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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?

In 2020, I chose to return a dog I wanted to adopt, and my heart goes out to anyone faced with this difficult decision. You can read about my experience here.

You are not alone.

It’s so hard to return a rescue dog but sometimes it’s the right choice

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?

No.

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
  • or maybe the dog is so fearful, he can’t function in a home

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, but that’s not always responsible.

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, 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.

Not all dog training issues can be “fixed,” however, even with the best trainer. Sometimes you have to make a decision – can I MANAGE this dog’s behavior long term?

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 or from someone off of Craigslist who won’t take the dog back.

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),post on Facebook and Facebook groups and see if you can list the dog as a “courtesy listing” on shelter and rescue sites.

That’s how I found my dog Ace! He was a “courtesy listing” with a local rescue. Meaning, he was still with his original family but they asked the rescue if it would post him on their site.

Returning a dog to the breeder

Not all adopted dogs come from rescues and shelters.

Sometimes people will adopt an adult dog through a breeder. This is what I did in 2020 when I adopted an adult weimaraner through the same breeder I got my dog Remy through.

We had sweet Raven for only a few days when I realized she was not going to work out with my family.

Raven was determined to catch and kill my cat. Not chase him and harass him, but kill him. So I chose to return her to the breeder.

Any responsible breeder will gladly take one of their dogs or puppies back at any time.

So I was thankful our situation worked out just fine. The breeder actually decided to keep Raven in her breeding program after all. So Raven is living a good life on a beautiful, large property with her original family and other dogs.

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.

Marie

Tuesday 31st of May 2022

My friend sent me this article and I'm so glad she did. My partner and I picked up our foster-to-adopt dog last week and the transition has been more overwhelming than we anticipated.

We knew he had some issues after being kept away from other people at his former foster, however, the rescue assured us he was low key and would warm up quickly. We unfortunately get the sense they rushed our decision to adopt him. They seemed to think he could live in an apartment.

Although he does well in his crate, he seems to have separation and abandonment issues. He cowers and shakes when one of us leaves the room. He's terrified of people outside and dogs and hides behind us when we take him outside or walk. My partner works from home full-time, and AI work hybrid, but we both participate in extra-curriculars in some evenings and I don't feel confident about leaving him alone. He's about two, and he can be so sweet, but I think we're in over our heads and he's more work than we can realistically handle. His allergies are also not responding to regular treatment, and that's a lifetime issue we could be facing.

We are considering not finalizing his adoption and it breaks my heart. I'm a wreck. I appreciate this post because we are not alone - no one talks about what happens when you aren't the right fit.

Marie

Wednesday 1st of June 2022

@Lindsay Stordahl, thank you so much for your kind words and compassion when we're struggling to be that way with ourselves. We've made the difficult decision not to finalize his adoption. Unfortunately, we're just not a good fit and it does happen sometimes. We plan to use the information and experience with him to help the rescue find him the best home possible - preferably one with a big, fenced yard he can play and explore in! We're taking the best care of him until we can properly transition him - although I know how difficult it will be to say goodbye. Thank you again for this article, and thank you to others who have shared their experiences and understand that you're not alone, and it's something the rescue and dog-loving community should de-stigmatize.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 31st of May 2022

Good luck, Marie, with whatever you decide. There is no right or wrong answer and I hope you can find peace with whatever decision you make. It is so hard though, I understand so well!

Kay

Monday 21st of March 2022

Thank you for this article. Two days ago I had to return our dog to the shelter from which we adopted her and I have been crying ever since. We choose this particular pup because she was very mellow and cuddly. Turns out that she was quite ill. After she was well she turned into a wild beast! Although we walked her a couple of times a day and played with her daily both inside and out her demands became more intense. She constantly mouthed/nipped our hands and feet, jumped on us, would get up and bark in our faces, would lunge at our face, etc - and treated anyone who came to our home in the same manner. We both had constant wounds on our hands and arms.We did 13 weeks of obedience training. The trainer recommended a behavior specialist and we worked with her. The specialist said she was easily over stimulated and a dog park or doggy day care would be too overwhelming for her. She said she felt a home with lots of room to run (we live in the city), someone that could train her in agility competition or search and rescue would be a good fit for her. We could very rarely just sit and relax with her. After 6 months (5 months of training) we were so stressed we knew it was affecting our pup as well and we decided she needed a new home. I was crying so hard when I dropped her off I couldn’t talk (the poor rescue worker cried with me) and I have been crying ever since and have felt like I totally failed my sweet girl. Thank you for your reassuring words that sometimes it just isn’t a good match.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 21st of March 2022

Oh I'm so sorry you've had to make this hard choice but sounds like you loved the dog very much and did what was best for everyone.

