Meet the New Shelter Pet

At Purina ONE, we know shelter pets can be extraordinary companions. That’s why we’re determined to help change the misperceptions that too often prevent people from adopting at a shelter. In 2015, we partnered with The New York Times's T Brand Studio to document how today’s shelters are making great strides in showing just how amazing shelter pets can be. 

The New Shelter Dog: Smart Pet Adoption Brings Joy Instead of Stigma

A pit bull mix is nursed to health after a house fire; a schnauzer is clipped free from her neglected, matted fur. These are the kinds of sad stories that have come to be associated with the label “shelter dog.”

But for veterinarian Jeannine Berger, the label “shelter dog” has a different resonance. It reminds her of a phone call she received early in her career. A new owner had adopted a dog only days before.

“She’s telling me how her dog ... is running around and chasing the horses and the sheep.” Dr. Berger was panicked. Would she need to find the dog another home?

“Then [the woman] says, ‘and the dog is so happy. I wanted to tell you how wonderful this dog is!’”

Watch the video produced by New York Times’s T Brand Studio.

Dr. Berger’s story reveals a truth often overlooked about shelter dogs in America.

“There are still people who have this misconception that shelter animals are in some way damaged goods,” says Suzanne Hollis, director of adoptions at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). “That they’ve been abused, they’ve been traumatized, that they’ve been given up or confiscated. It’s simply not true.”

Across the country, shelter groups, rescue organizations and other members of the humane community are joining together to show there’s little truth to this stigma surrounding shelter dogs.

“They’re no different to any dog that’s living in a home, it’s just that shelter dogs don’t have that human advocate,” says Dr. Berger, veterinary behavior specialist at the San Francisco SPCA. She says that while challenging dogs are best suited to dedicated owners, the right fit can bring happiness to any dog, no matter what the dog’s background. “There are no bad dogs, just unfortunate matches,” she says.

A New Era for Shelter Dogs

In recent years, shelters have made great strides to help homeless dogs. Spaying and neutering awareness campaigns have helped to keep pet populations in check in some areas, while new approaches to adoption have found more animals permanent families. In New York City, the adoption rate for shelter dogs and cats was 87 percent in 2014[1] up from 26 percent in 2003.[2] San Francisco now boasts one of the highest rates of any city, finding homes for 91 percent of shelter animals.[3]

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NAME: Marzipan BIO: Marzipan came to NSALA from a kill shelter in Tennessee. "When I saw Marz - she was curled up so I couldn't even see her face - I knew she was the dog for us," says adopter Haley Friedman. "She blossomed as soon as she got home."

But the problem of pet homelessness persists. Nationwide, around half of the 6- to 8- million dogs and cats entering shelters each year are euthanized. Municipal shelters, especially in lower-income areas, still struggle with overcrowding. Misperceptions that shelter dogs come from undesirable backgrounds stand in the way of further progress.

For example, housing and financial issues, not pet behavior, are the most common reasons dogs are given up, according to a 2000 study by the National Council on Pet Population.[4] Based on current academic research, Karen Griffin, a Ph.D. student in animal behavior cognition and welfare at Lincoln University in the U.K., estimates that almost half of animals entering shelters in the U.S. are from private homes.

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NAME: Champ AGE: 1 year, 5 months BIO: Champ found a happy home after a previous injury caused his leg to be amputated. “He is the happiest and sweetest dog I have ever met in my life!” says his owner Beth Sito.

An Innovative Approach at Animal Shelters

Despite obstacles, shelters like the San Francisco SPCA and North Shore Animal League America (NSALA) in Long Island, N.Y., among many others, are using innovative methods to find dogs their “forever homes,” as they're called in the humane community.

One of their most effective tools is a pragmatic approach to matchmaking between pets and people. The process begins with a health and behavior evaluation as soon as a new dog arrives.

“For the ones that are more stressed, we’re able to help them out right away and make them adoptable as quickly as possible,” says Dr. Berger. Most behaviors that are diagnosed, like fear or aggression, often cease to be a problem once the animal leaves the shelter and is placed in a home. “They can be managed with a simple treatment plan.”

Based on the lifestyle, home situation and personality of the adopter, a successful match will satisfy the social, physical and emotional needs of the dog and the human, according to Dr. Berger. “It’s no different than any other relationship.”

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NAME: Dexie AGE: 5 year, 4 months BIO: Dexie was over three years old when his previous owner surrendered him to NSALA, where he became a staff favorite. "He can be anxious, but once he connects with you he's a love mush," says adopter Susanna Grey.

Put another way: “If you’re a couch potato, the best match probably isn’t a cattle dog. And if you’re an athlete, then it may be best to avoid an English Bulldog,” says Christina Travalja, shelter director at NSALA.

Shelters want adoptions to stick, often following up with phone calls, home visits and even providing free veterinary care and training. But a dog returning to the shelter isn’t viewed as a failure.

“We’ll take them right back and try it again,” says Erica Knors, assistant pet behavior manager at NSALA. “Sometimes you have to try once or twice before you get it right.” 

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Bootsy and Flash are abandoned mountain guide dogs from Taiwan who were adopted last year.

Shelters provide adopters with valuable information and advice. Some shelters even provide veterinary care, nutrition and other follow up services.

Progress with a Pact Mentality

It’s this spirit of collaboration that makes leading shelters so effective. Nationwide, partnerships are formed to rescue dogs at risk of euthanasia. Bigger shelters work with municipal shelters to bring dogs from areas in need to locations where they’re more likely to be adopted. Shelter experts call this humane relocation.

For example, San Francisco SPCA provides veterinarians and medicine to the Stockton Animal Shelter in Northern California. In an economically depressed city, the additional resources not only allow Stockton to take better care of its homeless pets, but they also ensure it transfers healthier, more adoptable dogs to San Francisco SPCA and other partners.

“It’s been a ginormous help,” says Jenifer McCollum, acting supervisor at Stockton Animal Shelter. Stockton’s live release rate for dogs and cats, which includes adoption, return to owner or transfer to another shelter, has risen from 28 percent to 80 percent since 2011.[5]

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NAME: Marcus AGE: 1 year, 9 months BIO: When Tom Zukowski arrived at NSALA, Marcus stood out. “An hour later, he was (with me)on his way to Connecticut. That night he met his newest best buddy, Buster, and has really flourished.”

Collaboration similarly plays a role in how shelters afford to operate. Donations from the public and ongoing partnerships with brands such as Purina ONE, which provides nutrition for shelters coast to coast, allow for better care of dogs.

“Purina ONE has been providing nutrition for shelter dogs for a long, long time,” says Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations at NSALA, who’s worked in the humane community for more than 30 years.

Such partnerships also free up resources that support innovative programs involving shelter animals. NSALA’s “Mutt-i-grees” program, for example, teaches children about compassion for animals and responsible pet ownership through hands-on interactions with shelter dogs.

Due in part to these efforts, more and more people are beginning to discover the benefits of shelter animals. 

“I don’t know if people know how great these dogs are, how satisfying it is to adopt,” says Ronnie Martirolli, quality care manager at NSALA. He also points out that adopting from a shelter actually helps two dogs: One dog finds a new forever home, while the newly available space allows for a second dog to come to the shelter.

The future for shelter dogs looks brighter than ever, but the San Francisco SPCA wants to do even more. Its Vision 2020 program is a pact to wipe out animal homelessness in the next five years with the cooperation of the entire city.

“Today, people are very, very proud of their rescue animal, of doing the right thing and adopting an animal,” says Yohannan.

“It’s an exciting time to become a member of the shelter community.”

This story was originally produced by The New York Times's T Brand Studio