10 min read

What Animal Shelters Want Pet Parents to Know Before Adopting


Written by Emily Bayne

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 02/09/2023, edited: 03/09/2023


Adopting a pet from a shelter comes with unique challenges. Whether you adopt a puppy, senior, or rescue, bringing home a shelter animal isn't like getting one from a breeder or a family.   

These pets come from a wide variety of backgrounds — they may have never been in a house, been abused, or had little to no socialization. Just as often, they come from families who relinquish them due to busy schedules or a change in living situation. No matter their background, these pets will need extra love and patience while they adjust, but with the right mindset and some work, they can become terrific companions.        

We visited the Humane Society and county animal shelter in Greenwood, South Carolina, to learn more about sheltering and find out what staff wish more pet parents knew before adopting. From animal behavior to breed stereotypes, these are their responses.

Meet the staff!

To bring you the best expert tips for adopting a dog from a shelter, we interviewed several HSOG staff members for this article, including:

  • Connie Mawyer — Executive Director
  • Summer Kelso — Head of Customer Care
  • Becca Dobbins — Event and Marketing Coordinator
  • Shyanne McKee — Placement Coordinator
  • Matthew Dobbins — Medical Worker
  • Maggie Watson — Animal Care Tech

Check out the video above to meet them all!

The road sign for the facility which houses Greenwood County Animal Shelter and the Humane Society of Greenwood

The dog you see in the shelter won't be the same one you bring home

You may be surprised at how your rescue baby acts when you first bring them home, and you may even feel like you have a completely different dog! According to the HSOG shelter staff, this isn't unusual. Almost every animal will behave differently in the shelter and the home — sometimes even displaying night and day differences in temperament and sociability.   

"You're going to see different behaviors. In a home, they're likely going to be on a couch or with a person all day. But here they're in a kennel probably 23 hours out of a day," explains Shyanne McKee, HSOG's placement coordinator.

The kennels can be very stressful for new arrivals since most aren't kennel-trained. Some dogs (and cats) go "kennel crazy" from being cooped up without adequate mental and physical stimulation.

Animal shelter worker kneeling in a kennel run while petting a brown rescue Pit Bull. The person depicted is Elliot Podsiadlo, animal care tech at HSOG.

Elliot Podsiadlo, Animal Care Tech at HSOG, with Caramel

Staff do their best to ensure each dog gets exercise, affection, and enrichment every day, but the sad truth is that with 60+ dogs at any given time, the amount of one-on-one time isn't optimal. Still, animal care workers do everything they can to ensure each animal feels loved and cared for.

That said, the transition from a dog's former life to a shelter and then to a new home will be difficult. These pets are suddenly uprooted from everything they know and taken to a strange new place, so it may take some time for them to learn to trust.

"Honestly, about the first month is going to be a little stressful, especially if they've been here for a while," says HSOG marketing coordinator Becca Dobbins.  

"Regardless of why they're here, something happened," explains HSOG executive director Connie Mawyer. "So if animal control came, that's a trauma to them."

Mawyer says many new arrivals are reactive and fearful at first due to their past or the circumstances surrounding their arrival. Many need medical attention and may act aggressively due to painful, untreated conditions like kidney stones.  

"They're highly stressed. Some of them are shut down. Some of them have displaced aggression because they don't know what's happening. So it takes a couple of days to get the dog adjusted to the environment."    

Buster, a blue and white Pit Bull in a shelter kennel cage awaiting adoption at the Humane Society of Greenwood, South Carolina

Buster, a male Pit Bull who is the HSOG's longest-term stay. He is currently in foster care awaiting his forever home.

Don't judge a book by its cover

Their second piece of advice to people looking to adopt a shelter pet is to not judge a book by its cover. Some dogs have what shelter staff calls "poor kennel presentation." Dogs with poor kennel presentation may shake, hide, bark, and even growl due to stress from the noise, animals, or close quarters. Prospective adopters may be surprised that these dogs are very friendly and outgoing outside the kennel.   

People who come to the adoption center are often shocked — and even put off — by the number of Pit Bulls. Most intakes at the HSOG are Pits or Pit mixes. 

"Pits have a very bad rap, but they're very loving animals," says HSOG animal care Maggie Watson. "It's just as hard to see how people look at them through the gate."

A young female shelter employee in red scrubs in front of a sign that reads Humane Society of Greenwood. Pictured is animal care tech Maggie Watson of HSOG.

Maggie Watson, Animal Care Tech at HSOG

The shelter staff has a soft spot for this breed, and most have Pit Bulls themselves. "They're big babies and just like any other breed," says HSOG medical worker and Pit Bull dad Matthew Dobbins. "They're sweet, protective, and very loyal. Pit Bulls have a lot of love to give and just want someone to love."

