“Unadoptable” Dogs?


Dogs are under duress in shelters. Like this old man who was surrendered after his person died. Jack was described as so scared, he would not even show his face. Dogs are often killed in pounds because of “behavior” problems that deem them “unadoptable.”

Some shelters put more rigor into the process, limiting this categorization to dogs who: 1. are deemed “aggressive;” 2. have been determined to have a poor to grave prognosis for rehabilitation; and, 3. are believed to pose an immediate threat for severe bodily injury to people.  While advancements in behavior medicine and sanctuary care provide lifesaving options for dogs killed in years past, these dogs are still killed, even by many shelters that embrace the No Kill philosophy. Thankfully, the numbers are very low: only 1-2% of dogs.

But even when shelters limit it to these dogs, their killing is still ethically problematic. These dogs are killed for our “needs,” not for the dogs’ own good. As such, the process by which such determinations might be made in lieu of continued treatment or in the absence of sanctuary care (which is an evolving field that will one day be the standard for such animals instead of killing) must be rigorous.

That process must take into account that sheltered animals are stressed and have experienced a recent trauma (including separation from their families). It must also rule out a medical origin for the behavior, and explore any and all possible solutions and alternative placements. One analysis that looked at two of the most popular temperament tests used in shelters found that their predictive ability was no better than a coin toss. In addition, there are cases of people falsely claiming the dog has behavior problems in order to assuage guilt for surrendering their dog, there are disgruntled neighbors and estranged spouses who surrender another’s dog to get back at them, and “bites” which turned out to provoked or an accident.

By contrast, shelters that do not use temperament testing as a “pass/fail” proposition have proven that even some dogs with multiple bite histories can be safely rehabilitated. Moreover, in a recent study conducted at a municipal shelter run under a police department, 90% of dogs who were sent to a trained and qualified foster home for further evaluation and behavior modification were rehabilitated and saved, instead of killed for aggression as they would have been in past years. This included dogs with, among other things, barrier reactivity, fear-based aggression, resource guarding, kennel stress, prey drive, and bite history. Some of the dogs also had secondary issues including extremely high energy, possible dog aggression, dog selectivity, fear of men, undersocialization, separation anxiety, and reactivity. As our understanding of dog behavior grows, so do treatment options.

As shelters nationwide achieve greater lifesaving innovation, the philosophical tension that will emerge from the continued killing of “behavior” and “aggressive” dogs must be met by greater effort and determination to provide safe, alternative placement for such animals if they truly need it. In Jack’s case, he clearly didn’t. He just needed to get the heck out of there. Here he is  after he was saved and adopted out by a rescue group.



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