Behave Yourself In an Animal Shelter

This is (hopefully) the first in a series of articles about animal welfare and animal care. More and more people, and it seems, a lot of Crasstalkers, are opting to rescue dogs or cats. This is fantastic. However, in every shelter I’ve worked in, I have seen some of the most ridiculous behavior ever…and not by the animals. Wanna adopt? Great. Here’s how to make sure you actually save a life instead of making a shelter worker’s miserable.

1) Come in with an open mind

Maybe you’re looking for a specific age/breed/color. A lot of shelters have online request forms you can fill out and be notified when an Afghan hound puppy is available for adoption (hint: you will be waiting a while in that case). Maybe you don’t know what you want, but then see a dog that is just adorable. Either way, keep in mind that the way an animal looks or behaves in its run or cage is in no way indicative of its behavior outside of it. Staff members often know these dogs and cats very well. They’ll try to help you find a good fit.

That said, be realistic about your lifestyle. If you want a dog that will sit on the couch while you comment on open threads all day and a volunteer tells you that young Meth Lab needs 2 hours of aerobic-level exercise a day, take them at their word. Otherwise you’re going to need a lot of Xanax. For you and the dog.

2) Do not complain about the adoption fees or the adoption process

Almost every shelter is either city-run or non-profit. No matter which type it is, the animals aren’t eating filet mignon and playing with solid gold Kongs. In one shelter I worked at, the adoption fees literally did not cover the cost of caring for the animal during its stay. If there isn’t a vet clinic on site, you may be asked to pay for the spay or neuter, typically at a reduced price.

I say this in the nicest way possible: Shut your mouth. You’d pay thousands of dollars at a pet store for a mentally and physically unsound dog. You’re paying two hundred dollars for a dog that’s likely been vetted and temperament tested. Plus, you’re giving a homeless dog a new start. That’s worth it.

And the adoption process? There’s probably a form to fill out. Less complex than a 1040EZ, but more complex than grabbing a kitten and leaving. There are a lot of reasons for this. Firstly, just like at your job, records are kept. Secondly, we want to make sure you’re not starting a dog-fighting ring. There may be an interview, or a home visit, or a vet check. Again, this may be annoying if little Jazzlyn wanted a kitten for Christmas and it’s Christmas Eve, but Jazzy will have that cat until she drops out of Bennington after that debacle with her professor. She can wait two days.

If you don’t have thirty cats, keep your pets’ vaccinations up-to-date, and have good intentions, you’ll be able to adopt. The procedures probably aren’t in place because of you, but we don’t know you. So humor us and be patient.

3) Ask questions, and don’t tolerate rudeness

Lots of shelter workers and volunteers are overworked, and the phrase “I hate people” is only heard more often in the back of a restaurant. They see things…terrible, terrible things. So they can sometimes be abrupt or rude. That is not a reason, however, to allow yourself to be bullied, condescended to, or rushed through an adoption process. A medium-sized dog’s life span is, on average, 10-12 years. A cat, 14-16 years. That’s a hell of a commitment. So if you have questions about temperament, habits, health, or anything else, don’t hesitate to ask.

Tell the staff what your deal-breakers are (scratching? Biting? Barking? Jumping the fence?). They may not always know an animal’s background, but then you can take into account just how many unknowns you’re comfortable with. Any issue that concerns you is an issue you should address before you find out the dog they said was “kinda housebroken” is actually not. The staff says the dog you’re looking at is destructive? Ask NOW what that means. If it means the dog is going to claw a 3′ x 2′ hole in your bathroom wall, decide how much spackle you’re willing to purchase.

If the person you’re working with is nasty, ask to talk to someone else. And if everyone is unhelpful, go to another shelter. If they don’t take the time to help you find the right match, another shelter will.

4) But do understand the staff does know quite a bit

“I’ve had dogs all my life.” “My cat didn’t have a urinary tract infection so of course I didn’t take it to the vet; it wasn’t using the litterbox because it was angry with me.” “Rubbing the dog’s face in its poop is the only way they’ll get housebroken.” Okay…no. Along with keeping an open mind about which animal you adopt, keep an open mind regarding any advice the staff has.

Some shelters are volunteer-only; volunteers may still be a valuable resource for information regarding animal behavior and medical care. If you like a dog that isn’t housebroken, but you have no idea how to house-train, they can tell you how to do it, and reputable shelters will still help you with questions and concerns even after the adoption.

Paid employees are trained to do this for a living, and while they make less than McDonald’s employees, they do know a whole lot more. If they suggest that adopting a three-month-old puppy is not a good idea because you are working eighty-hour weeks, listen. If you come in espousing corporal punishment for your dog (or cat-I have heard that one too), and you are completely adamant that there is absolutely no other way to teach an animal, you are not going home with one. Guaranteed.

5) Be honest

This last one is more of a moral issue, but lying results in the worst kind of experience for both staffers and potential adopters. If your dog hasn’t gotten a rabies vaccination in five years, tell us. We’ll find out when we call your vet. If you’re honest, and get them up-to-date, you’ll probably be able to adopt. If you have four cats but say you have two because you think you won’t be able to adopt another one, and then we find out you lied, you’re not getting that cat. If you’d been honest and your town allows five cats, you would have been able to adopt.

If your last five pets got hit by cars, or you gave them away, say so. I’m not going to lie (see? I’m so MORAL!): you probably won’t be able to adopt, but you also need to step back a bit and think about whether making a lifelong commitment to the health and welfare of a pet is something you’re able to do right now.

If you get caught in a big lie, and it’s been made clear that you won’t be able to adopt a pet, graciously see yourself out. Fervent begging will not help. Yelling obscenities or threatening anyone will result in the police showing up. For God’s sake, please don’t just head to the shelter down the street. Lots of shelters share their “Do Not Adopt” list with each other, so we’re on to you. Instead, go get a fish, and work your way up from there. When you are ready to accept the responsibility of pet ownership, be honest and explain how things are different. We really do want these guys to get adopted- even the nicest shelter isn’t a home.

Oh, and don’t come in drunk or high. We’ll mess with you and make fun of you the whole time.

Get to adopting!


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