“We would love to tell you that every dog can flourish in every home, but the truth is that, no matter what you do, sometimes a dog and family are not a good fit.”

~ Patricia McConnell and Karen London, Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home

My first dog Brandy was from an animal shelter. While I have a story I tell myself about her life before me, I really don't know whether she was a stray or whether she had another home before mine. Maybe you have surrendered a dog. Maybe someone you know has. Maybe you live with a dog who used to live elsewhere. Companion animal relinquishment is real, and it is a reality that is not well understood. Now, with help from people all over the world, scientists are hoping to change that.

Today we focus on dog relinquishment, “the voluntary surrendering or giving up of a pet dog to another individual, party, or organization.” Relinquishment is part of the life story of many companion animals, the reasons for which might be complicated and personal. Feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment can plague people who have surrendered a pet. Some might feel angry, others conflicted or confused. Some might feel confident in their decision. The quest to understand companion dog relinquishment continues.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that approximately 7.6 million dogs and cats enter United States animal shelters each year as strays or owner surrenders. But these estimates are only part of the story; these estimates only look at the United States and are not comprehensive of the worldwide phenomenon. Additionally, these estimates do not include the general state of companion animal relinquishment which also includes people giving pets to groups or organizations other than animals shelters -- like rescue groups or foster care organizations -- or people relinquishing pets to another person.

Researchers at The University of Lincoln are conducting an international, online survey on the factors leading people to relinquish a pet dog. If you or someone you know has ever surrendered a companion dog, the researchers are hoping for your participation.

Karen Griffin, a PhD student at The University of Lincoln, Animal Behaviour Cognition and Welfare Team (Twitter), is leading the online survey. She explains, “Pet dog relinquishment is a topic on which there has been quite limited academic research thus far, most likely due to its sensitive and emotional nature.” With this international survey, Griffin hopes to understand the “factors that lead to a pet dog staying in a home as well as the factors that lead to a pet dog being relinquished.”

Griffin's online survey differs from earlier studies investigating pet dog relinquishment. Many studies are in-person interviews or questionnaires that focus on owners who are actively surrendering a pet to an animal shelter. Interviews generally take place at the time of surrender -- a potentially emotional time -- and some people are not interviewed due to their agitated state. Additionally, responses could be skewed by the act of surrender. For example, Zazie Todd (Twitter) who maintains the Companion Animal Psychology blog, reviewed a 2013 study on why people surrender dogs to animal shelters. In the study, experimenters interviewed owners who were either dropping a dog off at the shelter for surrender or who were at the shelter to have their dog vaccinated. In her coverage of the study, Todd explains that not all owners were approached by the experimenters: “Some people were not approached to take part because their dogs seemed to be aggressive, and the experimenter would have had to hold them while the owner completed the questionnaire. In addition, if relinquishing owners seemed particularly upset or arrived requesting euthanasia of the dog, they were not asked to take part, so as not to exacerbate their distress. It is possible this had an effect on the results.”

An online survey is a potentially less-invasive way to explore a difficult or emotion-laden topic. Anyone who has voluntarily relinquished a dog can take part in this 15-20 minute survey on their own time and share details that might have been difficult to share in the moment. Like previous studies, the survey can reach people in different locations (such as urban, rural, and suburban), and the survey can also draw international responses.

The current survey is also more broad because it aims to gather feedback not only from people who have surrendered a pet dog to an animal shelter, but from anyone who has voluntarily surrendered a dog to another individual or organization.

Griffin and her colleagues hope to gain a deeper understanding of the factors behind dog surrender. As Griffin explains, “Previous studies have largely focused on static descriptions of the dog owner — such as family size and structure, living arrangements, and type of employment — all of which are prone to change during the time the dog is in the [domestic] environment. Changes in such things are often given as risk factors for pet dog relinquishment. However, they do not inevitably necessitate relinquishment, so this study hypothesizes that other causes are at play.”

I asked Griffin if she thinks it is difficult for people to openly discuss surrendering a companion dog, and whether she thinks a social stigma is attached. Her response reminded me that this phenomenon can be more complex than I had imagined.

“Yes, I think this can be a very difficult subject to discuss for anybody who has ever surrendered a dog. While I do believe that there is some social stigma associated with it, I don't believe that it's the only reason why it's a sensitive subject. I think that the circumstances surrounding the relinquishment can be difficult or painful in and of themselves (e.g. a divorce), so revisiting this event can be hard. I also think that it can be filled with particularly challenging emotions like regret, shame, or guilt; people may feel this although the surrender was voluntary. I think the social stigma reinforces these negative feelings.

“The goal is by no means to place any judgment. Many years ago, long before dogs were my field of study or profession, I relinquished a dog. I am still ridden with guilt and shame; it was a very dark event in my life, and one I most certainly would not be eager to revisit if asked, so I absolutely understand that I am asking a lot of others to do the same. I sincerely hope that anybody who chooses to participate will understand the benefits that can be gained from more research and greater understanding of this topic.”

Now it's your turn: If you have voluntarily relinquished a dog for any reason to another individual, party, or organization, please contribute to this study.

Dog Relinquishment Survey

Survey: https://lincolnpsych.eu.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_cRN3xLPP8XPSk1n

Time to complete: approximately 15 - 20 minutes

Complete by: January 31, 2015

Twitter: @ABCWelfare

Contact: Karen Griffin, kgriffin@lincoln.ac.uk

University of Lincoln, Animal Behaviour Cognition and Welfare


Image: Eric Osmundson via Flickr creative commons.


Kwan J.Y. (2013). Owner Attachment and Problem Behaviors Related to Relinquishment and Training Techniques of Dogs, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16 (2) 168-183. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2013.768923

McConnell, P.B. & Karen B. London (2011). Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home. Black Earth, WI. McConnell Publishing, Ltd.

Salman M.D., Jr., Janet M. Scarlett, Philip H. Kass, Rebecca Ruch-Gallie & Suzanne Hetts (1998). Human and Animal Factors Related to Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats in 12 Selected Animal Shelters in the United States, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1 (3) 207-226. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327604jaws0103_2

Scarlett J.M., John G. New, Jr. & Philip H. Kass (1999). Reasons for Relinquishment of Companion Animals in U.S. Animal Shelters: Selected Health and Personal Issues, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 2 (1) 41-57. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327604jaws0201_4

Todd, Z. (2013). Why do people surrender dogs to animal shelters? Companion Animal Psychology blog.