Shelter Dogs: Handling New Arrivals

The dog can be overwhelmed in a shelter and experienced “learned helplessness”, leading him to completely shut down

When a dog arrives in a shelter, he is going through an incredibly frightening and stress-filled experience.  Depending on what is known about them, these dogs can spend time isolated in quarantine, interacting with a minimum of shelter personnel until they are vaccinated and checked for communicable diseases or medical conditions.  Behavior evaluations are also done during these periods, generally for the benefit of shelter staff and to determine any safety issues in handling the dogs.  But these intake evaluations can be very misleading[i].

In any case, the dogs have been removed from their familiar surroundings; from their homes, from the street, or from another shelter, and are now in a new and highly stressful place.  They are surrounded by unfamiliar noises, other animals, unknown people, new smells, etc.  If they are considered to be quiet and friendly, in all likelihood its because they are overwhelmed and helpless, and have completely shut down[ii] .

Regardless of how dog-friendly and stress-free we try to make a shelter, it will be a terrible place to be a dog.  They are bombarded with stimuli in a foreign environment and often have great difficulty in coping.  The question becomes, how can the people who work in the shelters help them de-stress and adapt to their surroundings, thereby increasing their chances of being adopted by a suitable person or family?  A few months ago I wrote about dogs that arrive in the shelter with severe anxieties and a fear of new people and places[iii].  This trend has continued as we get dogs that were isolated and unsocialized during the pandemic.

I cannot overstate the need for slow and positive first meetings with new shelter dogs, and slow steps in increasing the interactions with shelter personnel.  The shelter staff and volunteers are the people who will set the tone for that dog’s interactions with all visitors and potential adopters.  It is absolutely vital for them to set the dog up for success by making all human interactions as fear-free as possible.

All too often we conflate positive interaction with providing excitement or stimulus, when those things can be counterproductive for a dog that is already coping with stress.  A dog that is new to a shelter does not need to be entertained, he needs to be calm and allowed to relax. A 2018 study documented the beneficial effect of shelter volunteers simply sitting with, and petting, a shelter dog for only 15 minutes[iv].   When I train new volunteers, I encourage them to incorporate this practice into their daily activities with our dogs.  Whenever they are outside of their runs, either to meet new adopters or for a routine walk, I ask them to incorporate some time just sitting outside with them in quiet location so the dogs can get used to the environment and learn to relax.

I am currently working with a dog that has an extreme fear of new people, particularly men. By implementing a slow and low-key approach in meeting and handling her, and was able to get her to trust and accept me.  I’ve attached a copy of the treatment plan that I developed for the shelter staff to use in handling this girl:

Treatment Plan:  Subject Dog

Problem:  (subject) is extremely stressed by being in the shelter and is fearful of strangers, particularly men.  She is reactive in her kennel and shows clear signs of fear and anxiety when people approach:  Warning barks, teeth bared, back arched, low and rapid tail wags.   (subject) is not food-motivated, but does want human contact.  The key to providing this is to get her to accept people on her own terms.


Our objective is to help (subject) become accustomed to being in the shelter and to become more accepting of unfamiliar people.  She should meet new people in a low stress, positive manner.

First visit:  When approaching her kennel for the first time, do not enter it.  And do not stand facing her.  Sit down outside the kennel, facing sideways to her.  This is a good time to do some texting or read an article on your phone.  Gauge her reactions:  If she is showing any of the stress signs mentioned in the problem statement, then just ignore her and continue quietly sitting for about ten minutes.  You might try doing a couple of fake yawns or a full body shake (these are dog body language, telling the excited dog that you are not a threat and she can calm down).

If she stops reacting to your presence, you can put a hand near the treat hole in her kennel.  This may provoke another reaction from her.  Don’t worry about that, just let her calm herself down.  After a while, get up, leave and come back later. 

Second visit:  When you approach her kennel, you might find that she has less of a fearful reaction.  If not, repeat the steps you used on the first meeting.  But if her reaction is less fearful, you can enter.

When you enter the kennel, do not try to touch her right away.  Do not be overly friendly or use a high happy voice.  Look away from her and kneel or sit comfortably, making yourself smaller.  Let her approach you.  She might keep her distance at first.  If so, just relax and read your phone.  You can watch her, just do not lock eyes with her.

At some point, she will approach you and sniff your hands or clothes.  When she does that, you can touch and pet her under the chin or on her chest with your hand open and palm-up.  See what she does when you stop.  If she moves her nose towards you or towards your hand, that is a sign that she would like you to continue (a consent sign).  You can keep on petting her – she likes to be gently rubbed on her face – and talk to her quietly in a normal friendly voice.  Once she accepts you, she will increase the amount of contact that she wants with you.  When she does, you can try to put on her harness.  Do this from the side without leaning or reaching over her.  Keep in mind that she is just beginning to trust you.  If she tenses up, then stop and go back to what you were doing before.  You can try the harness for the next visit.

Walking:  Once you’ve got the harness on her, you can take her for a walk.  While doing so, watch her body language.  She may show signs of being frightened (ears back, tail low or tucked).  If so, keep the walk short and stop after she’s relieved herself.  You can try to sit down with her in a quiet spot and let her try to settle down.  This may not work the first couple of times.  You can increase the length of the walks as she continues to get used to the shelter and to the staff and volunteers.   When you get back to her kennel, spend some time inside with her.  Let her relax with you for a while, until her breathing and heartrate slow down a little.

Summing it up:  The goal is to help these dogs to be less anxious in the shelter, and to accept new people without undue fear.  We can best accomplish this by taking things slow and allowing them to become habituated to the shelter environment and in being handled by unfamiliar people.  Once that’s done, we can add in play and other forms of enrichment without overwhelming them.


[i] Patronek, G. J. and Bradley, J. (2016).  No Better Than Flipping a Coin:  Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evaluations in Animal Shelters.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 15 (Sep – Oct 2016).  66 – 77.  Doi 10.1016/j.veb 2016.08.001


[iii] February, 2022 | The Animal Nerd

[iv] McGowan, R. T. S., Bolte, C., Barnett, H. R., Perez-Camargo, G. and Martin, F. (2018).  Can You Spare 15 Min?  The Measurable Positive Impact of a 15-min Petting Session on Shelter Dog Wellbeing.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 203 (June 2018) 42 – 54.  Retrieved from Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being – ScienceDirect

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