Best Practices: Homeless Pets Needing Help

A big thanks to Tim and Kari Workman, foster family with Golden Retriever Freedom Rescue, Denver, Colorado, for this comprehensive post on homeless pets needing help. This section of the Rescue Best Practices Manual we’re developing covers

1.       Homeless pets needing help

a.       Where animals come from

i.      Family surrenders
ii.      Breeder surrenders
iii.      Strays
iv.      Shelters
v.      Abuse cases
vi.      Commercial breeding farms (mills)

We look forward to input and feedback in the comments section.

Homeless pets needing help

Thousands of pets are euthanized every year because there is not space or money in shelters. Rescue groups help offset this lack of space and money by pulling dogs from shelters and finding homes for previously unwanted animals.

Where animals come from

Animals that are placed in rescue come from a variety of places. Some been placed in foster care through animal shelters while others come directly from previous families or owners.

Family Surrenders – Sometimes families are unable to care for their pets for a variety of reasons:

  • Job Loss
  • Moved to a place that doesn’t allow pets or moving far away and feel unable to take the dog with them
  • Illness forces them to give up their pets
  • Divorce
  • Babies – no longer have time
  • Someone develops an allergy
  • Sometimes a family will show up at a vet to have their dog put to sleep simply because they no longer want him or her. The vet is able to talk them into surrendering their dog instead and the dog ends up in rescue.
  • Other times someone from a rescue or a neighbor will convince a family who keeps their dogs outside or in a garage to give them up to rescue. I’m not sure if this should go here or with the abuse/neglect cases??
  • Medical expenses become too costly
  • The cute puppy grows and becomes too big for the family.
  • Death

Typically, it’s a very difficult situation for the family. They have loved their pet for a long time, sometimes many years, and the decision is not made lightly. When we have had to meet dogs who are being surrendered by their families, there are many tears shed, for both the family and the people from the rescue doing the surrender. When picking up a dog from an owner surrender, we try and reassure the family that they are doing what’s best for the dog, whether we agree with why they are giving up their dog or not. We explain how our adoption process works (application, phone interview, home visit, foster home interview) and tell them that we will do our best to find their pet the best place to live. In some cases, once their dog is adopted, and if they’ve requested, we will email them to let them know they’ve been adopted. Sometimes the foster family keeps in touch with the family who had to surrender their dog to let them know how he or she is doing in their new home. This seems to help lessen the tragedy they’ve gone though.

After a family has chosen a rescue group to surrender their dog to, they fill out a form online. Someone from the rescue calls them to find out more information about their pet. Another volunteer will take their own dog to meet the dog being surrendered and to talk to the family to gather any information about the dog. A surrender form is signed and the dog is placed into foster care.

Dogs who are surrendered by families are usually happy, well adjusted pets. They are usually used to living in a home with people who love them. We find that owner surrenders adjust quickly to life in foster care and also to their forever homes. Part of this is due to the fact that we can talk to their former family and learn their histories, likes and dislikes, favorite toys, treats, and foods. One of our family surrenders was in love with chasing a ball. We literally spent two days in our backyard throwing the ball for her. She was in heaven! It made the transition for her much, much easier, because we knew what she loved to do and could continue with that. Other dogs are confused for a while. They don’t understand why they are suddenly in a new place without the people they love. They may pant excessively, wander around the house, or want constant attention.

Breeder Surrenders – Breeder surrenders are dogs that have been used by a person to breed puppies. Usually these dogs have been better cared for than dogs from puppy mills but may have some of the same needs. Some breeders treat their breeding dogs well, letting them live in the house, or at least in a warm outbuilding. Sometimes puppies from breeders are surrendered to rescue because they have reached a certain age and haven’t been sold yet or they have medical problems that deem them “unsellable”. The needs of breeders vary as much as how well they are cared for.

Strays – Typically the strays we get come from shelters so we’ll cover that below.

Shelters – Dogs end up in shelters for different reasons. Sometimes they are found as strays and taken there by the police or the person who found them. Other times their former owners drop them off for various reasons that are similar to why people surrender their animals to a rescue organization.

