The Bond That Never Developed:
Adoption and Relinquishment of Dogs
in a Rescue Shelter
Francesca Mondelli and Emanuela Prato Previde
Institute of Psychology
University of Milan
Institute of Zootecnic
University of Milan
Diana Levi and Sonia Magistrelli
Local Sanitary Agency
Department of Evolutionary and Functional Biology
University of Parma
This study carried out a survey in an Italian shelter to analyze adoptions resulting in
the rejection of the newly adopted dog. The results of this study show that the number
of dogs adopted and returned was stable during the study, that more females than
males were adopted, and that males were more likely to be returned. Almost all the
dogs were returned because of behavioral problems, and most were more than 6
months of age. Some dogs were returned more than once, with 20% of the people who
adopted the same dog at different times reporting the same behavioral problem. Hav
ing a house with a yard, a garden, or a terrace appeared to be important for better man
agement of the dog and influenced the length of adoption. Half of the adopters had
JOURNAL OF APPLIED ANIMAL WELFARE SCIENCE, 7(4), 253–266
Copyright © 2004, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Requests for reprints should be sent to Paola Valsecchi, Dipartimento di Biologia Evolutiva e
Funzionale, Università degli Studi di Parma, Parco Area delle Scienze 11/a, 43100 Parma Italy. Email:
previous experience as caregiver for a dog; compared to adopters who had no previ
ous experience, however, they returned their companion animal after a shorter period
and because of behavioral reasons. Understanding why adopters return their dogs to
shelters is an important step toward attempting to minimize relinquishments and,
thus, optimize adoptions.
Throughout the world, dogs, cats, rodents, and birds with the special label of
“companion animals” enter households as part of the family. Dogs are consid
ered one of the most popular and common companion animals for different rea
sons: They are playful companions to humans and express love and affection
through their extraordinary nonverbal communication (Beck & Katcher, 2003;
Clifton, 1993; Miller & Lago, 1990). Almost all parents view companion ani
mals as capable of teaching their children care and responsibility (Melson, 2001;
Swift, 1996). Dogs facilitate human social interactions and improve relation
ships, communication, and mood (Adell-Bath, Krook, Sandqvist, & Skantze,
1979; Hutton, 1985; Messent, 1994). “Service” dogs have a “social signifi-
cance” for many different people (Allen & Blascovich, 1996; Hart, 1990;
Mader, Hart, & Bergin, 1989). Many studies have explored the positive thera-
peutic role of dogs in nursing home settings and in a wide range of situations
Usually, a strong relationship develops between dogs and their caregivers, but
the maintenance of this bond is not an obvious consequence; many events can
jeopardize its success and length. Multiple factors can interfere with the bond be-
tween dogs and humans. Sometimes people lack time or money, or they simply are
not ready for, nor aware of, the responsibilities of owning a companion animal;
again, dogs may not meet the keepers’ expectations. Lifestyle changes, or family
or health problems may force people to give up their dogs (Arkow & Dow, 1984;
Case, 1987; Patronek, Glickman, Beck, McCabe, & Ecker, 1996; Rowan & Wil
liams, 1987). At other times, the reason is linked directly to the dog and the dog’s
behavior. Inappropriate elimination, hyperactivity, unwanted chewing, aggres
siveness, and separation anxiety can eventually overshadow any benefits, deterio
rating the relationship so badly that the care for the dog becomes intolerable for the
caregiver (Patronek et al., 1996).
Once the bond is broken, the dog may end up on the street or may be taken di
rectly to a shelter. According to statistics from U.S. animal shelters, millions of
dogs are surrendered to these facilities every year (Houpt, Utter Honig, & Reisner,
1996; Kidd, Kidd, & George, 1992). To delineate the issue of the companion ani
mal surplus in the United States, the National Council on Pet Population Study and
Policy coordinated three studies: The National Household Survey, The Regional
Shelter Survey, and the Shelter Statistic Study (Salman et al., 1998). The Regional
Shelter Survey was specifically addressed to characterize the relinquishment of
dogs and cats, their owners, and the reasons for relinquishment. This survey in
MONDELLI ET AL.
