As we all know, bringing a dog into your home is a lifelong commitment. So if you’re considering surrendering your dog, something has likely gone awry with your life circumstances, with your bond, or both. In all cases, you have my deepest empathy.
Let’s be honest. Pet parenting can be demanding. Just like human children, our dogs require a lot to be healthy and well-adjusted: a balanced diet, exercise, play, affection, grooming, veterinary care, and socialization. Whew–that’s a lot! If we neglect these basic needs, our dogs can easily become destructive, annoying, clingy, sick, or difficult to manage. From whining and barking to jumping, pulling on the leash, and digging up the yard, dogs can develop habits that stress us out.
Moreover, with the rising costs of veterinary care, pet deposits, food, grooming, toys, and other necessities, canine kids can also be quite expensive. Sometimes prohibitively so.
However, despite these very real challenges, there are actually very few good reasons to relinquish a dog. In fact, community resources, training, patience, and a little imagination can often help us keep our dogs in the face of financial hardship, changes in family dynamics, personal crises, and even tricky behavioral issues. Above all, it is our moral obligation to try everything in our power to love and protect our dogs, even when life throws us curve balls. Most importantly, renewing your commitment can save their lives. If that sounds a tad bit dramatic, let me explain….
Surrendering Your Dog Often Puts Them In Grave Danger
Before we go any further I want to clarify something important: there is a significant difference between rehoming and surrendering your dog to a shelter. In the former, you find a new family to adopt your dog. In the latter, you drop them at a shelter where they might be in grave danger. This is a key distinction.
Right now, animal shelters across the United States are overflowing with millions of loving, healthy, companion animals. Although adoption rates soared during the early part of the pandemic, they are now plummeting drastically. Worse, people are failing to reclaim their lost dogs – abandoning them to an already-strained shelter system. Well beyond capacity, high-intake shelters (usually large, municipal organizations) do not have enough kennel space, fosters, funding, transport partners, or community support to move their animals to safety.
As a result, dogs, cats, and other pets are being euthanized en masse. As an animal welfare professional, I network dozens of gorgeous, wonderful dogs on a daily basis – many of whom (despite the best efforts of a team of advocates) do not make it out alive. Not only are innocent animals dying, but staff and volunteers in shelters and rescues are suffering from devastating compassion fatigue and burnout. All judgement aside, the harrowing truth remains: surrendering your dog to a shelter is all too often a death sentence. As a society, we can and must do better.
So while there may be 4 good reasons to rehome your dog, I never recommend taking your dog to a shelter if you can avoid it. Moreover, since giving your dog away is likely to be painful for both of you, here are tips to avoid rehoming or surrendering altogether.
The Myth of A Better Home
First, I want to address a common misconception: the myth of a better home. Too often, people who are overwhelmed or frustrated – or worried they aren’t providing their dogs with the best possible life – fall prey to the notion that they might fare better elsewhere. Fantasizing about acres and acres of farmland for energetic dogs or a home where nervous pups will be surrounded by human company 24/7 are selfless acts. Unfortunately, however, these types of canine utopias rarely, if ever, exist. If they did, shelter kennels would be empty rather than bursting at the seams. In lieu of seeking out fictional homes, we have to realize those kinds of spaces are largely imaginary. Even if you tried to rehome your dog, where would you find such a place? Instead, we have to become the families our dogs deserve, rather than trying to manifest optimal homes out of thin air.
It may be hard to believe, but the ideal home for your dog is probably actually yours. Even if it isn’t perfect. That’s right. To begin, you are already your dog’s favorite person. In their adoring eyes, you are their entire world. Moreover, it is less important for dogs to have an enormous yard to romp around in than it is for us to spend time playing and walking with them. Put another way, as long as you love and take care of them, you are often your dog’s best shot at a meaningful life.
Most Common Reasons Why People Surrender Their Dogs and How to Overcome Them
Dogs are wonderful animals. So why are they being surrendered in such high numbers?
The most common reasons people relinquish their dogs to shelters include moving, experiencing financial hardship, expecting a baby, struggling to make time for their pets, or confronting behavioral issues. Without a doubt, these are all very real challenges.
Let’s begin with the first two: moving and money. It is absolutely true that affordable, pet-friendly housing is at a premium. Between arbitrary breed and weight restrictions, astronomical pet deposits, and limitations on the number of pets renters can have, finding a home for your entire family – furry kids included – can be exasperating. However, there are clever ways to circumvent these constraints. The ASPCA, for instance, offers useful tips for finding someplace you and your furry friends can call home. If you are in danger of experiencing homelessness, many shelters host programs to temporarily foster your dog until you get back on your feet – so it is worth making some phone calls to see what options are available near you.