Either the shelter contacts the rescue and the rescue picks up the dogs or the rescue has someone on the lookout for a specific breed and gets the dog into rescue.  Shelter dogs can have a huge range of needs:

  • Some have been on the streets for a long time so they are underweight and malnourished.
  • Some have been injured or ill and need veterinary assistance.
  • Some may be fearful of their new living conditions.

When we foster a dog who has come from the shelter as a stray, we don’t have much of a history on them. The way they act in the shelter can be completely different than how they act in your home. Shy, withdrawn dogs can suddenly become outgoing social butterflies! Sometimes the dogs take a while to adjust to life in a home as they have been living on the streets for a long time.

Abuse cases — We added neglect here too!

Sadly, some animals that come into rescue have been abused or neglected. They may have been chained up to a tree outside, left outside, or stuck in a garage for much of their lives. Some dogs have been physically abused and need someone to rehabilitate them before they learn to trust again.

Some dogs are removed from homes by law enforcement due to abuse or neglect. The needs of these dogs varies greatly depending on how they were treated. They may be fearful of people or extremely excited to be in a loving home! The needs of abused/neglected dogs are similar to puppy mill survivors so we will cover that below.

Commercial breeding farms (mills) – A commercial breeding farm is also known as a puppy mill. A puppy mill is a backyard breeder on steroids. One farm may have hundreds of dogs that are breeding. Their puppies are often times sold to pet stores or sold online. The living conditions of the dogs are appalling. They may be stuck in wire cages without room to stand or move much at all. They are not provided with proper vet care and often have chronic eye, ear, and/or skin problems.

There are many different reasons why a rescue will get a dog from a commercial breeding farm. There are instances that the mill is closed by law enforcement due to poor living conditions, the breeder may decide to relinquish their mill operation before it is shut down, or a mill operator may divest itself of their older dogs because they can not breed anymore.  Mill dogs come to the homes of fosters in all medical and emotional conditions.  Some mill dogs have major medical needs that need to be taken care of immediately and some may not have any medical issues. Almost all of them need to be spayed or neutered. There will be emotional issues in varying degrees from spending years in the mill.  A foster home should plan for varying degrees of medical and emotional support for each dog. A mill dog may be bounce back within a week or so or it may take years for a mill dog to gain the confidence that they need to act like “real” dogs.

Mill dogs are almost always a flight risk. They will be scared in their new environment and need to be watched at all times. We take our mill dogs outside on leash, even with a fenced in yard. We use non-slip collars for them so they cannot back out of their collars and run away. This can be more challenging that it sounds as they have often not had a leash on and may be freaked out by the whole thing. Patience is key. Hook a leash onto their collar and let them drag it around the house. Then hold onto the end of the leash but follow wherever they go. Gradually work up to using the leash to control where they go so they get used to the idea. This can take a long time for some dogs!

Mill dogs will most likely not know what it is like to be touched kindly by a human, will never have been in a house, or understand basic commands. A foster home’s dogs will help the mill dog learn the ropes of being a pet dog in a home. Since these dogs have never lived in a house, they will not know what to do with stairs, changes in floor covering (carpet to stairs, for example), doorways, and many other normal household activities.

Puppy mill survivors have different ways of coping with their new world. Some will become hyper and excited that they are out of that horrible place, while others may retreat to a quiet space in the house to block out the activity around them and seem to wish themselves back to where they came from. All dogs should be provided a safe place to go when they do get overwhelmed, but use caution as you don’t want them to spend all day there. They need to learn how to live in a home with people who love them. Take it slow!

Feeding a mill dog will be a new experience with each mill dog. A mill dog will normally be underweight and need to be encouraged to eat. Each mill dog is a trial and error process and each mill dog is different.  When one idea doesn’t work you try something else until you find the match to help make the mill dog feel confident and relaxed in their new environment.

Here are some tips for feeding mill dogs:

  • If they won’t eat out of a bowl, try a plate. If that doesn’t work, scatter the food on the floor.
  • If the dog won’t eat in your presence, try to turn your back. If that doesn’t work, leave the room. Gradually work up to where the dog lets you be in the same room.
  • Mix dry dog food with canned or fresh chicken, tuna, pumpkin, liverwurst, or hamburger.