volved 12 shelters in four regions of the United States. Between February 1995
and April 1996, a total of 3,772 interviews with owners were completed and ana
lyzed, allowing a first evaluation of both human (housing issues, expectation, life
styles) and animal (medical–health issues, aggressive behavior, soiling, problems
with other companion animals, destructive behavior, excessive barking) factors
related to the relinquishment of companion animals (New et al., 2000; Salman et
al., 1998, 2000; Scarlett, Salman, New, & Kass, 1999). In addition, unfortunately,
many dogs adopted in public shelters are returned by their new caregivers: Bailey,
Hetherington, and Sellors (1997) found that in 1995 at the Blue Cross Centre at
Burford, England, 12.7% of the adopted dogs were returned.
Italy’s National Law 281, enacted in 1991 (Legge Quadro, 1991), regulates
shelters and abandoned dogs. This law established that captured and sheltered
dogs cannot be euthanized unless they are infected with untreatable or contagious
diseases or are dangerous to people and other animals. Because of the prohibition
against euthanizing animals, each year the number of dogs living in the shelters in
creases, and adoptions do not counterbalance the situation.
However, there are no accurate figures on the number of animals housed in res-
cue shelters, adopted, deliberately abandoned by caregivers, or returned to shel-
ters. In 2001, the National League for the Defense of Dogs (Lega Nazionale per la
Difesa del Cane) owned 65 rescue shelters that hosted 16,000 dogs and placed
5,000 dogs in new homes. The National Agency for the Protection of Animals
(Ente Nazionale Protezione Animali) owned 57 rescue shelters housing about
11,400 dogs and had an adoption rate of 34%.
The aim of this study was to understand why the adoption process occasionally
fails and results in dogs being returned to the shelter. An analysis of the reasons
why dogs adopted from the shelter were returned and a study of what influenced
adopters’ decision to leave their companion animals were conducted to investigate
whether this was due to problems linked to the dogs or to the adopters’ personal
reasons. The study was carried out in a public shelter located in Northern Italy.
The public shelter, located in Milan, Italy, is run by the veterinary service of the
Local Sanitary Agency (ASL). The shelter houses stray dogs found or captured
in the local territory, dogs handed over by their owners, and dogs taken away
from their keepers by the police because of ill treatment. During working hours,
people can walk freely around the shelter and look at the dogs. The staff is not
formally instructed to help and advise prospective adopters in their choice,
and—as the shelter is short-staffed—the visitors are not followed around.
Adopters are given a card with vaccinations and basic behavioral information
about the dog. Other than photocopying the adopter’s ID card, shelter personnel
ADOPTION AND RELINQUISHMENT OF DOGS 255
have no legal means of checking on personal data, and likewise have no legal
means of denying adoption. Shelter policy is to spay females prior to adoption
but not to neuter males. When the animal turnover in the shelter is very high, it
is possible that some females are not spayed before adoption.
In a 6-year period (January 1996 through December 2001), people who re
turned their dogs to the ASL shelter were asked to fill out a questionnaire (see the
Appendix) providing information about their reason for adopting a dog, the criteria
they had followed when choosing the dog, and the reason for the return. The ques
tionnaire also included multiple-choice questions aimed at describing the adoptive
family’s lifestyle and the dog’s behavior and habits.
During the 6-year period, 3,281 dogs were available for adoption at the shelter,
2,830 (86.3%) were adopted, and 431 (15.2%) were then returned. Only 307 peo
ple (71.2%) who returned a dog to the shelter agreed to fill out the questionnaire.
However, some participants did not answer all the questions, so some question
naires are missing data. Relinquishments with no information related to a variable
were excluded from the analysis for that specific variable.
At first, the whole sample was considered to have a general view of the adop-
tion reality at the ASL shelter. Data were then rearranged into categories for statis-
tical analysis. Different groups of adoptive keepers were considered on the basis of
the reason for adoption, the criteria followed when choosing the dog, and the rea-
son for relinquishment.
Chi-square tests were used to compare the proportion distribution of categorical
variables (sex, age, breed, number of people in the family, type of housing, and
past experience) between groups. Analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were carried
out on the length of adoption and on the length of the dogs’ stay at the shelter be-
fore being adopted.
