Have you ever thought about taking a shelter dog out for the day, for the weekend, or as a short-term foster, but felt horrible at the thought of having to bring them back to the shelter? If so, you’re not alone. Many volunteers and potential fosters hesitate to take a dog out of the shelter for any amount of time because they know that they will have to bring the dog back.
In this article, I aim to put your mind at rest and prove that dogs are much better off if given any time out of their kennel. The next time you have a few hours, a day, or a weekend, I hope you’ll consider spending it with a shelter dog in need. The benefits are tremendous, and it doesn’t cost anything.
The benefits of dog day out and fostering are innumerable. Here are just a few.
- Increased exposure for individual dogs. Pictures and videos of shelter dogs in a home or out on the town are much more likely to prompt an adoption than pictures and videos in the shelter environment. When people can see a dog acting like a dog instead of a caged animal, they are more likely to adopt.
- Increased exposure for shelter programs. Every time that you bring a shelter dog out into public, you are advertising your shelter’s enrichment programs. You may be surprised by how many people ask you about the program and get involved themselves.
- Gain valuable information. Even one night out can tell you a lot about how a dog behaves outside of the shelter. Information on potty training, crate training, and behavior in the house can all help a dog get adopted or increase the likelihood that they will be showcased at an adoption event.
- Psychological benefits for the dog. It may seem stressful for a dog to get out only to go back, but research suggests that there are significant psychological benefits for dogs from even very short-term stays outside of the shelter and that dogs who go on frequent sleepovers actually benefit more from them.
- More room at the shelter. Every shelter dog in foster care means that there is more room at the shelter and more time for staff to focus on the dogs that remain.
Research about doggy sleepovers
Starting in 2016, a wonderful organization known as Maddie’s Fund began funding research into sleepovers for shelter dogs. A variety of organizations have participated, including the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah and Arizona State University’s Canine Collaboratory.
The goal of the research was to find out how overnight sleepovers with a foster family affected shelter dogs’ stress levels. They also wanted to look into behavioral observations in foster care and when dogs are adopted.
Research was prompted by extensive disagreement in the animal rescue community over the benefit or harm of sleepovers. Proponents believed that sleepovers offered excellent information and a break for the dog, while critics worried that being returned to the shelter was traumatic for the dog.
Initial research found that cortisol levels, which are an excellent measure of stress, were significantly lower after just one overnight foster stay. Just 24 hours out of the shelter caused meaningful psychological improvement in shelter dogs.
When dogs returned to the shelter, cortisol levels increased to the level they were before the sleepover, but they did not rise over this level. This indicates that dogs suffer significantly less stress while outside of the shelter and do not experience an increase in stress when they are returned.
Based on the success of this study, a much larger study was undertaken in 2019. This study followed 207 dogs across five different animal shelters, both open and limited admission facilities.
As in the first study, urine was collected the morning before, during, and after the overnight stay in order to monitor cortisol level. Furthermore, dogs wore non-invasive health monitors that collected heart rates and activity levels.
As in previous studies, cortisol rates were found to drop significantly during the overnight visit and return to baseline at the shelter.
Importantly, this study found that dogs had the longest sustained rest during the sleepover, but also had longer periods of sleep after the sleepover when they were back in the shelter. This indicates that dogs are more relaxed and sleep better after being returned to the shelter than they had before the outing, a strong argument that returning to the shelter does not cause trauma.
Even more compelling is the finding that dogs who had previously gone on sleepovers actually had the greatest degree of stress reduction when they go on another one. This is excellent evidence that dogs do not dread going back to the shelter after a sleepover, but rather look forward to the sleepover and take advantage of the opportunity to rest.
Understanding the Results
For many people, these results are unintuitive and may even seem contradictory. They imagine that the dog feels it has been finally released after undeserved and wrongful imprisonment, only to be returned. In fact, it does not seem that this is the way dogs feel at all.
Here are a few comparisons between our lives and those of shelter dogs to shed light on why sleepovers and dog day outs are beneficial rather than stressful.
Dog day outs are like a weekend to shelter dogs
The researchers explain these results by comparing a dog’s time away from the shelter to the way we view weekends away from our jobs. Our jobs are stressful and demanding. If we had to undergo that kind of stress everyday, all day, without ever experiencing relief, we would doubtless experience overwhelming stress and breakdowns.
