Downeast Dog News

An Open Letter to Shelters & Rescue Organizations,

Humane Treatment –Transparency About Behavior – No Hassle Returns
By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | May 01, 2019
Photo by: Debra Bell


I unequivocally believe in the mission of animal rescue; it has provided me with seven dogs and six cats that became great companions.

Having served on the board of a humane society for 15 years, I know that caring for and rehoming pets and funding those efforts is a challenging job.

I have worked with thousands of clients, and over half have had rescue pets. In most cases, they became treasured family members. However, I also know that despite an adopter’s best intentions and efforts, a pet may not be an appropriate fit for the home and may even present a danger to people, others pets, or himself. It is in the best interest of the animal, the adopter, and the rescuing organization that this happens as seldom as possible. Here are three steps that I believe are fundamental to making this happen.

Humane Treatment of the Pets Being Rescued

A shelter may place a pet with behavioral challenges because: 1) they never witnessed any problem behavior while the pet was in their care, 2) they lacked knowledge about behavior and were not experienced identifying behavior issues, or 3) they created aggression and fear with the use of aversive tools to “cure” these pets. Certified Animal Behavior Consultant (CABC) Steve Dale recently addressed this last issue in a blog post entitled At What Cost Is Saving Dogs Acceptable ( FMI – ). Dale asserts that some shelters have the attitude that their priority is to save every dog, no matter what, even if it involves using severe punishment such as shock collars. Dale believes that is unacceptable, and I concur, as does the Pet Professional Guild ( FMI– ) and the American Animal Hospital Association ( FMI– ).


Transparency About Behavioral Issues

In her blog post The Changing Role & Responsibility of Rescues & Shelters ( FMI– ), Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Debbie Jacobs addresses the fact that many dogs end up in shelters with severe behavioral issues. She notes that in most cases shelters do not have the resources to successfully rehabilitate these dogs “efficiently and humanelynor do most adopters. When most people adopt a pet, they are not looking for a project in behavior modification; they merely want a companion.

This week, I had two different clients who adopted dogs from two different rescues. In the first case, the shelter minimized the potential difficulty of the adopter dealing with the dog's separation anxiety. They got the dog home and quickly discovered she could not be left home alone without having an extreme panic attack, barking, defecating, and urinating throughout the house. This dog was suffering, and these people wanted to help, but they had to leave the dog alone part of the day because they had to work. Separation anxiety seldom resolves easily and rarely without professional help. That help and medication can be quite costly. The shelter should have recognized this home was not the right fit for this dog. Instead, their error further traumatized the dog and caused some severe emotional distress for the dog’s adopters who now felt as if they had failed. The only failure here was the shelter.

In the second case, my client adopted two dogs whom they were told were “strongly bonded” and had no issues. When they got the dogs home, the dogs were constantly fighting. The aggression was serious enough that my client's veterinarian advised against keeping the dogs. The rescue’s owner said, “One of the dogs is a bit bossy, just let them work it out.” Aggression is a severe issue and does not fix itself. My clients made a difficult emotional decision to return these dogs. While they felt terrible, they knew they were not equipped to deal with this level of inter-dog aggression. They wanted two dogs they could care for, not two dogs that wanted to hurt one another.

What MUST A Shelter/Rescue Do?

Be Humane! ALWAYS! – Develop policies and procedures that comply with the AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines ( ) and the PPG Guiding Principles ( ) and then train your staff and volunteers and make sure that they are all following these policies.

Be Honest and Transparent About Any Behavioral Issues – Behavioral issues such as separation anxiety, aggression, and resource guarding can present a danger to the animal, the adopter, and the public. If you have a pet in your shelter with these issues, you have a responsibility to be completely honest with all potential adopters. Always err on the side of public safety. If an adopter is at all hesitant, do NOT push the adoption so you can get one more pet out the door. I know many people who have had this experience, and because of it, will NEVER adopt from a rescue again.

Happily Accept All Returns with NO Shaming! – Not all placements are going to work. When someone brings a pet back, accept it cheerfully without trying to guilt or shame the adopter. Surrendering a pet was not an easy decision for anyone, so please showtime person as much compassion as you would show the pet.


Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop    ( ) in Bangor, ME where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.