Likewise, if food and medical care are a problem, most cities offer pet food banks and low-cost veterinary clinics. A quick Google search will list nearby resources. There are also national organizations that help cover the costs of more serious health conditions or one-off injuries, such as cancer or a broken leg. Others will fund equipment and supplies for disabled or special-needs animals. Naturally, it takes time to investigate these options, but your efforts will often pay off.
But what if you preparing to bring a new baby home?
Dogs and Babies=BFFs for Life
If you are expecting a baby or planning to adopt, congratulations. Second, keep in mind that dogs and children go together like peanut butter and jelly! No, seriously. Although well meaning people might warn you that you won’t have the time and energy for both, study after study reveal the many psychological and physical benefits of raising kids with animals. Most dogs are protective, nurturing, and a source of joy for babies and toddlers – mirroring their emotional states, keeping them healthy, reducing their stress levels, and improving both their confidence and their cognitive abilities. Your dog just might be the best gift you could ever give your infant. So pregnancy and/or adoption are not necessarily good reasons to say goodbye to your dog. Do some research for yourself so you can make an informed decision.
The last two issues – time and behavior – require more lengthy discussion.
Addressing Behavioral Problems
One of the most common reasons people relinquish their dogs is that they are at the end of their proverbial ropes with troublesome behavioral issues.
If you are currently confronting a behavioral issue or two (or three!), you are not alone. And neither are your furry kiddos. In fact, all pets need consistency, clear communication, and a supportive environment to learn what we are asking of them. There is really no way around this. Behavioral problems are particularly daunting if you have tried several methods to resolve them and nothing has clicked.
So what can you do?
Make Sure the Unwanted Behavior Does Not Have a Medical Cause – You Might Be Surprised!
No matter what, it is vital to ensure that your pet’s unwanted behavior – especially if it is new, strange, or out of character – is not actually a symptom of illness or pain. Too often, people misinterpret their dogs’ medical problems as stubbornness, spite, or unexplained aggression. But animals are really not capable of malice. For example, a puppy or dog who starts to growl or nip out of the blue – or inexplicably begins urinating in the house – might be sick, hurt, and/or experiencing something like a urinary tract infection (UTI).
In short, any remarkable change in demeanor OR long term behavioral issues that do not resolve with positive-reinforcement training may signal that something is very wrong – so a trip to the veterinarian is a must.
Think of “Training” as Bonding Time Rather than “Work”
Provided a veterinarian has assured you that your dog’s behavioral issues aren’t due to illness or injury, training can often save the day. And if you have already tried certain methodologies that have been ineffective, you may need to switch gears.
Because there are so many conflicting theories on training available, it is ideal to seek professional help. Whether you choose to visit a veterinary behaviorist, hire a one-on-one trainer, attend classes, or find free training resources online, always choose positive reinforcement techniques that use praise, treats, and love to teach your dog. Avoid aversive techniques that cause pain, stress, or fear. Anyone who believes that animals need to be “dominated into submission” or “taught who is the alpha” are exercising now widely debunked schools of thought that have scientifically proven to do more harm than good. As Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Steve Dale explains, punishment-based training erodes the human-animal bond, traumatizes your pet, and undoes all of the intimacy that good training creates. In other words, follow professionals who use positive reinforcement methods, like award-winning author Zazie Todd, PhD.
Let’s also address your attitude towards this process. To me, the term training has a tedious connotation and sounds boring. In reality, it is simply a fun way of teaching your dog new ways to interact, solve problems, and feel more confident all while learning more about who they are as an individual. For example, some dogs prefer high-value treats while others are driven by toys or affection. Getting curious about what interests our dogs can help us understand and meet their needs, and in turn, helps them develop manners and social skills.
Enrich Your Pet’s Environment
One huge culprit of behavioral issues in dogs is boredom. Which makes sense. If you were locked in your house for an extended period of time with no internet, television, movies, books, games, exercise equipment, or the ability to do your hobbies, you would likely lose your flipping mind. This is how our pets feel when we don’t give them anything to do. Just like us, they need mental and physical stimulation, including new smells, toys, treats, and exercise, to keep them engaged and happy. Above all, they need to be able to express species-specific behaviors that come naturally to them. In animal welfare, we call this enrichment. And finding clever ways to entertain our dogs is really a delight.
Enrichment for dogs can include things like puzzle toys, snuffle mats and nosework, hide and seek games, agility training, obstacle courses, and more. And the best part is that amusing your dog doesn’t have to cost a paw and a tail. The ASPCA has wonderful, inexpensive DIY tips. In the winter, something as simple as throwing some treats into the snow for your dogs to sniff out of the cold white fluff can keep them entertained – and the deeper the snow, the more challenging it is! Similarly in the summer, you can make homemade pupsicles and find other clever ways to keep your canine friends cool and occupied. When it comes to spicing up your dog’s life, the only limitation is your imagination! And the best part? These simple games are often enough to turn your troublesome pooch into the angel of your dreams.