As Figure 1 shows, both the number of dogs available for adoption and the num
ber of dogs adopted decreased slightly over the years, but the number of re
turned dogs was constant during the study period. Considering the entire 6-year
period (Figure 2), there was a significant difference, χ
(1, N = 3,281) = 51.99, p
< .0001, between the male and the female populations available for adoption,
and this difference remained constant through the years. Despite this difference,
in proportion, significantly more females, χ
(1, N = 2,830) = 8.823, p < .01,
were adopted and significantly more males, χ
(1, N = 431) = 9.029, p < .01,
were returned. The neuter status of the dogs is not reported because it was
largely unknown from the questionnaire.
MONDELLI ET AL.
Table 1 shows a summary of the characteristics of the dogs adopted and then re
turned to the shelter. Of these dogs, 7% were returned more than once, mainly
for their misbehavior. When the same dog was adopted several times, 20% of
the people reported the same behavioral problem.
The ANOVA showed that the time the dogs spent at the shelter before being
adopted did not relate to the reasons for relinquishment. On the other hand, age and
breed of the animals influenced the probability of their being adopted and, there
fore, the length of time spent at the shelter before being adopted. In particular,
purebred dogs stayed at the shelter significantly longer than did mixed breeds (20
ADOPTION AND RELINQUISHMENT OF DOGS 257
FIGURE 1 Number of dogs available at the shelter, adopted, and then returned over the years.
FIGURE 2 Percentage of male and female dogs available at the shelter, adopted, and then re
turned over the whole 6-year period.
and 15 days, respectively), F(1, 304) = 5.021, p < .05; adult dogs waited for adop-
tion longer than did juveniles and puppies (25, 16, and 10 days, respectively), F(2,
289) = 12.972, p < .0001.
The majority of the adopters were family groups; 29.5% were couples, and
15.6% were single. Most of the people who adopted a dog lived in an apartment.
Only 22.6% lived in a house with outdoor space available. About half of the
adopters (59.6%) had previous experience with dogs.
People decided to adopt a dog and then returned the dog to the shelter for many
different reasons, which we combined into larger classes for further evaluation.
Love for animals (44%) and the need for company (22%) were the reasons most
frequently reported for the adoption. Reasons for relinquishment most often re
ported included the following: (a) 39%—dog’s misbehavior, such as excessive
barking, hyperactivity, inappropriate eliminative behavior, house damage, intoler
ance of other companion animals, or disobedience; (b) 15%—aggressiveness; and
(c) 40%—management problems, no time, small house, personal or family prob
lems such as divorce, conflict about companion animals, and veterinary care (Ta
bles 2 and 3).
The reasons for adoption differed significantly according to the family status of
the adopter, χ
(4, N = 195) = 10.232, p < .05. In particular, singles decided to have
a dog to keep them company; mainly, a generic love for animals motivated couples
and family groups. The age of the dog significantly influenced the motivation for
returning the animal, χ
(2, N = 286) = 9.607, p < .01: Adopters gave up young and
adult dogs mostly for behavioral problems (56.7% and 61.2%, respectively) but re
turned puppies mostly for difficulties in managing them (63.6%).
MONDELLI ET AL.
