On Transporting and Decompressing Groups of Shelter Dogs

The landscape of animal welfare is slowly changing and it is apparent that different types of dogs are more available in different areas of the United States, depending on what breed types are popular in that area. When I moved from Indiana to Saint Paul, Minnesota 7 years ago, I was shocked by the difference of the dogs in the animal shelters. In Indiana (at that time) we had a lot more beagles and hound mixes, along with some pit bulls. Walking into Saint Paul Animal Control showed kennel after kennel with pit-bull type dogs—and not a beagle in sight! In parts of California, Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes are as prevalent as America’s most common dog—pit bull mixes.

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Currently in the Twin Cities, there are not a lot of small dogs looking for rescue, and there are a lot of people looking to own small dogs. This isn’t to say that there are not homegrown dogs in Minnesota needing foster and adoptive homes—but they often are not of the same type to be considered by typical small dog adopters (large Heinz 57 dogs, Labradors, shepherd mixes, pit bull type dogs, mastiff crosses etc.). When homeless small dogs do need rescue, they are often quickly picked up by one of the many local dog rescues (even if they have significant health and behavioral issues).

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Many rescues in the area have started “pulling” dogs from shelters (often in the South) that are completely overburdened with small dogs. The rescue that I foster with, Pet Haven, is one of those rescues. They have a partner shelter and volunteers in Arizona (the top picture is of Pet Haven volunteers and dogs) that work to transport small dogs and dogs in danger to Minnesota. The shelter they work with takes in over 200 animals a day and each of those animals is in danger of euthanasia due to the sheer volume of animals. The puggle above, Murphy, came in on the last transport and we fostered him at our house until he got adopted.

Dogs are amazingly resilient and tolerant, but animals coming in on transport have dealt with a lot more stress than you might realize. It’s important to keep what they have been through in mind. Transports come in all varieties and sizes, but here is an example:

Before Dogs Leave for Transport:

They are often coming out of a hectic, crowded animal shelter (some with over 1,000 animals being cared for at any given time). Depending on the sending shelter, they may be so over-crowded that they are living in kennels stacked in the hallway or as one of many dogs thrown together in the same kennel run. Even if they have their own kennel run, they are exposed to stress in the shelter—dogs barking, strange people walking up to them and past them, having their picture taken, unfamiliar sounds and smells, different types of food than they are used to, being manipulated for exams and given vaccines, having surgery and anesthesia—all without anywhere to completely relax and shake the stress off. (Below you can see Murphy’s worried, spaced-out look. This photo was taken at his sending shelter in AZ. The poor little guy was an owner surrender and was probably really overwhelmed and confused.)

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Often, once the dogs are “pulled” (or taken from the shelter to be transported) there are a few days to weeks of wait time until the transport takes place. This is often necessary to ensure that the dogs will not be euthanized (put down). That means that they are often housed in local foster homes (or potentially boarding). Sometimes, all of the animals that will be on a transport are kept at one home in a more communal situation, with animals being kept separately if their health or temperament demands it.  Regardless of how these secondary locations are set-up, they are at minimum stressful because of being a new location. Additional points of stress are often present, depending on the housing—including space, kennels, outside time, and the number and interaction with other animals.

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Transport:

Depending on the transport (above example is a van used in transporting animals to Pet Haven and a transport volunteer), kennels with dogs in them are often stacked in a minivan, sport utility vehicle, or sometimes in the back of a rented U-haul. Airplanes are used less frequently (because of the cost and logistics).  The kennels are typically strapped in to ensure that they will not be falling or shifting while in the car, but no matter how diligent the rescuers are, mass transport will be trying (for the animals and the humans). The animals are unsure of what is happening and often there is whining and barking. In particularly unlucky transports, a dog might vocalize for the entire ride, which doesn’t allow the other animals to relax. Transports stop to give the animals a chance to relieve themselves and get water, but often there will be messes made during the ride that will need to be cleaned. If coming from the West, transports are often 2 full days (28-30 hours!) of driving from the sending shelter to the receiving shelter.  It is a lot for an animal to go through and it is exhausting!

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If there is a stop to sleep, then the dogs are put up in another form of temporary housing (because they cannot spend the night in the vehicle). The kennels may be unloaded into a motel room, foster home, spare backyard, or garage. The rescuers then make sure everyone has a chance to relieve themselves and that every animal is fed and as comfortable as possible. The long hours in the car, changes in locations and not knowing what to expect can be really hard on an animal, even with the best rescuer support.

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Transport Drop Off and Day One in the Foster Home:

Once the transport arrives in the cities, they are met at a location by their foster families. They are let out of the kennels, walked for another bathroom break, and then put into another new car with a new person. It’s all very exciting and scary for the dog and usually just exciting for the foster.