Work Your Pet’s Enrichment, Exercise, and Play into Your Hectic Schedule
We all know that time is of the essence. So why and how do we make time for our canine BFFs?
To start, there is so much new research about the countless and surprising ways that pets boost our mental, physical, and social well being. Dogs literally keep us active, sane, grounded, and connected, all while helping us make friends and build community. In fact, there is empirical data that suggests that dogs are fantastic social lubricants – even better than alcohol! Moreover, dogs who get enough exercise and socialization are happier and more well-behaved than neglected pups. So it just makes sense for us to spend as much time together as possible.
To this end, try incorporating your dog into your daily routines and social activities! For instance, meet your friends at a canine-friendly restaurant, schedule a play date with other dog parents, and if, you’re allowed, take them to work! Our canine sidekicks are always up for shenanigans – so include your dogs in your busy, active lives. It is a win-win for everyone.
And one final tip: if you are overwhelmed, try sharing your dog. That’s right! Neighbors, relatives, colleagues, or friends who love pets but cannot have their own are frequently willing to spend some time with ours. Perhaps you know a runner who would like a canine jogging partner or someone who works from home who would like to “borrow” your dog for company. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance – many animal lovers are wiling to lend a hand.
3 Good Reasons It’s Time to Say Goodbye
No matter how hard you might try (and I sincerely hope the above suggestions help), there are still circumstances that merit rehoming an animal. In particular, here are 4 very good reasons you may need to find your dog a new family.
1) Excessive, Persistent Aggression or a Low Quality of Life
If, despite your Herculean efforts to train and rehabilitate your dog, they have insurmountable aggression or mental health issues, it may be time to consider rehoming. In extreme circumstances, behavioral euthanasia might even be the most humane option. Gauging whether to euthanize a pet is an excruciating decision – one to make if and only if: a) you have worked with at least two veterinary behaviorists to try to mitigate your dog’s triggers, yet they remain unpredictable, dangerous, or otherwise miserable; b) you have ruled out any and all medical causes for your dog’s anxiety or aggression; c) you discovered that they are suffering from a rare genetic disorder like Canine Rage Syndrome which causes aggression and for which there is no good treatment; and/or d) due to constant stress, confinement, or muzzling, they have little to no quality of life.
In these cases, euthanasia may be the only possibility since, in good conscience, you cannot surrender a miserable or highly reactive dog to a shelter knowing they might attack an employee or a potential adoptive family. You also do not want their suffering for years to come.
If this your reality, I am truly sorry. Please seek the advice of team of professionals to help you decide what is best for your dog. You may also wish to talk to your friends and family and seek guidance from a licensed therapist to help you cope with the anguish of having to make such a harrowing choice.
2) You or a Family Member Have Become Gravely Ill
If you have been diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness, are catastrophically injured, are going through a mental or physical health crisis – or if you are becoming the caretaker for someone who sick or otherwise incapacitated – it is understandable that you might not have any time, energy, or even the capacity to take care of your dog. In these cases, if no one can step up to help during this time, you may have no choice but to find someone who can give your dog the life they deserve.
3) Your Dog Is Unhappy or Cannot Get Along with Someone in your Household
Many people get dogs with the best of intentions, only to discover they are not actually happy in their homes or cannot get along with other members of the family. Obviously, it takes time for any dog to decompress, adapt to a new environment, and learn new rules. However, if your dog never adjusts to your home, fights with other animals in house, chases your cats, or is otherwise not a good fit, finding a new home is probably best for everyone involved. For instance, a dog who is shy and reserved might prefer to be the only animal in the house rather than living with active dogs or kids.
Moreover, no one can live with persistent conflicts. If you have already collaborated with a dog trainer who employs positive reinforcement techniques, but the lack of harmony persists, the safest course of action for all involved may be rehoming one of you dogs to guarantee the safety of your other pets or children.
4) You Do Not Love and Will Not Care for Your Dog
If you have gotten to this point, it is unlikely that anyone can or should convince you to stick things out. Your dog needs and deserves to be adored. So if you cannot do so – for whatever reason – it is time to do everything possible to find someone who can.
TIPS for Safely Rehoming Your Dog
If you have made the difficult decision to give your dog to a new family, please ensure that you do so ethically and humanely. Ideally, you should find someone you know and trust, as it is dangerous to give animals away on platforms like Craigslist. Also, for the many reasons I have already laid out, taking your dog to a shelter should be a last resort. Instead, please follow the the American Kennel Club’s helpful tips for successfully and safely rehoming your dog.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Val Haggerty/iStock via Getty Images
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