Returning a Shelter Dog: The Role of Owner Expectations and Dog Behavior

Animals (Basel). 2022 Apr 19;12(9):1053. doi: 10.3390/ani12091053.


Millions of animals are adopted from animal shelters in the United States each year, although some are returned post-adoption, which can decrease both the animals' chances of future adoptions and the owners' willingness to adopt again. In this study, we investigated the impact of adopter expectations for ownership and animal behavioral problems on post-adoptive dog returns at a large animal shelter in South Carolina. Between June-September 2021, 132 dog adopters completed a survey about their expectations for ownership through Qualtrics. Twenty-nine adopters returned their dogs to the shelter within three months of adoption, with a median length of ownership of eight days. Owners completed follow-up questionnaires about their perceptions of adoption and dog behavior at two days, two weeks, and four months post-adoption. Categorical principal component analysis revealed three factors pertaining to adopters' expectations for ownership. Independent t-tests showed returning owners had significantly higher expectations for dog behavior and health (t = -2.32, p = 0.02) and the human-dog bond compared with non-returning owners (t = -2.36, p = 0.02). Expectations for ownership responsibilities did not differ between the groups. Two-thirds of adopters experienced dog behavioral problems post-adoption, although training difficulty decreased significantly between two days and four months (F = 5.22, p = 0.01) and nonsocial fear decreased between two weeks and four months post-adoption (X2 = 10.17, p = 0.01). Shelters may benefit from utilizing adoption counselling to ensure adopters understand the potential for dog behavioral problems in the early stages of ownership and develop appropriate expectations for the human-dog relationship. Post-adoption behavioral support may also help some owners to overcome behavioral difficulties as their dogs adapt to the new environment.

Keywords: adoption; animal shelter; behavior; dog; expectations; human–animal bond; ownership responsibility.