This sentiment extends to bait dogs rescued from local fighting rings, as well. Dog fighting (largely Pit Bull fighting) has become a major issue in Upstate South Carolina. Sadly, many bait dogs have difficulty finding placement because of their past and the stigma behind these breeds.

Wholesome Read: Pit Bulls: Why We Love Them

Man in scrubs with a hound dog sitting in the shelter supply room, person depicted is Matthew Dobbins, medical staff member at the HSOG animal shelter in Greenwood, South Carolina

Matthew Dobbins, a medical staff member at the HSOG, and his rescue pet, Rufus

"I'm a fighter for bait dogs," says Mawyer. "Bait dogs are here because they chose not to fight in that aggressive situation. They didn't respond. They were losing because they won't fight back. Helping get them out of that situation that is part of what this shelter should be. People put them in that situation; people should get them out."

Mawyer reassures us that all the dogs undergo extensive behavioral testing and lengthy evaluations before being placed on the available list. "We look at their behavior the whole time they're here, and we try to put them in as many situations as we can because we don't want to put a dog out there that has a trigger."

Don't come in with a preconceived notion of which dog will fit your family

When asked what she wishes more people knew before adopting a shelter pet, Mawyer's advice was simple:

"I think it would be that each dog is an individual. One of the things that I find in sheltering when people come in here, most of the time, they are emotional. They're either upset because either they've lost an animal or they are excited because they saw a dog that looked like one they had when they were younger.    

"So younger people come in and they don't understand that it's more than just having something to pet. Some older people will get a dog that they associate with a dog from their childhood. Well, not only are the breeds a little different, [but] our standard of animal care has changed, and so have they. They're older now, so they may not have the time to throw the Frisbee because they're working. So that active dog that made their life wonderful as a teenager may not work for them as an adult with their lifestyle."

She stresses that finding a good match that suits your activity level and lifestyle is essential for successful pet placement. "The pet has to fit your lifestyle. And I think that when you come in here with a pre-determined dog or thought, you miss out on some real jewels that would fit your family. "

Short-haired female on a couch at an animal shelter smiling, person depicted is HSOG executive director Connie Mawyer

Connie Mawyer, Executive Director of the Greenwood County Animal Shelter and Humane Society

You need to start training from day 1

Staff urges pet parents to start training and socialization from day one. Implementing a training regimen early will not only speed up the training process, but the adjustment period in general.

"Don't be like, 'Oh, I'm going to give it a week,' and then all of a sudden make all these changes. The best thing you can do for you and your animal is just start your schedule right when you get home." says McKee.

She also stresses the importance of socialization for every dog — not just rescues. "If you keep a dog away from people, children, or other animals, they won't know [how to behave in those situations] — just like people. Socializing, your dog, especially as a puppy will make them more dog-friendly, used to people, and easier to handle."

Female in scrubs at a desk at an animal shelter, green back ground with a photo of a dog in the background. The person depicted is Shyanne McKee, Placement Coordinator of HSOG animal shelter in Greenwood, South Carolina

Shyanne McKee, Placement Coordinator of HSOG animal shelter

Give them time

Many shelter pets come from abusive homes and may be skittish and fearful for the first few weeks or months. After all, you are essentially a stranger to them. But with some time, patience, consistency, and training, they can become wonderful pets.    

"A lot of these dogs have never been on a leash. A lot of these dogs lived in backyards, so they're not extremely social," says Mawyer.   

Dobbins suggests providing your new pet with a quiet space, maybe a cozy crate with kennels and toys, or a secluded room. She also recommends continuing shelter activities like enrichment toys and regular walks. "Make them feel at home. And they'll eventually come around and kind of like how we are with new people, and it's how animals will be as well."

Smiling brown-haired female in front of a sign that says Humane Society of Greenwood

Becca Dobbins, Event and Marketing Coordinator for the Humane Society of Greenwood

Spaying and neutering your pets is more important than you think

One of the number one things that shelter staff all across the country want to stress is the importance of spaying and neutering. Unsterilized dogs and cats are responsible for the overpopulation in shelters. And shelters all over the US are desperately trying to deal with the constant influx of strays, unwanted litters, and owner surrenders, largely due to irresponsible backyard breeding.

Most dogs that find their way into the shelter are intact, with many picked up by animal control and taken to the shelter after escaping to locate a mate. "A male dog can know a female is in heat for a three-mile radius," Mawyer explains.

Sadly, fences, enclosures, and doors are small hurdles for dogs hell-bent on mating.

Mawyer explains that some pet parents dole out hundreds or even thousands to install fences, build enclosures, or put in underground fences to prevent their dog from running away, but that does nothing to address the root cause — their instinctual urge to breed.

