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

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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.

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.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

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

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Kwan, J. Y., & Bain, M. J. (2013). Owner attachment and problem behaviors related to relinquishment and training techniques of dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16(2), 168-183.

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