The Merriam-Webster definition of the word "Shelter" as it relates to animals is "an establishment that houses and feeds stray or unwanted animals."
"Houses and feeds". That's it. Those are the basics that most people consider when wanting a forgotten pet - be it stray, lost, or abandoned - "saved". Protection from the elements, food and water.
Unfortunately, in many crowded animal shelters, "saved" under those terms can mean countless days, weeks, or even months living inside a kennel or wire cage, surrounded by other forgotten pets, strange smells and loud noises. But they're protected and fed, so they're okay, right? Think again.
Life in an animal shelter can be very stressful to dogs, and over time can lead to fear and aggression issues that are often difficult to reverse, making their chances at successful adoption even more slim.
Fortunately, more and more shelters are recognizing that it is simply not enough just to give them life and a safe haven; these forgotten pets must also have a life worth living while under a shelter's care, and every opportunity for success in a permanent home. One often overlooked necessity in dogs particularly, is training and enrichment.
95% of dog owners cite “behavioral reasons” when relinquishing or returning a dog to a shelter. Ironically, the majority of people selecting a pet prioritize looks over behavior.
Often, when one of the SPCA Albrecht Center's Pet Care Specialists ask potential adopters the type of dog they would like, the response is a breed, a color, or a size. This superficial mentality is what leaves people remarking, “How in the world did a pure bred German Shepherd (or Shih Tzu, or Great Dane, or Poodle) end up at the SPCA?”
Yes, amongst the mutts, or "SPCA House Blends" the SPCA often has the gorgeous and recognizable celebrities of the animal world - purebred, sometimes AKC registered dogs available for adoption. Why? Because however pretty a person or pet may be, somewhere, someone is tired of their crap. Perhaps literally in the case of pets, if house training is the issue.
This is just one of the reasons we try to encourage pet selection based on behavior and lifestyle. When pressed, people often admit they want a “smart dog”. That's why our staff and volunteers work hard to meet that expectation, through our train-to-adopt program, Phideaux University.
In the fall of 2012, along with the opening of our new shelter which gives dogs on the adoption floor more space, natural light, less noise, and a much more humane temporary home, the SPCA also implemented this award-winning program, dramatically increasing adoptions and decreasing the length of stay for dogs in our care. The program employs a pretty simple training method to encourage the human-animal bond, but almost everyone who sees it in action is convinced they have just met the smartest shelter dog ever.
Even people who are insistent that they must have a pure bred Labrador are swayed to look at mixes when they discover that our shelter dogs come with manners. It's a remarkable thing to watch the guards go down and the excitement go up when one of our staff members or registered volunteers hands the potential adopter the leash and says, “Now, you try.”
See, these dogs respond to whoever holds the leash because they are trained by multiple staff members and volunteers. This way, we can pass simple instructions to the adopter and they can take over this easy training method at home, turning what was once a forgotten dog, into a full-fledged family dog.
If you've been considering purchasing a purebred pup, give "Adopt, Don't Shop" a chance and let the SPCA introduce you to one of our handsome scholars instead. Visit LetLoveLive.org/adopt for details on adoption and to see some of our available pets, or meet them in person at 199 Willow Run Road in Aiken.
Sarah Neikam is the Marketing Director for the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. She is an Aiken native and has been with the SPCA since 2012. Sarah's family includes three adopted cats: Bastian, Luna and Grady, who are all living happy, loved lives thanks to the efforts of the SPCA.