Characteristics of Returned Dogs
Mixed breed 74
Pure breed 26
Puppies (younger than 6 months) 23
Young (6 months to 2 years) 60
Adults (older than 2 years) 17
The length of adoption ranged from a few hours to about 9 months (M = 33.8
days), but 40.7% of the people returned the dog within a week. Half of adopters
who returned the dog within 7 days attributed their decision to the dog’s behav
ioral problems: aggressiveness (15%); other companion animals’ intolerance
(11%); and other behaviors such as digging, barking, disobedience, or soiling
(24%). Although such short-term behavior does not necessarily reflect the dog’s
ADOPTION AND RELINQUISHMENT OF DOGS 259
Classes of Motivations for the Adoption
Class % Motivations n %
Love for animals 44 Love for animals 119 38.8
Good deed 16 5.2
Need of company 22 Company 61 19.7
As a present 7 2.3
For the child 7.2 For child education 22 7.2
Previous experiences 11.1 Death or escape of the other dog 12 3.9
Positive experiences with other dogs 12 3.9
Company to other animals 10 3.3
Guarding 3.3 Custody and guarding 10 3.3
No answer 12.4 No answer 38 12.4
Classes of Reasons for Relinquishment
Class % Reasons n %
Behavioral problems 38.8 Vocalizes too much 7 2.3
Hyperactive/stereotypies 23 7.4
Destructive/soils house 22 7.1
Escapes 10 3.2
Disobedient 29 9.4
Problems with other pets 29 9.4
Aggressiveness 14.9 Aggressive towards people 46 14.9
Human health 5.5 Allergy 17 5.5
Management problems 34.0 Animal medical issue 8 2.6
No time for pets 27 8.8
Personal or family reasons 45 14.6
Family members—Pet conflict 11 3.5
Small house 11 3.6
No apparent owner 3 0.9
House regulation 4.5 Apartment block regulation 14 4.5
No answer 2.3 No answer 7 2.3
real temperament, the answers of these “casual” adopters hint at the need for in
tervention regarding dogs’ behaviors during the transition time in shelters. How
ever, we decided to focus further analyses on only the subsample of dogs kept
longer than a week.
The length of the adoption was not related to the reasons for adoption, the crite
ria followed when choosing the dog, or to the reasons for relinquishment. None of
these factors significantly influenced the duration of the new bond. A relation be
tween adoption length and housing condition emerged: People living in apart
ments kept the dog for a significantly shorter period of time than those living in a
house where open space was available (M = 50 and 70 days, respectively) F(1,
174) = 4.287, p < .05. It is worth noting that in Italy no law prohibits people from
keeping companion animals in their apartments. When adopters claim that apart
ment block regulation is the reason for returning their dogs, probably they are re
ferring to the need to maintain good relationships with their neighbors.
Previous experience as a caregiver for a dog also influenced the adoption. Sig
nificantly, adopters with previous experience returned the dog more because of
dog-related problems than because of personal problems, χ
(1, N = 291) = 5.191, p
< .05; 39% returned the dogs in less than a week (M = 2.6 days).
Moreover, the comparison between Ms showed that the length of adoption de-
pended also on the dogs’ breed and age, F(2, 169) = 6.768, p < .05, but not on their
sex. In particular, post hoc analyses demonstrated that purebred adult dogs were
kept for a longer period of time than were mixed-breed adults (M = 100 and 5 days,
respectively) F(1, 30) = 9.662, p < .01. Purebred adult dogs were kept in their fami-
lies longer than were purebred young dogs and puppies, M = 100 days and M =40
days, respectively; adult versus young: F(1, 40) = 9.268, p < .05; adults versus
puppies: F(1, 19) = 4.789, p < .05.
In Italy, no institution so far has tried to provide a general view of the adoption
process and the relinquishment issue. To our knowledge, this study is the first
attempt to describe the adoption process in Italy and the first step toward under
standing the companion animal surplus in Italy. The study reached two main
1. The number of dogs returned to the shelter did not decrease over the years.
2. Dogs had been adopted first for generic reasons, then returned mainly for
problems related to their behavior.
The high percentage of dogs returned after adoption more than once suggests
that they should not be offered for adoption again unless their temperament and
MONDELLI ET AL.
behavior are assessed and, if possible, a treatment program is initiated to modify
their unacceptable behavior. A percentage of dogs cannot be adopted in “as is”
condition; therefore, because inexperienced people cannot solve the behavioral
problems easily, these dogs should not be put up for adoption.
Confirming this is the high percentage of adopters who relinquished their dogs
within 7 days of adoption. These casual keepers did not give the animal or them
selves a chance to adapt to the new situation. They then can be considered unwill
ing or unable to take on responsibilities for the dog’s behavior.
