The Impact of Life in Rescue Centres on Behaviour has made Phelps stressed

The Impact of Life in Rescue Centres on Behaviour in Dogs

Every year, it’s the same thing. We take stock of the abandonment of the summer before inviting everyone to go to shelters to adopt a cat or a dog. More than 100,000 animals hope to find a home and a normal life. The causes of abandonment are multiple: behavioural problems, death of the master, retirement home, hospitalisation, allergy. Arrival of a child, or simply because the animal has become too cumbersome are also potential reasons. Whatever the reasons, the shelter experience will have repercussions. Some dogs will benefit and learn new things, while others will experience this episode in a traumatic way.

What is certain is that animals arriving at a shelter change their behaviour very quickly. A shelter in Northern Ireland measured the time spent by newcomers to consume their food. The data was taken on the day they arrived, the third and fifth days On the day they arrived as well as the third and fifth days, the data was taken. The average time spent consuming the whole ration is 6 minutes and a half on the first day. This duration is reduced to less than 4 minutes from the fifth day! This suggests that, during this time, dogs have partially adapted to the new environment and the new mode of distribution.

Some dogs stay friendly in a shelter Some dogs have behaviour problems after being in a shelter


In the same five-day interval, the behaviour of the dogs changed with respect to the healers. Inhibited and fearful when they arrived, the dogs adopted quieter behaviours, less stressed or worried after a few days. Even if they did not all seek contact with the staff of the shelter that enters their park. After a few days, the reactions of fear diminish significantly. The dogs even learn that people who do not try to impose a contact bring them food resources.

Studies measuring cortisol levels have also shown that this stress hormone mostly decreases during the first week in the refuge. This is good news because it is precisely these attitudes of calm that offer the best chances of adoption. Long before the physical criteria, it is the behavioural aspects of the animal that favour stopping in front of the boxes of the candidates for adoption. Studies have even shown that a toy placed in the enclosure of the dog considerably improves the image visitors have of it, even if he does not play with it.


Unfortunately, not all dogs have the capacity to adapt to the new environment that is the refuge. Some may find themselves in chronic stress and present behaviours related to frustration: aggression, agitation, barking. Events that unfortunately reduce their chances of adoption.

Some dogs aren’t used to being a part of a family

In 2007, a study was conducted in England to determine what behaviours caused the abandonment of an animal. And how these behaviours evolved after their adoption. Questionnaires were made available at the shelter and completed at the animal’s entrance, and two and six weeks after adoption. Of the 20 reasons for abandonment reported at the animal’s arrival, only five persisted six weeks after adoption: assaults on strangers, unknown dogs and the veterinarian, fear of the veterinarian and anxious manifestations when they stay alone. However, the relevance of the study comes up against the tool used (the questionnaire is not very adapted to predict the possible undesirable behaviours that could occur after the adoption) and the evolution that can be behaviours several months after the adoption (in the good sense as in the bad!).

This study also examined the causes of failed adoptions that lead to the return of the animal. The main reason given was a problem of behaviour for a third of “only” returns: dirtiness, fugue, destruction, separation anxiety, aggression, but also hyperactivity or shyness. For the other two thirds, it is the disagreement between the newcomer and the child of the family or the animal already present (dog or cat) which was the cause of the return. The latter is also reported in several studies, which suggests that the presence of another animal in the adopting home is a significant factor of failure to adopt. It should be noted, however, that these studies do not take into account the skills of the adopters or the liabilities of the “adoptee”.


Generally, in case of failure, the return of the “adoptee” occurs quickly. 55% occur within two weeks of adoption. Because, in one case out of two, the animal adopts a behaviour considered undesirable from the first 24 hours. This compels the adopters to return very quickly on their decision. Between the second week and the second month after leaving the shelter, we observe what the researchers call a “golden age” of adoption: the moment when the return rate is the lowest (6%). The animal then adapted to its environment and stress-related behaviours decreased. But a sudden drop out occurs after the second month and up to six months after adoption, where the return rate rises to 15%, as in the six months / one year period.

According to some studies, it is the appearance of new undesirable behaviours and / or the return of undesirable behaviours already present which, aggravating between two and four months after the adoption, are the cause of the return of the animal. However, dogs who stay in their new home are not “perfect”. Their liabilities, their education, their temperament, their abandonment often have left their mark. For more than half of them, it is the fear reactions that are described by the adopters . Fear of family members, strangers, new situations … Next come excessive activity (37%), destruction (24%) and uncleanliness (21%). Aggressiveness against humans and other dogs accounts for only 5.5% and 9% of the issues raised four weeks after adoption. 

Age affects a dogs ability to adapt

Age also plays an important role in the success (or failure) of an adoption. Puppies express less unwanted behaviour and, in particular, very little fear or sexual behaviour. Between 6 and 12 months, the adopting family will mainly blame them for a more active tendency to be very active and barking. While it is on the adult dogs that the aggressive behaviour towards the congeners will be the most indexed.

Behaviour problems are always due to many factors and are complex. It would be reductive to put a label on a dog only by observing it in a shelter. Each individual, with its history and temperament, will react differently to a given environment. It is therefore important to offer in a refuge moments of relaxation in parks with congeners, in a non-stressful environment to better apprehend its reactions. Host families can also be interesting alternatives to observe the dog in a family context. Giving the best advice for a successful placement.

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