Demetr White / Stocksy
We’re all pet people here, so it’s time to let you in on a little secret: Sometimes, shelter volunteers, staff, and foster parents care so much for their temporary residents, that they only see the best in them. This can be great for shelter pets, who all deserve to be adored, but can also lead to unfortunate misunderstandings, such as pet parents deciding to adopt based on the shelter’s description of a “young, energetic and loyal dog,” but coming home to realize that they need to help address their new pup’s specific challenge of generalized anxiety or separation anxiety.
While it’s understandable that shelter staff wants to put every pet’s best paw forward, it can ultimately result in adopters bringing home pets they aren’t prepared for, which doesn’t benefit anybody. To avoid that, here are some tips and tricks for decoding “shelter speak” and preparing for what those cute descriptions could really mean when applied to everyday life with your new pet.
What common shelter attributes really mean
Let’s get started with a few of the most common attributes listed on shelter placards and online pet profile descriptions and what they might actually indicate. We spoke with Jennen Herbst, Fear Free certified dog trainer, American Kennel Club (AKC) evaluator, and dog bite prevention educator, to get her take on the most commonly misleading pet descriptions at shelters.
To be clear, none of these descriptions should prevent you from adopting a pet, nor do they necessarily mean the below. These are common terms that could have a somewhat hidden meaning that adopters should be aware of so they can best care for the dog they bring home. Here are Herbst’s interpretations:
- “Selective” could indicate behavioral problems, such as reactivity and resource guarding.
- “Nervous” can be an understatement of more serious issues, including extreme fear or anxiety.
- “Strong-willed” is often used to describe a pet who needs a parent who is willing to put a lot of time into training; they could just take more time to train.
- “High-maintenance” can describe a pet who may need a lot of grooming, mental enrichment, or even medication for special needs.
- “Enthusiastic” can indicate a high-energy pet who needs a job or a lot of stimulation. These pets may be best suited to homes without very young children or elderly people.
- “Intense” pets may have trouble interacting with people and/or other animals. They may lack boundaries or display more serious behavioral issues.
- “Queen/King” is often used as a descriptor for a pet who’s not a great contender for living with other animals (or often small children).
- “Lap-Dogs/Lap-Cats” can be attention-seeking and have high needs.
- “Trainable” pets sound pretty perfect but can indicate a high level of intelligence and drive to solve problems/challenges — which means they’ll need you to devote time to training or providing mental enrichment.
- “Loyal” is another commonly used word to describe dogs in particular, but it can sometimes indicate a pet may be protective of their family members or even possessions. This is just another thing to be aware of and work on in training.
Another phrase Herbst mentions is worth looking out for is “altercation.” This is an important one to take seriously, she says, because “altercation may make it seem like the dog was not in anything big, but [the shelter] could be avoiding giving all the information on how serious it was.”
Again, none of this is to deter adopters from giving these pets good, loving homes but rather to give them all the information they need to give them the kind of home and attention they need to succeed.
Asking questions is critical
Getting as much information as possible beyond the short descriptions shelter volunteers and staff write makes it more likely that your adoption will be successful, and shelter staff want that, too.
“Research, research, research,” Herbst says regarding her tips on selecting a pet to bring home. “Ask all of the questions; you can never ask too many.”
Herbst suggests asking about the following topics:
- The pet’s history or how they came to the shelter or rescue
- Their behavior in previous homes
- Any medical issues they may have
- Altercations the pet has been involved in
- Guarding behaviors
- Behavior around older people and/or kids
- Behavior around men vs. women
- Exercise and mental stimulation needs
- Any breed information available
If the shelter knows what breeds the pet you’re interested in may be, Herbst recommends researching those breeds to learn about their characteristics, typical mental and physical needs, potential health issues, and problem behaviors. Keep in mind that not every pet of a certain breed shares every characteristic, especially in mixed breeds, but it can’t hurt to have all the information ready.
The pros of “shelter speak”
While those quippy little descriptions of adoptable pets may not always be the most upfront about a pet’s potential issues, they often help bring adopters in the door to at least meet the pets. “If only extremes are shown in bios, no one would ever show interest,” Herbst says.
No pet is perfect, just like no pet parent is perfect. It often takes meeting a pet in person for a potential adopter to understand how that pet could make a great addition to their family despite their struggles.
Shelters should still disclose any issues that they’re aware of at the time of adoption to adopters, and Herbst stresses that it’s critical for shelters and rescues to fully explain behavior issues and ways to work with or manage them to avoid headaches and heartbreak for all those involved down the line.
Your new pet is home — now what?
Once you’ve asked all the questions you can think of and still feel confident that the pet will be a good fit for your family and home, it’s time to take the next step and bring your new family member home. While every new pet will have an adjustment period, new pet parents often face a few common issues (especially if they didn’t follow the steps above). Here are a few of the most common issues Herbst sees with newly adopted pets and how they typically come to light.
Minor Behavioral Issues
Potty training, anxiety, destructiveness, and other annoying but minor behavior problems can happen when pets move into a new home. “These may not always be noticed at a shelter or if they had settled into a foster home,” Herbst says. She adds that these “can come about as a dog is settling in.”
“Not every dog gets along with every other dog right away (or ever),” Herbst says, and the same is true for all animals (even humans). “Bringing a new dog into the home can really change the dynamics and cause behavior issues for any dog,” she says. “Even if the resident pet seems to be having issues, the adopted pet could pick up on that.”
Bonding takes time
“It takes time for people to really get to know their pets and for the pets to really get to know their new families,” Herbst says. Many people have high expectations for a perfect transition, especially if they’ve been close with their pets in the past. Per Herbst, when a new pet isn’t fitting in immediately, people often assume something is wrong instead of giving their new pet time to adjust and settle in.
Inexperienced pet parents
To combat some of the most common issues new pet parents face, such as struggling with training, Herbst recommends that adopters ask the rescue or shelter to share what resources they’ve already tried and to work with a trainer who already knows their new pet if possible.
“Try setting up an initial session with them to discuss specifics that could help the pet settle in,” she says. “If they don’t have one available, you can reach out to any local positive [reinforcement] trainer for a start up session.”
Do your homework ahead of time
“In a perfect world, a pet would find a home right away, but the world is not perfect,” Herbst says. “Pets are like people — they may not like every person and/or animal they meet, and we need to accept that.”
Of course, to set themselves and their new pet up for success, adopters should follow the advice above to ensure they have the resources available to care for the pet they bring home. Adopting a pet is a great thing, but it’s important to make sure you understand you’re giving them everything they need.