How I Met My Dog

Locked up: How to Reverse the Effects of a Long Term Shelter Stay

All dogs that find themselves in a shelter have no idea how they ended up there. Many dogs have been surrendered by their owners and this new environment is likely very different from the home they were used to. Cement walls, floors and ceilings, cages, florescent lights, and other barking dogs. Limited socialization with other dogs and people, very few things to call their own, and strangers that walk up and down aisles peering into cages every day, becomes the new normal for these pets. While shelters and rescues do their best to keep their canine residents healthy and happy, there are negative effects on dogs in long-term sheltering situations.

 1. Sensitization and C-PTSD

A shelter environment is sensory overload for a dog. New smells, unfamiliar people, and strange sounds can all cause extreme stress. A nervous dog is a fearful dog and in a shelter environment they become even more fearful, lessening their chances of someone wanting to adopt them. As days become weeks and weeks become months or even years, dogs with long-term shelter stays can become sensitized to loud noises, quick movements and other dogs. Often times, dogs that are fearful do not present well in shelter kennels and therefore do not generate adoption interest and end up staying in the shelter even longer or being euthanized.

If you’re a patient person, consider giving a shy or fearful dog a chance. Building trust by giving a shy dog time to feel safe is first step towards rehabilitation. Dogs in shelters can develop canine posttraumatic stress disorder. Similar to a soldier returning from battle, taking a shy or fearful dog out of a shelter and into your home requires an adjustment period.  Remember that your new dog just came from a place full of constant barking, other fearful dogs, very little sleep, confinement, and confusion. Be your dog’s therapist and sit quietly with them - at first for short periods, then for longer periods of time. Try reading  the morning paper or a good book out loud to get them used to your voice. Don’t push them out of their comfort zone by approaching them too quickly. Make yourself small by sitting down and let them come to you to seek contact when they are ready. Always provide a safe space, like a crate, so they can seek shelter when meeting new people. Make sure to explain to your friends that your new dog needs some personal space.

 2. Separation Anxiety

Dog’s that have been abandoned by their owners are likely to develop intense insecurities and stress when left alone. Separation Anxiety often presents itself as a destructive behavior. Unsure of how to cope with their stress and panic, separation anxious dogs will turn to chewing household objects, toys or even their own bodies. Long stays in a shelter environment that does not have mental and physical enrichment can amplify a dog’s separation anxiety. If you bring a separation anxious dog home, you can help them by giving them plenty of exercise, enriching their lives with training and only leaving them alone for manageable periods of time (no more than 4-5 hours without a bathroom break and play session). Smothering a separation anxious dog with love and then leaving them alone for 8-10 hours a day will make that dog’s anxiety worse. Try not to make a big fuss of coming and going, if you celebrate when you return home, this signals to your dog that it’s a big deal when you come back and that they should be anxiously awaiting your return. Instead, celebrate when learning a new trick or when out for a walk. Consider crate training your dog to give them a sense of stability and routine for when you leave and come home. You may think that using a crate at home will make your dog feel as though they are back at the shelter. Contrary to that, confining your dog to a designated safe space when you leave will actually soothe them, give them a chance to relax and also avoid property destruction while you’re away.

   3. Guarding Toys or Objects

A dog that has lived in a shelter for a long time is not used to having many toys of their own or having to share the precious few that they do have. Bringing a dog home to a house full of toys is like bringing a hungry kid to a candy store, they want it all and sharing is not an option. If you have a rescue dog that is guarding their toys remember that this is a natural behavior for dogs. Instead of punishing your dog for guarding their resources, try teaching them the commands “give” and “take.” Offer your dog a high value treat (something delicious like deli meat or dried liver treats) in exchange for a toy or item that they are guarding and say “give”. When your dog drops the item to get the treat, say “good give.” Then, prepare to give your dog back their toy by saying “take” as you hand it to them and say “good take.” Repeat this training technique until your dog understands that there is value (a yummy treat) in offering their toys to you. Instead of representing a threat to your dog’s favorite toy, you become a positive resource for treats and leadership.


While some of the effects of long term sheltering may seem daunting and problematic, remember that dogs, like all living creatures, are a product of their environment. All of the behavioral issues mentioned above can be modified once a dog is no longer in the shelter environment and instead in the right home. Rescuing a dog will change that dog’s life for the better. Dogs in shelters need our help and guidance to become their best selves and in return, they will reward you with their unconditional love. Sign up with How I Met My Dog today. Get custom matched with available rescue dogs and save a life. 

​Chill out

To help your dog relax when you're not at home, take him/her for a long, aerobic walk before you leave

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