Mill dogs have not been properly socialized. You must not isolate them but go against their better judgment and take them with you everywhere you can go. We take our mill survivors to pet friendly shops, parks, and to friends’ homes. We instruct people to pet them, even if they cower behind us or try to run away. If the dog is treat motivated (many are not as they have never seen a treat), we sneak a treat to the person trying to pet them and they hand the treat to the dog as they pet them.  We also use our puppy mill survivors as educational tools to teach people about puppy mills and the pet stores they supply.

Fostering a puppy mill survivor sounds like a lot of work but it’s really not. In fact, your own dog(s) will do most of the work! Dogs learn so much from each other, and it’s no different for a puppy mill dog. They will be watching how you interact with your own dog and how your own dog tackles things like stairs and dinnertime. Watching a mill dog blossom is one of the most rewarding experiences ever!

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13 Responses to Best Practices: Homeless Pets Needing Help

  1. Great info and great tips! The thing I keep in mind, especially with mill dogs, is that each one is different from the other – some have long term emotional problems, others rehab faster, so what works with one, might not work with the next. Sharing info and tips between rescue groups is a great way to keep learning!
    **Flight risk! Yes, Mill dogs, ex-breeder dogs, abused/neglected are all very high flight risks!! MHWR recently had a mill dog get loose in Denver but thanks to GRFR, CARE & 100’s of other people, Summer was found safe!!**
    I’ve found that with fostering, the behavior issues, emotional problems/insecurities, etc can vary from breed to breed. Many Golden Mill dogs I fostered were shy, insecure, scared but quickly learned to trust; Weim’s are a totally different mindset – if Weim’s are not socialized when young they not only become shy but can also develop severe anxiety & even aggression(with extensive training these issues can successfully be turned around though). It’s been rewarding to work with different breeds & learn how to help them each individually & how to learn to know how to help them(that sounds confusing but I hope you know what I mean)
    One other way MHWR gets rescue dogs in is by working with other rescues throughout the country. For example, if a Texas Rescue group has a Weim or Weim mix but doesn’t have many applicants, or chance of rehoming, they’ll contact MHWR to see if we can take that dog. (I’m only using TX as an example – it could be from any rescue in any state). And while with a golden rescue previously, we took in a “golden mix” puppy that ended up being an australian shep mix – he just wasnt doing good in our rescue but luckily we found a rescue(in MN I think?) that took him in & last I heard he was doing great.
    Oh, one other thought is dog auctions…I’ve known of people living in states where puppy mills are more prevalant, that will go to the horrid dog auctions to “buy” the dogs & get them to a rescue group instead of letting some loser buy them for bait dogs or lab testing.
    A little off the subject but realizing the various backgrounds each dog comes from, along with the variety of behavior/social/health issues, having a solid, experienced, open-minded foster home base is hugely important! Some like the challenge of working with mill dogs, others like rehabbing so-called “aggressive” dogs, or special needs, puppies, seniors, etc.
    One question I ask of the other rescues is when you pull a dog from a shelter do you pay a fee? It seems to vary so I’m just curious.

  2. I thought of a couple of more questions on this topic….does your rescue charge a rehoming fee when you accept an owner surrender? what plans do you have in place if a family changes their mind just days later? and does a volunteer meet and assess the incoming dog(whether from a shelter or owner surrender) before accepting them into the group?

  3. I like what Kari and Tim said about fostering puppy mill dogs. I think it depends on your home, schedule, and experience, but I invariably prefer the puppy mill survivors to owner surrenders and strays because they tend to be scared and shy as opposed to needy and rambunctious (usually – not always). I like a quiet home, and I especially love the little celebrations I get to see in these dogs as they discover their new world. It’s amazing to hear from their forever homes a year down the road what a long way they’ve come.

    Great questions and comments, Shereen. I think the rescue I work with (MABTR) charges a $50 surrender fee. As far as a family changing their mind, I think we take that on a case by case basis, always with the dog’s best interest in mind. I think the rescue I work with will take in any Boston if we have space, regardless of condition, but I have no idea if we pay a pull fee at shelters. Like you said, I think it varies between shelters.

