Often, the animals who come to the Dumb Friends League have been through a lot. Traumatic experiences such as homelessness, injury or disease, recurrent loss, and a lack of trustworthy relationships can lead to behavioral challenges, which tend to prolong an animal’s stay in our care. Despite our best efforts, extended stays in a shelter often cause new or intensified behavioral issues to develop, making it all the more challenging (and urgent) to find these animals the loving homes they deserve.

Every day, animal shelters across the U.S. are confronted with this unfortunate reality. This past year has been particularly challenging, with sharp increases in animal relinquishments and staff and volunteer turnover rates impacting the capacity of many in the animal welfare field. Even in the best of times, living in a shelter can be a stressful experience for any animal. Pets are often housed in close proximity to one another and exposed to strange smells, loud noises, and interactions with unfamiliar people and animals.

As a result, we tend to see certain behavioral issues develop, even if the animal has never been known to display them previously. Common behaviors seen in the shelter, especially among cats and dogs, include:

  • Anxiety, fear, and social difficulties
  • Depression
  • Leash, kennel, and barrier reactivity
  • Resource guarding
  • Destructive behaviors
  • Self-mutilation, such as excessive licking of one’s body due to stress or boredom  
  • Housetraining regression
  • High arousal or energy
  • Overstimulation, particularly among cats after being touched in ways that make them uncomfortable

To prevent and address these concerns, the League offers animals a range of Behavioral Support programs; veterinary care, pain management, and proper nutrition; opportunities for physical activity and off-leash play; and enriched environments, including access to natural light, perches, warmed floors, calming music, and interactive toys. Additionally, we often give animals with behavioral challenges a break from the shelter by placing them in foster care. Alex, who has volunteered with us since 2020, specifically fosters dogs with a higher level of need. He credits a combination of “endless patience, love, attention, stability, and forethought in avoiding [triggering] situations” as central to the progress made by the dogs he has fostered – 13 over the past two years!

Notably, the context of Alex’s “recipe for success” – his warm and loving home – is also critical. Truth be told, many of the behaviors we see in shelters tend to subside when the animal feels comfortable in a trusted home environment. That isn’t to say that problematic behaviors will magically vanish after adoption day. As Alex said himself, healing, especially after trauma, takes patience and time.

When facilitating the adoption of a pet who has struggled in the shelter, our adoption and behavioral teams work closely with the adopter to review the animal’s history, equip them with supportive resources, and prepare them for what to realistically expect – often a miles-long rollercoaster of highs and lows. In many cases, we help people manage their post-adoption expectations by introducing the “3-3-3 rule.” That is, over the first three days after adoption, the animal will most likely feel stressed and overwhelmed by their new people and surroundings. During this time, their behaviors may vary from not eating to testing boundaries. After three weeks, the animal should be adjusting to their environment, feeling more comfortable, and sharing bits of their true personality. Following their three-month anniversary at home, most animals will feel secure enough to begin building lasting bonds with their family. For some pets, the process is longer or quicker, but most make progress with time.

“The behaviors you see at the shelter are not always going to stick,” said Remy Kaskel, the League’s Annual Giving Officer and proud adopter of Appa. During Appa’s stay in our shelter, he displayed mild overstimulation behaviors (pacing, rubbing against glass) that actually grew more extreme (back rippling, tail twitching, and biting) during his first days as an adopted cat. But, over the past two years, he has made himself at home, with recent overstimulated behaviors being few and far between. Appa even accompanies Remy to the office, where he has quite the devoted fan club. According to Remy, 

It can feel really lonely to be struggling with your pet, especially when you put pressure on yourself to fix it. But you are not alone. Many new pet owners go through a lot of challenges before ultimately learning what their pet needs and how to manage their behavior. Knowing how to support your pet paves the way for a strong bond of mutual love and friendship to develop!