How to Help the Rescue Pets Who Seem to Be Stuck at Shelters Forever · The Wildest

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How to Help the Rescue Pets Who Seem to Be Stuck at Shelters Forever

And why the problem of long-term rescue and foster animals persists.

by Julie Zeilinger
Updated December 31, 2023
Couple hug their Pit Bull dog outside on the beach.
Ezequiel Giménez / Stocksy
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When a team of volunteers at Badass Animal Rescue, a New York City-based all-breeds dog rescue, traveled to a partner shelter in Vidalia, Georgia in 2017, they met a dog who had spent the majority of her life in the outdoor kennel facility. Later named “Annie Hall” (Badass names all their rescues after famous people or characters), this dog had been at the shelter for six years. Badass’s executive director, Krista Almqvist, described Annie as “shut down, shy, and nervous” and in need of “patience, time, and resources” to help her recover from her traumatic, long-term shelter stay.

Luckily, helping dogs stuck in shelters for long periods “overcome their trauma and watch them grow and flourish is part of what we do,” Almqvist tells The Wildest. Badass placed Annie Hall with a “truly committed foster that had the right energy and determination to help her recover from her severe isolation.” After 11 months, that foster ended up adopting her.  

Annie Hall’s story has a happy ending, but the extent of the trauma she experienced cannot be overlooked. Of course, in one sense, she is lucky. Hundreds of thousands of dogs don’t have the opportunity to stay for long at all. Each year, approximately 920,000 shelter animals are euthanized, about 390,000 of which are dogs, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).  

The problem of long-term rescues

But while dogs in no-kill shelters are obviously better off than those who aren’t, it’s not in their best interest to stay in any shelter environment for long. Among the long-term stays at the Verde Valley Humane Society (VVHS), Savahna Borrego, who is on the shelter’s fundraising committee, tells The Wildest that many experience “kennel deterioration,” which she describes as dogs getting “very anxious in the kennel, they kind of spin or they won’t eat; it’s basically like depression.” 

Despite the best efforts of VVHS volunteers — including stimulating dogs through treat-based activities, the walks that volunteers give dogs in the shelter every day, and occasional outings — shelter environments are very stressful for dogs even under the best conditions. And far too many shelters don’t have the resources to provide dogs with the benefits VVHS does. 

Almqvist has seen similar detrimental effects among dogs who have spent long periods at the Southern shelters Badass Animal Rescue partners with. She says she’s seen dogs “hiding in the corner, they won’t make eye contact, they’re shaking — they just are shut down.”

The causes of long-term rescue cases

So, what leads some dogs to stay in shelters or rescues longer than others? There are a few reasons. Age is one factor; senior dogs have a 25 percent adoption rate compared to the 60 percent adoption rate of younger dogs and puppies, per the ASPCA.

Another is that many adopters are wary or incapable of committing to caring for a dog with a long-term medical condition. A Husky named Johnny has been with 4 Paws Sake PA longer than most other dogs because of his seizure condition. “He has to take medication twice a day at a very specific time, so that’s a challenge,” Angie Cooper, president of 4 Paws Sake PA, tells The Wildest. 

Another is breed — especially discrimination against bully breeds, who make up a disproportionate number of dogs in shelters and rescues. Many people are under the misconception that Pit Bulls are dangerous. In fact, after Cooper posted on 4 Paws Sake PA’s Facebook page about a long-term stay Pit Bull named Rosie, an anti-Pit Bull group began spamming the post with comments that made false claims about Rosie’s violent behavior. “We actually had to take down the post because each time I would take a comment down, another one would pop up,” Cooper says. 

Other barriers to adoption

This discrimination can even affect those who want to adopt Pit Bulls. Cooper says a family who wanted to adopt a Pit Bull wasn’t able to because their landlord wouldn’t allow the breed on his property. This is often true of large dogs of any breed, who are also more likely to be longer-term stays than small dogs.

A dog’s behavior or training needs also play a part. Many adopters who look for dogs at VVHS already have a pet, which doesn’t bode well for the dogs who “have to be the only dog in the home,” Borrego says. Other dogs have issues like leash reactivity, which requires training that many adopters aren’t prepared or willing to give. 

But no matter the reason why a dog ends up being a long-term stay, the fact remains: The longer the shelter stay, the harder it is on the dog. Foster-based rescues, on the other hand, see far fewer consequences among dogs who are in foster homes for long periods, because, as Almqvist put it, “they are in a loving home, they are getting all of the care that they need physically, medically, and training-wise.”

But while the dog may be better off, long-term stays are still not ideal for foster-based rescues; the longer a foster stays, the more they cost the rescue. For example, rescues like Badass Animal Rescue provide their dogs with monthly preventatives, which are costly and, obviously, the longer a dog stays, the more preventatives they require. Over time, routine medical needs may also arise, such as dental treatments. Badass also provides behavioral training to dogs in need, and those costs may also add up over time.

The challenges of long-term fosters

Foster parents may also emotionally struggle with having a long-term foster. Almqvist guesses that, about half the time, foster parents of long-term stays through Badass Animal Rescue end up adopting their foster dog. 

But it is possible to successfully foster long-term stays. Kathryn Allen has been fostering Rosie through 4 Paws Sake PA for three years, and while Rosie “is treated like the little princess she is” in Allen’s house, Allen knows “there is always another dog in need, and that is why I choose to foster rather than adopt.” Rosie is her 14th foster dog; the dog Allen fostered before Rosie stayed with her for two years. “I know there is a perfect person or family for Rosie out there,” Allen says. “Once she is adopted, another dog will be able to live with me instead of in a kennel.”

Luckily, new tools, like social media, have helped many shelters and rescues raise awareness about long-term stays and help them reach potential adopters outside of their communities. Borrego recently posted a TikTok about Cleveland, a tripod Bully breed who had been with VVHS for 685 days, and the video was viewed nearly 25,000 times and resulted in applications from adopters all over the country — and, ultimately, Cleveland’s adoption.

How you can help long-term rescues

There are a number of ways volunteers can help long-term shelter stays. Volunteers at VVHS who walk the dogs make a huge difference in their wellbeing, Borrego says. Many shelters all over the country welcome volunteer dog walkers. Fostering dogs who have been in shelters for long periods of time is also hugely beneficial for them. 

And, of course, the next time you’re ready to add a new member to your family, consider asking the shelter or rescue who has been there the longest. As Borrego puts it, “The long-term stays usually end up being the best dogs in the shelter. They have so much love to give.”

Julie Zeilinger

Julie Zeilinger is a NYC-based writer and editor whose writing has been published in Marie Claire, Vox, HuffPost, Forbes, and other publications. She is also the author of two books: College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year (2014) and A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word (2012). She is the mom to Baloo, a two-year-old Bichpoo and foster mom to dogs via Badass Animal Rescue.

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