    Buying dogs a auction is understandably controversial. On one hand, we are paying the millers for the dogs and making them richer off suffering. On the other hand, the dogs will meet a horrific end if we don’t (sold to labs, taken out back and shot, stuffed in a cage at another facility to just continue his or her miserably existence as a puppy mill breeding dog). It’s a case for many of us of our heads saying one thing and our hearts saying another. I’m usually pretty logical and cold, but just one look into my puppy mill survivor’s eyes, and I know exactly what is right.

    I don’t think a dog should have to continue suffering just because we want to punish those who make that dog suffer. If we can save him or her, we should. My opinion…

  4. Thanks Kyla, I know some request a $25 rehoming fee but whenever I did owner surrender intakes we didnt usually ask for it. Kind of depended on the situation, like if the people were sending food, dog bed, etc. Most times we just wanted to get the dog into rescue safely. I’ve done some horrible intakes from owner surrenders too. Stupid people that make the dogs live outside or just don’t like them anymore – yes, I actually took in a Weim one time because the guy said he decided after 8 years he didnt really like him anymore. Bizarre!
    For MHWR, our first concern is just getting them into rescue and we do assess them when we can but only so we know which foster home to place them in. We have an amazing group and will take in the worst health issues & give them the care they need, we have successfully rehabbed and placed many Weim’s with severe anxiety, as well as mill dogs too. I guess with this breed I’ve found even owner surrenders have major issues, it’s a quirky breed and not for the faint of heart.
    We’ve worked hard to build report with shelters across the country & locally, with other rescue groups, transport groups and animal control. That way, when there’s a Weim in need we’ll know about it!
    Oh, I thought of one more way dogs come in – kind of goes along with owner surrenders but we find them on Craigslist or in local newspapers. We have two people that spend each day combing thru those ads to see if we can help the dogs.
    One thing I always remind foster homes of is to keep an open mind as you never know for sure what you’re getting. It’s a surprise wrapped in fur!

  5. I believe there is an opposite side to “Family surrenders” that is not so rosy. My experience has been that by the time the family has made the decision to dump the dog they have disassociated with it. Typical emails requests with refer to the dog as just that, never mentioning a name. Recently one came in asking us to take “their animal”. These were previous adopters that had even sent in a Happy Tails story about how much the dog was loved and a part of the family. Two years later we needed to “take the animal back”. Reason given was “lifestyle change”.
    I’ve had owners drop their dogs off at my house and never look back.
    My point is that the article makes it sound like “Family surrenders” are a painfull experiece for the family and I’ve yet to experience that once. And our all time favorite is “we’ve had her since she was 8 weeks old and now she’s ten and we want her to go to a family that can spend more time with her” – that’s very typical.

    Also, in Breeder surrenders it states that the dogs are treated well. Not in my experience. Most breeders are back yard breeders and that’s where the dogs live. We recently took in one mother dog and six pups. The puppies were at least 12 weeks old when we got them and had never been outside of the garage, had never had a shot or been wormed. Their mother is high positive with heartworm and all her teeth between her canines (top and bottom) are worn to the gum line. All four of her canines are broken off and she requires four root canals to save the teeth so her tongue will stay in her mouth.
    The breeder is waiting for us to take the last mother dog and two male pups. She’s keeping a female pup. She said she wanted out of the beagle breeding business because they have too many puppies at one time. The other day she took a high positive with heartworm Weimerainer male in to the Vet to see if his heart was strong enough for breeding – and she thinks beagles have to big a litter!
    Back yard breeders and just puppy mills on a smaller scale.
    Regardless of where the dog comes from, we have found that it takes two weeks for the dog to forget about it’s past and acclimate to it’s new home.

  6. “Thousands of pets are euthanized every year because there is not space or money in shelters.”

    I would also like to suggest to revise this sentence. Here are my thoughts:

    There is much attention given to the ethics surrounding shelter policies and specifically euthanization, but shelter overcrowding is not the “cause” of pets ending up homeless and meeting untimely ends. The cause is humans irresponsibly breeding dogs when there are already plenty of dogs looking for homes, and humans not respecting the fact that caring for an animal is a lifetime commitment. The cause is a lack of support for low income families to have access to basic veterinary care and spay/neuter surgeries. Sometimes humans just need a little assistance and education to become great pet guardians, while other times it is in an animal’s best interest to be placed in a new home.