Salman et al. (2000) found that owners relinquishing a dog for behavioral rea
sons only are more likely to have acquired the dog from a shelter. Similarly, Ro
wan and Williams (1987) and Arkow (1985) pointed out that about 20% of the
relinquishments were related to behavioral problems. Houpt et al. (1996) found a
range from 25% to 70%; Salman et al. (1998) reported 46.4% of relinquishments
were due to undesirable behavior; and Wells and Hepper (2000) reported that up to
89.7% of returns were due to dogs’ misbehavior.
An important point addressed by the Regional Shelter Survey is the lack of care-
giver knowledge about dog basic husbandry and behavior (New et al., 2000; Scarlett
et al., 1999). Misconceptions about dogs’ behavior are likely to leave owners unpre-
pared for normal canine behavior and limit their ability to distinguish between nor-
mal and problem behavior: 18% of owners were not aware of behavioral differences
between breeds, 43% of owners did not know that female dogs experience estrous
twice per year, and 53% of people surrendering their dogs believed that animals mis-
behave out of spite (Salman et al., 1998; Scarlett et al., 1999).
Contrary to Salman et al. (1998), males in our shelter were returned more often
than were females, and it can be hypothesized that adopters faced more difficulties
in managing males because males tend to be more independent and show
less-appreciated aspects such as intermale aggression, sexual problems, and stray
ing tendencies (Wells & Hepper, 2000). Being sexually intact, as are all males in
our study, is associated with a significantly increased risk of relinquishment
(Patronek et al., 1996).
Another interesting result is that previous experience of owning a dog did not
influence the adoption positively. In particular, experience did not help in facing
the dog’s behavioral problems. People with previous experience somehow ap
peared to be less tolerant of behavioral problems. Possibly, experienced adopters
know how much more it will take to train the dog appropriately and decide not to
waste any more time on what they consider to be a hopeless cause. An alternative
explanation—based on experience with their previous dog—might be that they
have more rigid sets of expectations about how a dog should act and did not under
stand why the adopted dog showed behavioral problems. Consequently, having no
clue to the problem, they had no interest in working on the solution.
Having a house with outdoor space appeared to be important for better manage
ment of the dog, and it positively influenced the length of adoption. With the dog
ADOPTION AND RELINQUISHMENT OF DOGS 261
living outdoors, some behavioral problems might be more tolerable to people be
cause they are not sharing their living space with the dog. Moreover, having out
door space usually freed the keepers from having to walk the dog. However, the
presence of other companion animals living in the same household is likely to be a
risk factor for relinquishment (Salman et al., 2000).
Young dogs were returned mainly for behavioral reasons. Perhaps these dogs
were returned more often because they were no longer puppies; thus, they were not
excused for making the trouble and mess for which puppies are normally forgiven.
Arkow and Dow (1984) concluded too that 64% of all dogs obtained as puppies in
the United States were disposed of by their keepers within a year of acquisition.
However, participation in an obedience class and training may have been helpful
in getting over the problem and thus reduced the risk of relinquishment (Patronek
et al., 1996).
The results of this research indicate that the adoption of dogs housed in shelters is a
complex process during which many factors related both to humans and animals can
determine a frustrating failure. Because the knowledge deficit and false expecta-
tions are important risk factors for relinquishment of an adopted dog, a prospective
keeper should ask for help in selecting a companion animal. The previously trained
shelter staff, the veterinarian, or people with knowledge and experience in dog eval-
uation could help in choosing a dog who not only appeals to the adopter because the
dog looks cute, but who also will fit into the adopter’s lifestyle.
During the adoption process, future keepers should be interviewed carefully
about their expectations and their knowledge of dog behavior and biology: If atti
tudes are unclear and expectations unrealistic, adoption should be postponed until
the adopters acquire a clear and realistic understanding of how to be a responsible
caregiver to a companion animal. The high percentage of people returning a dog
within 1 week of adoption suggests that many of the adopters are not aware of the
work involved with caring for a dog and should not be allowed to adopt one. The
shelter staff should also point out to prospective caregivers housing and human
health issues, lifetime commitment, animal health, and normal dog behavior.
