Improving Animal Shelters

November 21st, 2008

This article first appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of Dogs Life.

Dog trainer Hanne Hahn compares how animal shelters operate around the world and discovers that laws in Australia and New Zealand need reformation to give rescue dogs a real chance.

Animal shelters have a tough job. They rescue, house and re-home thousands of animals every year. Councils and animal-welfare organisations have implemented various programs aimed at reducing the number of unwanted animals, and have made a difference, but at the end of the day, you see thousands of lonely eyes peering from inside a cage, longing for a loving home.


Animals, in particular dogs, are the passion of my life. As a dog-obedience instructor and ex-breeder for more than 30 years, I have trained dogs from various backgrounds. During my years as a professional instructor in Australia, I have found that sometimes rescue dogs have difficulty adapting to their new homes. This can be for a variety of reasons, for example if the dog was not matched with its new owners and/or the dog did not receive an in-depth behaviour assessment before adoption.


In Australia and New Zealand, dogs are euthanased if not re-homed within a certain period of time. Australian and NZ shelters are in a difficult position when it comes to giving rescue dogs a second chance in life. Educating the public is one way to go, however, authorities should rethink their attitude towards animal shelters, in particular when it comes to financially supporting them. Since dogs are a mans best friend, lets do the right thing by them!

Animal shelters in Germany

What can we learn from the way animal shelters are run in Germany? I visited the Tierheim Delbrueck shelter near Cologne and spoke to manager Bernd Schinzel regarding the re-homing of shelter dogs.


He told me that throughout Germany, animal shelters do not have to dispose of dogs within a certain period of time, unless an animal is beyond recovery and would have no quality of life. Dogs stay in a shelter situation until they can be re-homed.


During my visit, I saw dogs that have made the shelter their home for some time already. These dogs are looked after by shelter staff and live in a family environment, rather than being left in a kennel.


Schinzel informed me that so-called long-termers (longer than 24 months) do eventually find a loving home. Furthermore, after a thorough medical check-up, dogs are given some respite time to recover from a previous traumatic experience. After that, the dogs will be assessed for their suitability for re-homing.


A professional team of staff carries out behaviour assessments and repeats them over a period of time. Schinzel said that, in accordance with professional behaviourists, assessments do not give correct results if done at day four or five after intake, because the dog is still traumatised.


Once a dog has been given the all clear for adoption, the re-homing process can start, which is very thorough. Prospective dog owners need to follow a strict application process, and the validity of information supplied is checked and verified by the shelter.

Registration fees waived

Prospective owners are encouraged to take the dog on walks in the company of a shelter volunteer. On such occasions, shelter staff can establish the suitability regarding human/dog relationship. Furthermore, Schinzel said the Tierheim Delbrueck shelter waives registration fees for dogs for the first year if the new owners residence is in the Cologne district. After a dog is placed with its new owner, the shelter staff does frequent follow-up visits.


Schinzel assured me that all dogs in the shelter are walked twice daily by qualified volunteers. This is a most welcome routine for them, as it also minimises stress. Depending on breed, age and ability, obedience training is also undertaken. In addition, all volunteer staff must attend frequently held seminars regarding animal behaviour, management and more. Any fees for such seminars are taken care of by the animal shelter. The return rate of dogs at his shelter is nil.


In our discussions, Schinzel said animal shelters in Germany receive (on a pro-rata base and depending on the size of the shelter) financial support from their respective local governments/councils. This financial contribution may not fully cover the running costs of a shelter, however, this is a positive way of supporting animal shelters on government level.


In case a dog needs ongoing medication and its new owner is experiencing financial difficulties, the Tierheim Delbrueck shelter is prepared to pay for such medical expenses for the remainder of the dogs natural life.


Another boost for re-homing is a weekly TV programme called Tiere Suchen Ein Zu Hause (Animals Seeking a Home), featuring all sorts of animals ready for adoption. The program also includes veteran canines. Moderators, together with the animal-shelter manager, give the background of each animal, such as how it came to be in the care of the shelter, its approximate age, and its preferred type of owner or household.