  7. I think there is a significant distinction between reputable breeders and puppy mills/backyard breeders. While breeding is personally not my thing, I think there are people out there who truly love the breed and wish to perpetuate the best of the breed. I don’t think dogs from these people often end up with rescue, but it does happen at times.

  8. Regarding family surrenders, I have to agree with Elizabeth. She makes a great point that by the time the family finally surrenders the dog, they are disassociated. Kari also makes good points about treating the family with respect nonetheless. I see a humane education piece here.

  9. Sometimes picking up an owner surrender is the hardest thing for me because I have to be polite until I get the dog in my car….like one dog I picked up was 11 yrs old. They’d had her since she was 8 weeks old. She grew old & was having accidents in the house so they made her stay in the garage. When I went to pick her up she was in such a depression & horrible health that I wasnt sure she’d live to get back to my house. I bit my tongue and was polite to the family, the husband even had to carry her to put her in my car because she was too weak to walk. I took Jo to the vet, found she had bone cancer and less than a month to live – from the 40+ pages of vet records the vet said those people knew but didnt have the guts to be with her until the end. So, I adopted Ivy Jo myself(she happens to be in the Golden Happy Tails book:). With proper care & love, she blossomed and had 3-1/2 marvelous active happy weeks as part of our family. 4 weeks later I held her paw as I laid her to rest. But I had another family who did give up a dog for the right reasons(although I cannot personally imagine ever giving up one of my babes) & Cisco was happily adopted & I kept in touch with the previous mom. But that isnt the norm(for me anyway).
    But in rescue our role is not necessarily to judge the people(owners, breeders, mills, shelters, etc), our role is to save the dogs!

  10. Vicky Mazyn says:

    When we have an owner surrender, we ask for a donation. It can be money, a crate, kennel, etc.. Anything that we can use, even old sheets and towels. In one case, the owners came to several adoption events and helped with walking and socializing the other dogs. In another case, the lady printed and put together adoption packets for us.

    We do not consider strays and pulls from shelters the same thing. A stray is a dog that is rescued from the street. A stray has to have all vet care and vaccinations. A pull from a shelter usually has had at least the vaccinations and de-worming done, if not more.

    When we do take an OTI, we try to get them to get their other dogs fixed. Otherwise, we would just end up with another litter in a couple of months.

    As far as returning a dog to the owner that gave them up, they have to go through the entire adoption process.

  11. LBR sends a volunteer to meet all potential rescues, so yes, we send someone to meet potential “owner surrenders” as well. We explain the surrender process at length prior to visiting the dog. We have a long waiting list of OS dogs, and with all of the shlter dogs on death row, it usually isn’t a short wait. We ask for a OS Fee of $100, but we don’t require it.

    Yes, people back out sometimes, and this usually happens when we contact them to let them know we have a foster home for their pet. They’ve either worked out a way to keep the pet or rehomed him/her on their own. While it’s frustrating that they don’t bother to take the time to notify us, we just let them know that this is a one time offer, another dog will fill that open foster home as soon as this discussion is ended, and if they change they mind, they will go back on the waiting list like a new request. We do not hold foster homes open while they make their decisions, we don’t have time for that, and we never have a shortage of boxers to chose from for open foster homes.

  12. Stephanie says:

    In most cases It’s The Pits will not take in owner surrender dogs because the need at local shelers is overwhelming. This is the case with most if not all pit bull rescues in San Diego. There is always a long list of dogs needing to come in from the shelter who may be euthanized any day. What we will do is courtsey list a owner surrender if they are willing to care for the dog until a home is found. I will say that about 90% of dogs we are asked to take from owners have bitten a person or attacked or killed a dog. It’s The Pits is not equipped to deal with human aggressive or severe dog aggressive pit bulls.

  13. Our experience with owner surrenders is very similar to Elizabeths.
    However, I had one that was very difficult. The husband was the family caretaker. His wife was disabled and they had purchased their dog a year before the surrender. The husband found out he had a terminal illness. He had to find a nursing home for his wife and a rescue for his dog.
    It was the most difficult pick up I have ever done

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