When the SPCA began building the Albrecht Center in May of 2011, there were several questions that played like broken records.

1) How much will it cost?

2) Will you hire more staff?

And to my dismay: 3) How many dogs will you be able to hold now?

We must dispel the misconception that if an animal is not dead, it is saved, and, therefore, we should “hold” as many as possible. Sheltering pets, particularly dogs, is a precarious business. We are walking a tightrope between saving these animals and damaging them, perhaps permanently.

No shelter has the resources to “hold” the surplus of animals entering shelters annually. If we line up crates of shelter pets side-by-side beginning Jan. 1, they will stretch from Los Angeles to Jacksonville by August. By Dec. 31, we will have begun a second row stacked on top of the first. A third of those might be adopted, but a third of those adopted will be returned for behavioral issues.

In all my time at the SPCA, I’ve never heard a potential adopter say, “I’d like a dog that jumps and barks incessantly” or “I like the ones that growl and pace back and forth like lions in cages.” Unfortunately, these sorts of behaviors develop as a result of confinement in a surprisingly short amount of time (2 weeks!) when dogs are simply “held.”

What does that mean for a no-kill shelter like the SPCA? Animals in our care are only euthanized if they are irreparably ill or injured. They could be with us for a long time and are at risk of mental deterioration with each passing day, despite the fact that they live in roomy kennels with views to the outside world. Giving them life isn’t enough; we owe them a life worth living with every chance at success in a permanent home.

Phideaux University was our first step in the right direction. This train-to-adopt program keeps the dogs’ cortisol levels low (that’s a fancy way of saying these dogs are stress-free). By engaging their brains as well as their bodies, we also make them more adoptable.

Things I actually hear adopters say are “I want a smart dog” or “I want a dog that loves me.” Phideaux University is turning out dogs that are well-behaved, walk nicely on leashes, know how to chill out, and, above all, are connected to their human companions.

The answer to No. 3 and the second step in the right direction was more like a leap of faith. How many dogs will you be able to hold now? Less. But less is more, and we are proving it!

We can’t adequately care for animals long term if we have too many at one time. Doubling or tripling up in kennels brings out the worst in once gentle pups: resource and territory guarding, barrier aggression and the old “I’m sick of you, get out of my space” aggression.

We took the plunge this spring hoping that caring for fewer dogs at a time would get them adopted more quickly, meaning over the course of a year, we would have held less at one time, but saved more overall.

The results have been extraordinary! Every dog gets outside every day. Volunteers are able to retrieve one dog from a kennel without being mauled by a jealous roomie. Potential adopters can actually go into the kennels and visit with a pet. Adopters don’t feel overwhelmed by the numbers, so they make decisions more quickly. The dogs can have toys again because they aren’t fighting over them. Kids can even go into the kennels and read aloud to a dog (nope, not kidding).

But the best, best, best outcome is this: Our length of stay for dogs has gone from an average of six to nine months to a current 27 days, meaning we should be able to save 7.5 times more dogs per year. Now that’s something to wag about!

If you would like more information about the SPCA, call us at 803-648-6863 or visit us on the web at LetLoveLive.org.


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