German animal shelters use a common database, which in turn is linked to the courts, police and other appropriate governmental departments/councils. This serves the purpose of easy location in case an animal has been lost, stolen or abused.

Shelters in Australia

The laws in Australia are different to that of Germany. I spoke to Jo Boland, manager of Animal Aid in Victoria, about the regulations concerning dogs in shelters.


If a dog is not claimed within seven to eight days from a council pound, the animal is transferred to an animal shelter, where it is vet-checked and treated for any injuries. By law, an animal can only be kept for a period of 28 days from the date of intake, and if it isnt re-homed during that time, it is destroyed, Boland said. During the animals stay in a shelter, certain behaviour assessments are undertaken, but often cannot be done in-depth. Professional behaviourists don’t come cheap and animal shelters haven’t enough financial resources to conduct such assessments on a regular basis.


In my personal experience, dogs from shelters can display out-of-character behaviour once re-homed. This can occur weeks or months after the dog has been adopted. Such behaviour is probably triggered by an un-addressed, underlying issue, and it can be a shock to the new owner, leading to the dog being handed back to the shelter.


One should not forget that all animals held in shelters have had, at some stage in their lives, traumatic experiences, which can be detrimental to their behaviour later on. Therefore, I believe much more time should be allowed for rehabilitation and behaviour assessments.


Boland also said that older dogs – and this may vary from shelter to shelter – are not easily or not at all re-homed. The reason for this may be a misconception that older dogs are not suitable and/or are difficult to adapt to a new life, she told me.


Financial assistance from governmental departments/councils does not exist in Australia. Animal shelters in this country have to rely on donations, memberships, sponsors, op-shops, open day fundraising and the like.

New Zealand

New Zealands Animal Welfare Act 1999 states that an animal must be kept for a period of seven days in a council pound. If it is not claimed by the owner, it is transferred to an animal shelter, which may keep them longer, depending on their kennel space and the re-homing/adoption suitability. This, however, may vary around the country, as most of the rural Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) branches are run by volunteers.


To take a closer look at how animal shelters are operated in New Zealand, I contacted Barbara Daw from the SPCA Christchurch branch and Michelle Goodin, team leader from the Hamilton City Councils Animal Care and Control Unit. It is not good practice to keep animals for very long periods in a kennel situation, Daw said.


Goodin added that adoption procedures are in place, however, this may also vary slightly from branch to branch due to manpower constraints. When re-homing a dog, it is behaviour-tested by qualified staff. The dog must pass the behaviour test to be considered for re-homing. The new owner must pass a dog-owner test on basic dog-owner responsibilities, have a suitable fenced section and have no adverse history in regard to owning a dog in the past, she said.


Goodin also informed me that any dog classified as dangerous, menacing on behaviour or menacing on breed is not re-homed. In addition, workshops for volunteer staff include a session on animal behaviour.


Daw said some SPCA branches have close ties with their respective council pounds and might assist in re-homing suitable dogs. If a dog is kept for more than seven days at any of the SPCA branches, this dog becomes the property of the SPCA.


I was astounded to learn that council pounds do behaviour assessments at day four or five. Goodin said that by this time, dogs have settled into their new environment and we get an accurate result.


I wonder, though, how many dogs develop out-of-character behaviour later and are returned, or worse, dumped.

Inadequate laws

Visiting the Tierheim Delbrueck animal shelter in Germany and comparing it to the way shelters operate down-under has shown me that animal-welfare laws in Australia and New Zealand are not adequate.


Current laws should change to better support animal shelters. Like in Germany, councils should provide ongoing financial support so dogs can be kept until they are re-homed. The law on keeping dogs for only 28 days in shelters should be abolished.


Strong lobbying in conjunction with animal-welfare groups, the public and equally minded politicians can bring about change. We should not be complacent about this issue.

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