If you have ever worked a 10-day stretch or more, you know the exhaustion that is caused by never getting a break. The opportunity to relax and unwind over the weekend enables us to handle the stress of our workweek. The same is true of dogs going on a day out from the shelter
A break from company is therapeutics
While you may love your family and enjoy spending time with them, constantly being together can be stressful. You probably breathe a sigh of relief when you finally get a few hours to yourself after long periods of being together.
Similarly, even dogs who enjoy the company of other dogs can become exhausted by the constant barking and presence of dogs around them. A chance to get out of the shelter offers them some time alone to refresh so they will be less stressed by the dogs around them when they return.
The benefits of a dog day out or sleepover have more positive effects than the direct benefits for the dog. Here are a few ways that overnight trips and day outs improve a particular dog’s chances of adoption.
Foster parents become advocates for their dog.
It is hard to bring a dog back to the shelter, and most volunteers are prompted to do their best to get that dog back out of the shelter again as soon as possible. The majority of volunteers who foster dogs, even for a day or overnight, become an advocate for that dog.
They may post pictures and videos in social media, tell friends and family about how great the dog is, and otherwise try to convince somebody to also take a chance on that dog.
Increase chances for further fostering
When other volunteers see a dog successfully fostered for a day, night, or short-term period, they may be more likely to foster or take the dog out themselves. You can think about this initial fostering as a trial period in which other potential fosters can see how the dog behaves and set aside some worries they may have about fostering a shelter dog.
Increase volunteering at the shelter
Once you foster one shelter dog, even if only for a night, you will have a hard time forgetting about all of the other dogs who need you. People who foster one dog overnight are much more likely to foster another dog in the future or volunteer at the shelter.
Attract the attention of private rescues
Private rescues take dogs from the Animal Services departments in their area and bring them to additional adoption events or put them into foster homes. It can be difficult for volunteers and employees with these private organizations to determine which dogs are a good fit for adoption events and fostering. Dogs day outs and short-term fostering draw their attention to dogs who do well on outings and would likely do well at events or in foster homes as well.
Chelsea Bauer of the Humane Society of North Central Florida emphasizes the usefulness and importance of information gathered on outings: “Corey came into Alachua County Animal Services (ACAS), and there had been little to no interest in him. A volunteer and her daughter took him out for a fun day, and were able to learn a lot about his personality. They did a post about him in the volunteer group. I pull dogs from ACAS for my shelter. I saw their post about Corey and added him to the list for an adoption event that weekend. He got adopted his first day there!”
Reduce the occurrence of return after adoption
The American Humane Association found that 10% of dogs that are adopted from a shelter are no longer in the home six months later. They surveyed the adopters of 572 dogs and cats who had been adopted from six animal shelters in three cities across the United States. Another study in Australia conducted interviews with 62 adopters, acquiring data on why dogs were chosen and why some dogs were returned.
The reasons that dogs are returned can shed some light on how sleepovers and dog day outs can match dogs with people who are more likely to keep them forever. Here are some of the relevant reasons that dogs are returned and how sleepovers could help.
- Destructive Behavior. Dogs who go on sleepovers or short-term fostering are likely to reveal destructive tendencies, which means that shelters can seek out an owner able to train and redirect who doesn’t mind putting a dog in a crate when they leave it alone.
- Hyperactivity. Most dogs seem hyperactive at the shelter, but once in a home environment, it can often be determined if this activity level is characteristic of the dog or a side effect of the shelter environment. This information can help to find a home with matching energy levels.
- Aggression. Day outs can help determine whether dogs have fear or aggression towards particular people groups like men or children and expose them to lots of different dogs so as to assess dog-friendliness outside of the shelter environment. This enables the shelter to avoid placing a dog in an incompatible home.
- Disobedience. Some shelter dogs have been family pets with extensive obedience training who know how to live in a house, while other dogs may have been strays or kept in a yard with minimal human engagement. Foster parents can correct behavior and teach basic obedience, setting the dog up for success in their adoptive home.
- Pulling on the lead. Pulling is a common problem for shelter dogs, especially bully breeds. Frequent day outs with persistent leash training can help to eliminate this problem.
- Separation anxiety. Unfortunately, too many dogs are surrendered because of separation anxiety, and the condition is certainly not improved in a shelter environment. Many shelter dogs will show symptoms of separation anxiety very soon after bonding with a volunteer, even on just a night out, which can help to place these dogs with people who do not need to leave them alone extensively.
If you’ve been on the fence about taking a dog out over fears of whether it really is good for the dog, put your worries aside and grab a leash. Any time out of the shelter has a multitude of benefits for shelter dogs. Whatever time you have to give can make a huge difference in their lives.