Testing the temperament of the animals within the shelter, dog training classes,
follow-up care, and a behavior helpline might be useful in the early identification
of undesirable behaviors and in offering solutions that pet keepers can understand
and easily use to keep companion animals in their new homes (Ledger, 1997; Led
ger & Baxter, 1997a, 1997b; Mondelli, Montanari, Prato Previde, & Valsecchi,
2003; Sternberg, 2002; Valsecchi, Mondelli, Montanari, & Prato Previde, 2002;
UFAW, 1998; van der Borg, Netto, & Planta, 1991).
MONDELLI ET AL.
Despite the efforts that have been made in Italy in past years through campaigns
to make people aware of the existence of sheltered dogs, to promote adoption, and
to emphasize the role animals can have in the life of people, the number of dogs
abandoned in shelters has not decreased. This means that we have a long way to go
before reaching the point in which the public has the mature and responsible con
cept of the dog–owner relationship necessary to create a better, stronger, and more
lasting bond between dogs and their owners.
This study was carried out with the support of the Azienda Sanitaria Locale
ASL—Servizio di Sanità Animale (Local Sanitary Institution—Animal Health
Service) in Milan, Italy. The study was sponsored through grants from the
Università degli Studi di Milano (Grant FIL02 to Emanuela Prato Previde) and
the Università degli Studi di Parma (Grant FIL02 to Paola Valsecchi). We are
very grateful to the ASL veterinarians, the shelter staff, and all the companion
animal adopters for their cooperation and help. We thank Paola Baldini for al-
lowing us to analyze the data she collected for her Master’s degree dissertation.
We also thank the two anonymous referees for their helpful comments.
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1. Dog No. _________ Cage No. ___________
2. Breed ___________ Coat _________ Hair ____________
3. Age ____________
4. Sex _________
5. Date of entering the shelter ____________
6. Date of adoption ____________
7. Date of relinquishment ____________
1. Why did you decide to adopt a dog? ____________
2. Why did you choose this particular dog? ____________
3. Had you ever had experience with other dogs? No K Yes K
4. Do you have other companion animals? No K Yes K
If yes, what animal? ____________
What behavior did the dog show toward these other animals? ____________
1. What kind of city/town and neighborhood do you live in? ____________
2. What type of housing do you live in? ____________
1. How many people are there in your family (sex, age, job)? ____________
Dog’s habits and training
1. Had you ever had experience training other dogs? No K Yes K
2. Did you train the dog? No K Yes K
3. Which commands (such as “sit, stay, down, come here,” and name) did the
dog know and how did he or she respond? “How was the dog kept?
(a) The dog normally lived outdoors. K
(b) The dog lived indoors with free exit to the outside. K
without free exit to the outside. K
(c) The dog was always walked on a leash. K
(d) The dog was taken to a park to run and play. K
(e) The dog was left free to wander. K
(f) The dog played with K or without K objects at home K or outside. K
ADOPTION AND RELINQUISHMENT OF DOGS 265
1. Why did you decide to return the dog? ____________
2. Where did the dog sleep? ____________
3. How long did you leave the dog home alone? ____________
4. Did the dog cause problems when left home alone? No K Yes K
5. If yes, what problems (barking, being destructive, dirtying the house, dig
ging, scratching)? ____________
6. Did the dog run away when free? No K Yes K
7. Did the dog try to avoid being cuddled? No K Yes K
8. Did the dog refuse constrictions such as a muzzle? No K Yes K
9. Did the dog ever urinate when excited? No K Yes K
10. Could you catch the dog when free? No K Yes K
11. Did the dog let you take food away from him or her? No K Yes K
12. Did the dog let you take a bone away from him or her? No K Yes K
13. Did the dog let you take a toy away from him or her? No K Yes K
14. Did the dog ever rebel against you or other people? No K Yes K
15. Did you ever punish the dog? No KYes K
16. Did the dog ever try to bite? No KYes K
If yes, strangers K or family members K?
17. Did the dog guard the property? No K Yes K
18. Did the dog show intolerance toward children? No KYes K
19. Did the dog ever have fights with other dogs? No K Yes K
20. Did the dog ever chase prey? No KYes K
21. Did the dog ever chase joggers? No KYes K
22. Did the dog ever chase vehicles? No KYes K
23. Did the dog sexually mount people K or objects K?
MONDELLI ET AL.