"A person can spend thousands on supplies and they still can't keep them. And really, if they would have done the spay and neuter, it would have prevented most of the roaming."

"If you're going to be a pet owner, be a responsible pet owner. Your animals need to be vaccinated and spayed or neutered."

— Connie Mawyer, Executive Director at HSOG

The sprawling and constantly changing list of names on the kennel roster is proof that the shelter can't keep up with the endless stream of animals that come in — largely due to irresponsible breeding and the lack of spay-and-neuter laws within the community.

"Here lately, you pick up 3 females, and then 2 weeks later, we actually have 32 dogs because they all had litters within a week and a half. There used to be a puppy season or kitten season. Now, it's year-round. Because there are that many unsterilized animals that have become strays."

Sadly, the over-breeding of Pit Bulls in particular is rampant in this area. "A lot of people see money," says Mawyer. "They think that because they have a desirable coloration, they can breed their dog and profit off the offspring, but it doesn't always work out that way. They get stuck with 3 browns and 2 grays. The 2 grays get sold, and the 3 browns? Those becomes my stray dogs."

Not only does sterilization prevent unwanted litters, but it has health benefits too. "Your animal is at lower risk of getting different cancers and having health issues as they get older," says Summer Kelso, Head of Customer Care at HSOG.

Whether you do it for the health benefits, to prevent the hassle of raising pups, or to fulfill your duty to the animal population, shelter workers all over the states urge you to get your pet fixed before it's too late. 

A short-haired animal shelter employee holding a cat, in front of a row of cat kennels, the person pictured is Summer Kelso, HSOG employee

Summer Kelso, HSOG Customer Care Specialist

Be a responsible pet parent

Unfortunately, in cities like Greenwood, the stray animal population is incredibly high, as is the number of owner surrenders and seizures from neglect cases. Add staggering birth rates due to accidental breeding and unlicensed breeders in the city, and you have a facility that's almost always at or over capacity.

Executive director Mawyer wants to see a change.

"Animal shelters are not obligated for your mistakes, for you not taking care of your responsibilities. And I feel that that's a huge component because back in the day, if someone didn't want an animal, they took them to the shelter and they dropped them off, and they kept going. It was open intake. The euthanasia rate was so high, I mean, it was a 50/50 chance that a dog or cat could make it out of a shelter at one point."

These sobering facts drive Mawyer, who has been in the animal welfare industry for 17 years, to find inventive ways to increase the adoption rate and educate the public on responsible pet parenthood.

She says they are trying to remedy this by implementing sustainable, life-saving strategies from the No Kill Foundation and other shelters — all while operating on a shoestring budget.

This isn't easy, since HSOG is a small shelter with limited funding. Mawyer says she needs the community's help. "It has to be a collaboration with the community. Changing the mindset that we should be able to just resolve any of their animal issues and teaching owners to be more responsible. If you're going to be a pet owner, be a responsible pet owner — your animals need to be vaccinated and spayed or neutered."

Catina and Summer Kelso hard at work at the HSOG receptionist desk at the HSOG animal shelter.png

HSOG staff hard at work

Pets are more than just a present or an animal

Lastly, the staff wants you to know that pets aren't just gifts, fads, or disposable playthings — they're a 10- to 20-year commitment. Having a pet is a huge personal and financial responsibility — and you need to make sure you are prepared for that. Before bringing a new pet into your home, you should consider your schedule, lifestyle, living situation, finances, and family dynamics.

"They're not just animals or Christmas gifts. They have emotions. They are happy. They are sad. They can get heartbroken. They can have separation anxiety. It's just the lack of knowledge of how much really goes into a pet and just thinking, 'I'm going to take it to the shelter.' Because we see some of the worst cases out there and it hurts us pretty bad," says McKee.

Shelter work isn't all wags and licks — the staff face unimaginable neglect and abuse cases, and not all stories have a happy ending. The constant frustration and heartbreak take a toll on their morale. But despite the heartache and emotional fatigue, staff still go in every day to help these animals.       

They ask parents to have patience with their new fur-babies and do their due diligence to the animal community by being responsible.

Related: The Ultimutt Guide to Caring for a New Dog

Front view of Greenwood Humane Society and County Animal Shelter in Greenwood, South Carolina

How to donate

The Humane Society runs solely off donations from pet lovers like you. These contributions ensure shelter pets receive quality nutrition and medical care and help fund vital programs like trap-neuter-release.

To lend a helping paw, visit the HSOG donation page. You can even set up recurring donations or donate supplies from HSOG's Amazon wishlist and have them shipped directly to the shelter!

Remember, every donation, no matter how small, makes a big difference in the lives of these pets!

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