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Returning a Rescue or Shelter Dog

Adopting a dog is a wonderful experience, but sometimes you might end up with the wrong dog.

And then what? Do you just work it out?

Do you find the rescue dog a new home yourself? Or do you return the dog to the shelter or rescue group?

I have never been in this situation myself, and my heart goes out to anyone faced with this difficult decision.

You are not alone.

Returning a rescue or shelter dog

We don’t always hear about the stories of people returning their shelter dogs because these dog lovers might feel guilty or they are criticized by the shelter workers or even by friends and neighbors and family members.

But dogs get returned fairly often, and sometimes this is for the best.

If you return a dog, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a dog. It doesn’t mean the dog is a bad dog. He’s just not the right dog for you.

I’ve returned several foster dogs

In 2020, I returned a dog I had planned to adopt. I have also returned several foster dogs due to their issues with separation anxiety.

Two of them could break out of their kennels. One chewed up part of my door. Another chewed up a door knob. Others barked nonstop when left alone. OK, they pretty much screamed!

I just can’t handle that. I can’t.

Does this make me a bad dog owner? Does it mean I shouldn’t foster dogs?


It means I’m not able to accommodate a dog with separation anxiety at this time.

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Reasons people return their shelter or rescue dogs:

Returning a shelter dog

The following are just some of the reasons people decide to return their shelter or rescue dogs. These are not based off stats or studies. These are my observations and experiences.

1. Behavior issues with their rescue dog

Sometimes the reason a shelter dog needs to be returned is due to aggression. The dog is aggressive to other pets in the home or to strangers or the dog is aggressive over food.

Other behavior issues that could cause someone to return a rescue dog could be:

  • the dog cries/barks when alone
  • the dog damages property when alone
  • the dog has endless energy and runs/plays/cries all the time

Sure, these are issues you can work through but for others it’s not.

2. Health issues with the adopted dog

The dog has a medical condition the adopter wasn’t fully aware of when she got the dog and the cost or time management is beyond her limits.

Examples could be severe anxiety, diabetes, allergies, a skin condition, an ACL injury, hip dysplasia, a heart condition or cancer.

‘You should be committed to the dog no matter what’

Unfortunately, some people will say once you adopt a dog, you should be committed to that dog no matter what. And maybe that’s how some of us really are, and that’s admirable.

However, sometimes being committed to a dog means admitting when you are not the right home for that dog.

It is not right to keep a dog that could potentially harm or kill one of your other pets.

It is not healthy to constantly worry the dog might bite your child.

It is not reasonable to keep a dog if the medicine she needs is more than you can realistically afford longterm.

Or maybe you realized your baby is actually allergic to dogs, and you didn’t know that prior to adopting a dog.

The scenarios are endless really, and it’s nobody’s business to judge.

You know your situation better than anyone, and I’m sorry that some rescue and shelter volunteers are not as compassionate to people as they are to animals.

Anyone who makes the decision to go out and adopt a dog, often literally saving that dog’s life, obviously loves dogs very much.

No matter how much research you do or how many questions you ask, it is not always possible to accurately predict how a dog will act in your home.

When the shelter dog isn’t right – options to consider

Returning a shelter or rescue dog

1. Hire a good trainer and do your best to work through behavioral problems.

This may or may not be the solution for your situation, but there are some really great trainers out there who can help dog owners through a lot of issues.

2. Return the rescue dog to the rescue group or shelter.

This is much easier if you adopted from a rescue group or a no-kill shelter. Most of these groups have a 2 or 3 week adoption “trial” period anyway because they know it takes some time to make sure the dog is the right fit.

Most adoption organizations will take a dog back, but you may or may not get your adoption fee back. Sometimes it helps if you can agree to foster the dog temporarily while the group finds her another home.

What if you got the dog from a kill shelter?

If you adopted the dog from a shelter that kills dogs for “space” you’re probably dreading the possibility of returning the dog.

You could look into the no-kill shelters and rescues in your region to see if they can take the dog, but they are often “full.”

It helps if you can volunteer to give the group a reasonable donation to take the dog (like $200 or so) and to foster the dog temporarily.

3. Finding the rescue dog a home yourself.

This might be your best option if you got the dog form a kill shelter.

For networking, I would get some awesome pictures of the dog around kids, with other pets, with toys, out on walks and having fun. Then, network the dog with your own family and friends and through social media.

Beyond that, I would use Craigslist (read why Craigslist is a good place for re-homing dogs), classified ads in the paper and asking adoption groups if you can list the dog as a courtesy listing on their sites. (That’s how I found my dog Ace! He was a courtesy listing with a local rescue.)

Don’t beat yourself up too much if you must return your shelter dog.

Sometimes dogs don’t work out and it’s no one’s fault. Even if you did make a few mistakes such as rushing your decision or not asking enough questions, forgive yourself.

We all make those kinds of mistakes at times. You’re still a great dog owner.

There are literally millions of dogs in need of homes. If you want to adopt a dog, there is definitely a dog for you out there.

She’d be perfect for you, and you would be perfect for her.

Have any of you had to return a dog to a rescue, shelter or previous home?

I would love to hear your stories, if you’re willing to share.

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Lindsay Stordahl is the founder of That Mutt. She writes about dog training, dog exercise and feeding a healthy raw diet.

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