It's ‘Dumping Season' in the Animal Rescue World

Owners give up dogs because they misbehave or to make room for the new puppy.

Sad Bearded Collie Mix Breed Dog Confined In Animal Shelter
Some owners give up pets because they are too expensive to board over the holidays. debibishop / Getty Images

The weary posts and messages are piling up on social media and member pages of rescue groups and animal shelters. Can anyone foster a senior dog? How about a rowdy “teenage” puppy? Who has room for this one or that one, as animal rescuers lament what some call a “dumping season.”

Many groups say this is one of the busiest times of year for owner surrenders — when families give up their pets to shelters and rescues. It’s rivaled, they say, only by summertime. I foster and volunteer for several rescue groups and follow dozens around the country. The message is repeated over and over again.

Heather Clarkson competes in dog sports and is the founder of a herding breed dog rescue based in North Carolina. She recently posted about this on Facebook:

“Every year, owner surrender rates triple between the two holidays. This year will probably be worse due to pandemic puppies. The only 'reason' we've ever figured out is that it's around the time folks realize what a pain their untrained dogs are (lots of company over) or they suddenly figure out boarding will cost hundreds so they just surrender.”

Yes, that’s right. People give up their dogs because they get too excited when guests come over or they're messing with the Christmas tree or it’s incredibly expensive to board them. So they just drop them off at a shelter or rescue group, have their holiday celebrations, and some then get a new dog when things get back to normal.

Clarkson has been in rescue for 12 years and says she sees this each holiday season. Like every rescuer, she’s heard quite the range of excuses whatever time of year a dog needs to be rehomed.

“It would be impossible to name them all,” she tells me. “The worst are when families surrender older dogs for not getting along with the new Christmas puppy. Usually, it's behavior issues like reactivity, destruction, jumping on/mouthing children, etc. We get the 'needs a farm’ line a lot.”

Holidays vs. Summer

Lola dog owner surrender
Lola watches her owner drive away after she is dropped off at a shelter. Emily Sadler / Walker County Animal Shelter

According to Best Friends Animal Society, which tracks data from 2,400 U.S. shelters, summer is actually the busiest time of year for intake. That’s likely because it’s kitten season when so many community cats come into area facilities and also because of Fourth of July when pets get scared by celebrations and run away from home, Michelle Sathe, Best Friends public relations manager, says.

Shelters and rescue groups say they also are inundated with many requests to take pets in summer. They say families realize how expensive it is to find a place for the pet while they go on vacation so they decide not to have a pet anymore. There are stories about parents being overwhelmed when the kids are home for the summer and it’s too much to take care of the kids and the pets at the same time.

Also looking at the bigger picture, the Humane Society of the United States says they don’t put a lot of stock in the idea of the holidays being a dumping season.

“We see this trend as a myth and are not aware of data that indicates a spike in surrenders this time of year,” Kirsten Peek, HSUS manager of media relations tells me. She points out that surrenders happen overwhelmingly due to behavioral issues, lack of pet-friendly housing, and expensive medical care.

“In the experience of one of my colleagues who worked at a shelter for many years, people may say that they’re surrendering because they have guests coming over for the holidays but really, it’s because their dog is experiencing significant behavioral challenges,” Peek says.

Whatever the reason, dogs and cats find their way into rescue groups and shelters a lot this time of year.

Over and over again, rescuers say they are extra busy this time of year and say owners cite the same reasons for giving up their animals.

“Typically (not 2020) people want to travel during the holidays, or they are cleaning and getting their house ready and the pets are a hindrance, especially older ones who have accidents,” says Judy Duhr, director of Speak! St. Louis, a special needs rescue. “Or some decide it's time to give up or euthanize that elderly pet to make room for the new Christmas puppy. Even our vet said the pets brought in to be put to sleep this time of year goes way up.”

“If I’m being honest, it’s always dumping season at our shelter,” says Emily Sadler, director of Walker County Animal Shelter in rural Chickamauga, Georgia.

“But, people do tend to dump animals around the holidays for various reasons: top two being out with the old and in with the new puppy, and traveling. People don’t want to pay to board their animals.”

What About Pandemic Puppies?

Gigi puppy with toys
Blind and deaf Gigi was one of my pandemic puppies this summer. Mary Jo DiLonardo

This year, many people adopted “pandemic puppies” to keep themselves company and to do a good deed by helping these homeless pets. But unless the owners were diligent about training and socializing (which sure is hard to do when you’re stuck at home), then those cute little puppies might not be so charming right about now.

I fostered eight puppies this year since the pandemic started. It was a challenge to socialize them and get them used to strange noises and places when we were mostly hunkered down at home. We took walks and went to parks. Instead of meeting strangers, I had friends come over and we socially distanced while wearing masks. The puppies got to play with new people and my friends got what they said was much-needed stress-reduction therapy. 

But for the people who adopted a puppy during COVID, they might be causing stress instead of lowering it.

“Unfortunately, many of these young dogs will be teenagers when the holidays roll around — which is typically the time all the fun naughty behaviors come out,” Clarkson says.

“Combine that with a lack of exposure and proper socialization, and the limited availability of professional training... it's a recipe for trouble. Most of the surrender requests we've received over the past month have been for 8-12 month old dogs.”   

Holiday Adoptions

Faith Christmas puppy
Faith was a foster puppy who got an amazing home right around the holidays. Mary Jo DiLonardo

There’s an often-repeated belief that pets given as holiday gifts end up being returned a few months later. Some rescue groups will go so far as to discourage holiday adoptions.

Although the post-holiday regret might be true sometimes, research shows that typically that’s not the case. A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked at the risk factors that made a dog more likely to be relinquished to an animal shelter. It found that dogs received as gifts were much less likely to be surrendered than dogs that were purchased or adopted by the owner directly.

A 2013 study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found no link between getting a dog or cat as a gift and an owner's subsequent relationship with that animal. The ASPCA discovered that 96% of people who received pets as gifts believed it either increased or had no impact on their love or attachment to their pet.

Most rescue groups do a considerable amount of research before letting someone adopt a pet. They check vet records of former pets, some ask for personal references, and all do interviews. It’s never a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“It's never a bad time to adopt, generally. And if families stay home as health experts suggest, then it shouldn't be too stressful of a season,” Clarkson says. The key is to do the research, pick a breed or mix for it's temperament — not appearance — and factor in training and socialization as a basic necessity, not an add-on to dog ownership.”

View Article Sources
  1. Weiss, Emily. "Should Dogs And Cats Be Given As Gifts?". MDPI, 2013.