attack your cat and they’re a lot more likely to be an adoring pet for the years they have left.

“I want a puppy to cheer me up.” Amazingly, these words often come out of the mouth of an elderly person who hobbles slowly into the shelter with a walker, trailing an oxygen tank behind. A puppy is not an appropriate animal for such a person. Puppies are as hard to take care of (if not more so) as human babies. A person with severe health issues would probably be better off with an older cat. If that. (I’m in my 70s myself, so hold the emails calling this paragraph ageist).

Finally, I must say that the thing that has surprised me most about being a shelter volunteer is not how attached staff and volunteers get to the animals. I expected that. Rather, it’s how attached they get to us. It’s a happy day when one of our animals gets adopted and one or two of us will usually stand at the door as the new family leaves.

What’s a little heart-wrenching is that, as it sets off with its new family, the departing dog often is looking back over its shoulder at us, reluctant to leave the shelter that has been its home these last weeks, months or years. We take comfort in knowing it will be happier living in a real home with a real family.

If we’re not confident of that, guess what? You’re not getting that animal.