Why do people surrender dogs to animal shelters?

Dogs surrendered to a shelter are more likely to have behaviour problems, and their owners to have a low attachment to them, study shows.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Five to seven million companion animals arrive at animal shelters in the US each year, and about half of these are animals being surrendered by their owners. Why do people surrender their pets? To find out, a new study by Jennifer Kwan and Melissa Bain compared dogs being relinquished at three Sacramento animal shelters to those dogs that were there simply to receive their vaccinations.

A cocker spaniel in the bluebell woods on a sunny day
Photo: rebeccaashworth/Shutterstock
The experimenter spent time at the shelters during the hours when relinquishments could take place, and when vaccination clinics were available. She approached people to ask them to complete the questionnaires, which were available in English or Spanish. A total of 129 people took part; 80 relinquishing owners, and 49 continuing owners. 

Some people were not approached to take part because their dogs seemed to be aggressive, and the experimenter would have had to hold them while the owner completed the questionnaire. In addition, if relinquishing owners seemed particularly upset or arrived requesting euthanasia of the dog, they were not asked to take part, so as not to exacerbate their distress. It is possible this had an effect on the results.

The questionnaire asked about demographic information, attachment to the pet, behavioural problems, and, in the case of relinquished dogs, the reasons why. Participants could rate potential reasons for relinquishment as ‘not a reason’, ‘somewhat of a reason’ and ‘strong reason’, so it was possible for multiple reasons to be given. The results from the three shelters were combined for analysis. 

Relinquished dogs and ‘continuing’ dogs were equally likely to have attended training classes. The relinquished dogs were significantly more likely to live as outside dogs all of the time, and were significantly older; amongst the male dogs, they were significantly more likely to be intact.

Relinquishing and continuing owners were equally likely to have used punishment-based techniques in training their dogs. There was a correlation between the use of prong and choke collars and problems in loose-leash walking. However, it is not possible to know if these were only employed because of difficulties training loose-leash walking, or if they contributed to the problems, for example by misuse or by owners assuming they didn’t need to train if using them.

Dogs in the relinquished group were significantly more likely to have problem behaviours than those that were being kept. Sixty-five per cent of relinquishing owners said that a behavioural problem was a contributing factor, and about half said it was a relatively strong influence. Aggression was the most common behavioural problem given as a strong reason for relinquishment.

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Attachment to pets is a construct that includes knowledge about the pet’s needs, feelings of closeness to the pet, and time spent with them. Attachment scores were significantly lower for relinquishing owners compared to continuing owners. Although not surprising, this is the first time it has been shown using a standard measure of attachment. It would be interesting to know how attachment changes and develops over the duration of an owner’s relationship with their pet. 

About a third of owners said they were ‘very satisfied’ with their dog’s behaviour. Those who were not so satisfied also had significantly lower scores for attachment, suggesting a link between behaviour and attachment to dogs.

Although moving house was a common reason for animal relinquishment, many people had other pets that weren’t being relinquished. This doesn’t mean they gave incorrect information; many rental properties have rules about the number, height or breed of pets. This is also a potential reason for the numbers of pit bulls in the relinquished group, because they are often listed as one of the restricted breeds. While it is surprising to learn that people might relinquish some pets and choose to keep others, it is useful to know as future studies can make a point of learning about kept animals as well as relinquished ones.

The most interesting finding of this study is the frequency of behavioural problems as a reason for relinquishment. This is not surprising, but it underlines the need to help owners find better ways of preventing problems in the first place and managing them if they arise. Surprisingly little is known about people's information-seeking regarding behaviour and training issues, and unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation.

What are your favourite books or other resources for dog owners? 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
Kwan, J., & Bain, M. (2013). Owner Attachment and Problem Behaviors Related to Relinquishment and Training Techniques of Dogs Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (2), 168-183 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.768923

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  1. This is amazing, though having volunteered at several shelters in my lifetime, it's not altogether surprising. The high number of relinquished animals that are "badly behaved", is an obvious problem of punitive trainers. I'm going to be blunt and say it: punitive training is ruining our companion dogs. I don't understand what has to happen to make people realize this. Where are they going to draw the line if euthanasia isn't a big enough warning? It's extremely frustrating, and terribly sad that these poor animals are paying for the mistakes of their owners every day. The book I recommend for dog owners that really want to learn all about their dogs, as well as learn more about force free training, is "Train Your Dog Positively" by Victoria Stillwell. This book has an incredible amount of up to date researched information, and includes some great training tips.

    1. The article doesn't support your conclusion: "Relinquishing and continuing owners were equally likely to have used punishment-based techniques in training their dogs."

    2. Thank you, Anonymous. You are correct.

  2. Thank you both for your comments. The authors of the paper had hypothesized that the use of punishment-based techniques would be more common in the relinquishing group, but this hypothesis was not upheld. However - and this has been found in other studies too - most owners use a mix of punishment and rewards. This is a very nicely designed study because of the way they found the control group of 'still-owned' dogs, but it's not a particularly large one. It would probably need a much larger study in order to find a big enough group of owners who never use techniques based on positive punishment, before you could find a definite answer to that question.

    In other words, it is possible that with a larger sample size there might be a significant relationship. The reason I say this is because studies that ask owners how they train their dogs and how obedient the dog is seem to find that those who don't use positive punishment report having more obedient dogs. So hopefully future studies will still look at this question.

    The study did find a link between using choke and prong collars and having problems walking a dog on leash, but (aside from the question of direction mentioned in the article), this was found in both the relinquishing and the still-owned dogs.

  3. One thing to keep in mind that we have learned over the years, people giving up their dogs lie... A lot! Either to themselves, to the rescuer/shelter or both. That makes to results of this study a bit unreliable. I would like to see a follow up study looking to see if there really was a behavioral issue or not and if so, how bad. In support of the findings though we more often have other excuses like time/money/situation given at surrender, only to find hidden behavioral issues that the owner either lied about or failed to mention.

    " underlines the need to help owners find better ways of preventing problems in the first place and managing them if they arise." We have found that many folks don't want to spend the time or effort to head off or correct issues and it's easier to give up the dog. We have way to a disposable society.

    1. Well, yeah. People lie. Most of the ones relinquishing due to "we're moving" are really REALLY lying. A good many of the ones lying about behavioral issues are doing so **hoping** to get the dog into the "right" home (you know, the farmer in the country who wants an aggressive dog...)-- hoping if they don't tell the whole story, someone will come along to *save* that dog.
      I no longer think it is **necessarily** an intentional dodge so much as a hope shot the right home exists for an untrained, outta control large adolescent dog.

  4. One significant weakness in the study, which could clearly effect their conclusion that no differences existed in the rates of punishment-based training, is the experimenter's exclusion of people who came in with aggressive dogs. If those had been factored into the study, I suspect we would note substantial changes in their findings. Add to that the point noted above that people relinquishing dogs often lie (or stretch the truth) - a fact to which I can well attest from a dozen years volunteering with animal rescues and shelters - as well as the substantial variation in the quality of training classes and the commitment of the human at the other end of the leash, and I find it hard to take this study very seriously. One last point: those who were continuing owners were bringing their dogs to a shelter to be vaccinated. I wonder if a comparison of this group to a group of continuing owners who have their dogs vaccinated at a vet's office would show any differences? (Caveat: Shelters don't offer vaccinations where I live, but perhaps shelters doing vaccinations is standard practice in other countries?)

  5. Biggest reasons we always hear are the family is moving and can't take the dog.


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