I can speak from personal experience that when I say that when I first get a new foster I am OBSESSED with them. I want to touch, pet, and interact with them. For example, I took a couple of pictures immediately after I got Murphy into my car. (See picture above). Poor little guy couldn’t catch a break, but was tolerant of my impression of the paparazzi. He’s obviously alert and probably a little concerned. Even knowing what the dog has just gone through and the stress they are under, it is difficult to reign in my enthusiasm. My brain is usually rapid firing thoughts like “They are so cute! They’re finally here! I want to show my friends! I hope they like my cats!”

Despite all of the initial excitement, it is important to go against the impulse to force interactions on the dog. Talking softly to them or petting gently when they approach can be helpful to the dog, as long as when they move away, you stop the interaction.  They have been stressed, over-excited, and nervous for a minimum of the last 3 days and often the best thing that you can do for them is to leave them alone and settle them in for a quiet night at home.

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The first night in the new home after an intense transport is not the best time to introduce them to other animals or children. Their patience and ability to cope is going to be decreased from the stress and forcing interactions can lead to unnecessary poor outcomes that are uncharacteristic for the dog. Imagine being forced to babysit a crying baby you don’t know after an international flight–you probably wouldn’t be able to provide the best childcare and your temper is probably more likely to flare because you just had to deal with 14 hours of crying baby preventing you from sleeping.

Dogs need decompression after transport. Usually, at my house, we will go for a short walk (especially if they haven’t been able to really stretch their legs in 2 days), feed them a small meal, offer them fresh water and then put them in their kennel in a dark room.

Some dogs will take a day or two to eat, drink, or use the facilities. I will tempt them with wet food (as they are more likely to eat it and it will also provide them with water) and a variety of foods but don’t get too concerned if they aren’t interested. As long as the dog is otherwise normal and healthy (no kidney issues, for example) I don’t get too concerned about not going to the bathroom for a day or two if the dog seems really stressed out. Provide them with ample time and space in a safe area and most dogs will give in and go to the bathroom.

For some dogs a dark room is NOT relaxing and for those, we will have a low-key evening at home (after putting our resident dogs upstairs or otherwise out of sight) where the dog can sleep on the couch or dog bed.  For most dogs, I try not to touch them or initiate contact. We don’t really ignore them but institute a type of non-stimulating, positive indifference that allows the dog to relax. If we take them outside, we keep them on a slip-lead. Dogs just off of transport can be a flight risk. 

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Unfortunately, dogs from animal shelters are often pretty dirty. Even though I know it is more than the dog wants to deal with, if they are not clean I will bathe them. This isn’t for the dog’s comfort (unless it has fleas), it’s for mine. Most dogs right off of transport will completely shut down in the bathtub, and I admit that I take advantage of that fact. I don’t deal well with dirty dogs in my house, but will allow it if the dog is absolutely too freaked out to be safely bathed.

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After Decompression:

Different dogs take different amounts of time to decompress. Some dogs take 1 hour, some dogs can take a week or two to relax enough to show you their true personality. If the dog is acting normally (happy, interactive), after the first day I will start thinking about introducing them to the resident dogs. Often, the best way to do this is through a group walk. Essentially, the two dog handlers start out walking 10-15 feet away from each other and over the course of the walk get closer and closer until the dogs able to sniff and briefly interact. The photo above is shortly after starting a walk, Frankie and Murphy are ignoring each other. Below is Georgie (in her cone) finishing up her first walk with Murphy. (Note: I don’t recommend introducing dogs in E-collars because it can be very scary for the new dog and might be the thing that makes an interaction go south. In this case, I made an exception because of the temperaments of the dogs and because Georgie would try to traumatize her eyelid surgery site if given one second out of the cone).

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Because we have two dogs, we introduce them through separate walks separately so that the new dog doesn’t feel ganged up on. After they have met both dogs and are doing well with both dogs separately, we will go on a brief walk with all three dogs before taking them into the backyard.

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If everything is going well I will let them off-leash (or with draglines) in the backyard for supervised interactions before bringing them into the house. Here is Frankie being a little creeped out that Murphy is trying to play with her for the first time.  Because she was uncomfortable, I interrupted the play and called her to me. After she came to me I released her again and she and Murphy continued to get to know each other.

The process of introducing dogs can be very quick, or it can take a few days. It really depends on the dogs temperaments. For more challenging dogs or situations, I’ve written a few of the steps that I recommend using for more difficult dog-dog introductions and integrationWhen in doubt, take it slow! It’s okay if it takes an extra day or two to integrate the household. Taking longer is far preferable to rushing it, especially with animals fresh off of transport!

Fostering Murphy was so easy–he was an all around good dog and got adopted quickly. It’s hard to think a dog like him could have been euthanized in a shelter. Thanks to Pet Haven for rescuing him and to Meagan with PH for the inspiration and photos of the transport!

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