Shelter Stress Can Take Its Toll on Dogs

Walter Joe shows how a dog can be adoptable but not “shelterable.”
By Amy Sutherland, March 2017
Rescuing Penny Jane / Amy Sutherland
Rescuing Penny Jane / Amy Sutherland

Sheila D’Arpino was the first in the country to complete a one-of a-kind program: a three-year postgraduate combined study of shelter medicine and animal behavior at the University of California–Davis’s well-regarded veterinary school. She had wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child, but once the California native became one, she found it wasn’t enough.

With so many shelter dogs euthanized for their behavior, Sheila believed that to truly help those animals she had to treat their minds as well as their bodies. At UC Davis she became the equivalent of a psychiatrist. She studied shelter dog behavior and learned how to treat their problems with training or, in some cases, with drugs. The biggest lesson she learned in the end, however, was philosophical: Every dog is an individual. There is no one kind of fearful dog, for example. Behind the crouches and tail tucks, a unique personality exists. That’s a long way from the thinking of the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, which stymied our understanding of animals for more than three centuries and still holds sway in some quarters. Descartes argued that animals were not only soulless but lacked any kind of reasoning. They had no more intelligence or interior life, he believed, than that of a well-oiled clock. He called animals “beast machines.” Even in the seventeenth century, many pet owners must have disagreed.

Now canines are the darlings of scientific cognition studies, and “every dog is an individual” has become the buzz phrase of the shelter world. It is, however, one of those simple proclamations that are easy to agree with but surprisingly difficult to apply, especially in an institutional setting, where labels and generalities come easily. It is especially hard to apply to growling, biting dogs such as Walter, who are often dubbed inherently “bad” or “dangerous” and are put down as a public service, as one shoots a marauding grizzly bear. Granted, a dog such as Walter, who behaved like a Terrier from hell his first day at the ARL, poses a practical problem: If no one could handle him, there was no safe way to keep him in the shelter. Luckily, a veterinarian with special training and an enlightened outlook happened to work for the shelter just then. Even more luckily, D’Arpino had a yard and an enclosure where Walter would, she hoped, calm down. Only then would she see who this dog was behind the flashing teeth and growling, if he was, in fact, a “dangerous” dog or one who snapped when he was scared out of his wits. Slowly she got some answers. Once Walter moved into her house, he kept his distance for about a month. Then he began to follow Sheila around. He would playfully run around on his short, squat legs, mouth open in a smile, his long, narrow tongue flapping. Then he climbed into her lap.

When Walter sees D’Arpino, he leaps off the dryer and runs to her. When she sits cross-legged on our hallway floor, he plops into her lap. He puts his front paws on her chest so he can look into her eyes while she strokes his back. His glassy eyes brighten. He doesn’t flinch when she clicks on his collar. We glimpse who a happy, relaxed Walter might be. I sink to the hallway floor next to her, hoping that some of her charm will wear off on me. After about ten minutes of chitchatting with Scott and me while she pets Walter, she has to go home to her family and her multiple dogs. I hold Walter’s reattached leash so he won’t follow his only friend in the world as D’Arpino leaves.

“Sorry, Walter,” I say as I close the door.

The night returns to normal, kind of. I have to pull Walter down our front steps in the chill of a wintry evening to go for an overdue walk. He shivers as we head up and down the icy sidewalks. I wish I could put a jacket on him. Back inside, he hurries down our long hallway to the safety and warmth of the dryer. Then, for some reason, maybe because we’re tired, Scott and I do something we never do. We lie down on the floor to watch TV. Not long after we have stretched out on our sides and arranged throw pillows just so, we notice Walter’s small silhouette in the hallway. He pads tentatively toward us and then stops. He lets his head droop.

“Look,” we whisper to each other, meaning “Look out of the corner of your eye.”

Walter takes a few more steps toward us. When he has almost reached the living room’s light, he pauses again. He seems to be thinking. Maybe he’s thinking he’ll have to make do with the two knuckleheads on the floor. Maybe he’s thinking about the nice massage he just got from his only friend in the world. A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest. We quietly raise our eyebrows at each other.

Walter slept with us from that night on, often putting his head on our pillows or worming his way under the blankets. He hopped into our laps whenever we sat down. He began to play, dashing up and down our long hallway while we yelled, “Mad dog, mad dog!” Walter was so crazy to ride in the car that we had to spell the word to each other, otherwise he’d bolt for the front door and start squeaking pathetically. He shadowed me, even sat in the bathroom while I took a shower. He also followed Penny Jane, who, in her aloof way, seemed to like him.

Eventually we could take the Terrier’s leash off and put it on, and then his collar. He did nip me once, as I tried to brush road salt off a back foot. I knew I shouldn’t have, but he was limping. Luckily I had a thick glove on, and he only bruised my hand. He had become a pet dog again, though one whose feet you’d best leave alone.

We sent him to the shelter with a good report card: loving, housebroken, funny. The dog who’d once been a gnashing mongoose clearly had a future as a family pet. Yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel. For fear he would nip someone, only D’Arpino or I took him out. When he saw either of us, he exploded with happiness. When we left, he shut back down. I got word that the shelter was thinking of putting him down. How could they put a dog up for adoption whom they couldn’t handle? I had never wanted a Terrier, especially a Jack Russell. I had never wanted a male dog, or a little dog.

When we brought Walter home for good we goofed up his name some to put our official stamp on him. He became Walter Joe Jr. We started calling him Waltie-Bear or Joey or Junior or Dub-yuh or Mister or Champ or Bubbles—all names he learned. Though he showed no signs of it in the shelter, he was completely capable of living in a home, not to mention riding in canoes, staying in hotels, and lounging on the beach. He was, as they say, “homeable” but not “shelterable.” To be the former, as it turns out, does not mean a dog can be the latter.

These dogs are such conundrums. Shelter staff have to decide if a dog can be safely adopted based on his behavior in a stressful environment that in no way resembles a home. The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, bedridden, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character? Or would you see the equivalent of Walter in the shelter? Luckily I haven’t seen many Walters since I began volunteering. Most dogs manage okay enough in the enervating tedium, at least at first. Some even improve with regular meals and walks. But even the dogs who seem to thrive can, over weeks, months, appear to deteriorate. They bark more, jump more, maybe start to lunge at strangers or other dogs. They become obsessed with balls, as happened with Gwen Stefani. These dogs can begin to seem less and less adoptable, which makes it harder to find them a home, which means they stay in the shelter longer and longer. A vicious cycle begins. It’s not always enough to find a dog a home. You have to find one quickly.


Excerpted from Rescuing Penny Jane by Amy Sutherland. Copyright © 2017 by HarperCollins. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Amy Sutherland is a journalist and author whose books include What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage (Random House), and Kicked, Bitten and Scratched. Her work has appeared numerous times in The Bark.