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Why are there so many shelter dogs?

If you’re at all tuned into the news you’ve probably heard that animal shelters are overflowing across the country. Every shelter, rescue and foster facility is at capacity and taking in more daily. We haven’t seen overpopulation like this since the 1990s. The main reasons, the pandemic caused a two-year halt of spay and neuter services across the country, and at the same time, the puppies that were born received little to no socialization.

Socialization, which happens before the puppy turns 6 months old, is crucial to helping them learn and experience the world as well as adjust their behavior accordingly. A puppy that doesn’t leave home during this window is like a kid who is home-schooled without any friends. Their communication skills and ability to work within the world are challenged, at best.

Typically, shelters are filled with 18-month old dogs. These young adults have reached their full size and are now testing their boundaries. The lack of formal or informal socialization opportunities during the pandemic caused only the most dedicated people to socialize their new puppies. This caused the system to be filled with a tremendous number of unsocialized and undersocialized dogs.

In early 2020, if our country was in balance – that is, if we had an equal number of dogs to homes – we may have been able to shoulder the situation. But we weren’t. Even before the pandemic, we had more dogs born daily than available homes and the pandemic tipped us over the edge.

In 2020, as more people stayed home the demand for puppies grew. The number of breeders grew to fill the demand. Not good breeders – educated dog-lovers aware of a pregnant dogs’ needs – but backyard breeders. Mom and pop breeders who don’t value the need to handle and socialize dogs before adoption.

So we already had more puppies than homes available, then the pandemic hit and the market was flooded with even more puppies. Shelters began feeling the impacts in 2021. At the same time, crucial spay/neuter services were halted across the country and folks were left with few options for pregnant dogs, taking an already escalating problem and compounding it tenfold.

As more animals fill shelters, the staff has less and less time with each. Less time with the animals makes it more difficult to match a dog’s personality with the right family. Which of course leads to compassion fatigue and burnout.

The impacts of COVID-19 have been felt by all of us in a variety of ways. Is it any surprise those impacts have affected our best friends as well? And unfortunately, it’s not a problem that will end overnight. The 18-month average means high intakes will continue well into 2023.

Marcy Eckhardt is director of pranaDOGS Behavior & Rehab Center and canine behaviorist at La Plata County Humane Society. Reach her at marcy@lpchumanesociety.org.