Rebecca

Sunday 27th of February 2022

I recently adopted a lab mix puppy from a rescue group. After adopting her, I saw on her paperwork that she is a border collie/lab mix. I grew up with labs and thought I could handle this high energy breed but after doing research on border collies, I’m wondering if I’m in over my head. She’s almost 4 months, I adopted her a month ago.

I’m single, live in a small apt with no outdoor space. I’m walking her 5x a day and also hired a trainer (to work on leash walking, obedience etc) and have bought her enrichment toys. I also try to stimulate her mentally everyday.

Like a few others have mentioned, im struggling to bond with her. She’s got all the typical puppy issues but the getting into stuff, biting and nipping at my heels is amplified by her breed I think. She easily gets over stimulated which is hard because I live in an urban city. Everyone who sees her when we are walking wants to greet her and is in love with her. Im warming up to her but I still feel a bit of resentment for my loss of freedom. I feel like I mostly look forward to her nap or crate time.

I know when she’s older I can take her to daycare and some other classes that may help. I also take her to the dog park at least 2-3x a week.

I don’t know if im suffering from the puppy blues still or if we have a lifestyle mismatch. Border collie mixes need HOURS of mental and physical exercise and I don’t know if I cut out of this everyday as a single person in an apartment? I can’t stand the thought of taking her back to the rescue but I also feel terrible that perhaps she won’t have the best life with me. I do feel like we are bonding a little day by day which is good but will also make rehoming her more difficult.

I’m stuck between giving it more time to develop a bond and see her behavior improve or understanding that she needs a larger family/house/yard to thrive.

I should add that I lost my dog last fall. He was a chihuahua of 11 years. Obviously his needs were extremely different and he was very low maintenance. I’m sure my grief is complicating things. Not sure what to do.

MB

Sunday 21st of November 2021

We've had our rescue dog for barely 2 months. There are so many things I like about him, things that make me smile and warm my heart. And yet I have fresh scars on my hands and arm from recent bites & I'm currently being treated for severe bites to both my legs. I can't tell you how badly I've felt for even considering returning him to the rescue. How much I feel like a failure, how much my heart aches for the little guy. Even now, as I type this, I can't stop crying. My body is in pain, I am afraid of what he might do when I take him on his next walk and my my heart is breaking. It's a lot. But on some level, I know I can't continue being hurt by this dog. It doesn't matter that I care for him, that I want what's best for him. Clearly I am NOT what's best for him. I don't like admitting this, but owning the truth isn't the worst thing in the world. Imagining my husband being bitten is more challenging (something that nearly happened tonight), or heaven forbid a stranger.

So thank you for your post. I know I have to make a tough decision about this. I also know there will be many more tears. But I can't handle additional injuries or physical damage, no matter how much I love the little guy. I pray someone else can give him what he needs.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 23rd of November 2021

So sorry you are in this position, it must be so hard!

Alli

Tuesday 2nd of November 2021

I am currently in a huge dilemma and this article has made me feel a little better. We recently got a rescue puppy because we thought our 3year old lab that is the best and sweetest dog needed a play mate. Well turns out she is completely disinterested. Every time the puppy goes near her she gets up and walk away. They have played a few times but overall the lab just doesn’t seem happy the puppy is around. Plus, my lab got pretty possessive of me and would lay on me or between me and the puppy if the puppy came near me on our bed.

On top of all of this I just feel like I am not connecting with the puppy. My fiancé is so upset because he feels like we should bring the puppy back to the foster because he wants her to be able to get loved correctly. I know for a fact that my fiancé will give the puppy all the love plus some, and I would obviously give her attention and take care of her, but I truly don’t see myself connecting with her like my current dog. I don’t know if anyone has experienced this because I Cannot find anything similar but if anyone has any advice on whether we should return her to the foster or give it time that would be amazing!

I haven’t stopped crying since we brought her home because I feel no connection to her and it’s making me so upset. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 3rd of November 2021

Hi Allie, all I can say is deep down only you know the true answer here. I do feel this way every time I get a new dog or puppy. It does pass, for me. But if you truly know you are not wanting this puppy, then it is best to return her to the foster sooner rather than later so she can get on with her life and adapt to her new family. She should get adopted fairly easily while she is still so young. Best of luck. I know it's hard. There is not a correct answer.