My Experience in a Dog Shelter

Originally published on, this essay has been updated to include new information that came to light about Aoibheann’s situation. 


The woman at the gate looked at the dog at the end of the lead I was holding with a weary contempt. “Are you here to surrender?” she asked. I paused, confused as to what she meant, and as she reached down to take the lead I exclaimed “no! She’s Cassie!,” as though her name in any way set her apart from the discarded ones. She laughed a little nervously and shyly as I told her we were there to meet a dog we were considering rehoming, and that we’d been instructed to bring Cassie along to ease introductions.

If you’ve never been to a shelter before, you won’t know the feeling of walking through a gate that represents the severing of so many ties. I imagined loving owners bringing their beloved companions through on a leash and walking away without them. But not all ties are severed quite so gently. Not long into our visit, we found out about the collie and the terrier who were thrown over a six-foot high wall at two o’ clock one afternoon. We heard about dogs who are dumped on country lanes and stay rooted to the spot because it’s the last place they saw their human and are waiting for them to return. From then on, I came to really understand just how deeply the property status of nonhuman animals affects even those we claim to love. Part of me died in that shelter.

Trash. Rubbish. Garbage everywhere. That’s all most of these dogs were to the people who once “owned” them.

There was the five-year-old designer dog who had been used for breeding and who was discarded after she was spent. Not interested in food, toys, or affection, she paced anxiously, stress-urinating on her own bed eleven times in just twenty minutes. As a puppy chewed on her ear, she stared vacantly ahead, not signalling any discomfort, and not even showing any sign that she recognised that the ear that was being chewed was hers.

Four terriers bounded about in a concrete run having only seen daylight for the first time some five months earlier when they were rescued from the filthy shed in which they were kept with twelve others. The lurcher who gave birth in the van just minutes after her rescue; the fourteen-year-old with health difficulties who is waiting for a home to which he can go to die; the collie cross no one wants to adopt because he’s just not attractive enough. Part of me died in there.

We had made an appointment with a second shelter because we had agreed that we wanted a “no-hoper”: someone on whom no one else would take a chance. So after another 70km drive, we reached a kennel in the process of renovation on top of a hill over looking the sea. “What breed do you want? Colour? Size? Temperament? Sex?” We were visibly taken aback as we asked to see the long-term residents; the woman who posed the question replied sadly, “so many people come here with a ‘shopping list’ that we’re used to asking in advance.” “Oh, they want a dog who matches the decor?” I jested, feeling quite uncomfortable at the idea of people arriving at a place of such desperation with a set of criteria. “Yes, sometimes,” she answered.

Once again, we were given a tour of the facilities, and our sorrow at their situation intensified because of their openness. Humans had treated these beautiful beings so vilely, and yet the dogs saw in us the potential for good. They showed interest as we passed by their runs. Some rushed to greet us, wagging their tails and licking our hands through the bars. Others pricked up their ears. All except one. She lay in her bed, staring at the wall as we passed, looking utterly dejected and miserable.

She had never been socialised, we were told. Extremely shy, quite fearful, and utterly forlorn, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. I asked that we be allowed into her run, and the rescuer obliged.

Several minutes later, the bag of food treats we had brought piqued her interest sufficiently to change her body language. She wouldn’t eat unless we had our backs to her, but whenever I glanced around she seemed more alert. Now, she was taking food from our hands and, although still too stressed with us facing her, she would eat when our backs were turned. Although part of me died in the shelters, part of me was born. And a new future is opening up for this girl as she learns what it’s like to be loved.

Hoarded with over 20 of her unneutered and unspayed family members (many of whom were so ill that they had to be put to sleep immediately on “rescue”) and kept permanently indoors in a dark shed, she is remarkably resilient. After only two days with us, she has learned that the food bowl that is delivered to her twice a day is hers alone and that she doesn’t have to fight for table scraps; she will eventually put weight on her dreadfully skinny frame. She is learning that hands can be gentle and loving, and is starting to lift her muzzle when we approach in the hope that she’ll receive a scratch behind the ears. The outdoors is starting to become less terrifying and eventually she will come to use it, rather than newspapers, as her toilet. She has discovered the sofa and no longer sleeps sitting up with her ears pricked and one eye open. She has stopped rolling submissively onto her back when we approach. For Aoibheann,* life is only going to get better.


Her life so far is such a contrast with that of Cassie, our nine-year-old girl who has been with me since she was a puppy: a confident, outgoing, happy, relaxed dog whose worst experience in life was once losing out to a cat for plate-licking privileges. But for every Cassie, the shelters are full of stressed, neglected, abused dogs like Aoibheann, and those are the lucky ones who make it out of the pound alive to be offered a chance at rehoming. Yet Cassie is ours, and if we wanted, we could drop her off at a shelter, surrender her to the pound, or even take her to the vet to have her killed. Although, in our hearts, she and Aoibheann are our family, in the eyes of the law they are our possessions, our property. They are entirely dependent upon us for food, shelter, warmth, and exercise. And we have to learn to control them for their safety and for ours: to teach them to walk on a lead, to convinced them to come to us whenever we ask, to persuade them out of following some of their own instincts and desires.

I couldn’t have scripted it better, but one shelter worker sighed as she talked to me about greyhounds. “We have such strict animal welfare laws here,” she said, “but they can never work because people own these animals and can do pretty much what they like with them.” And there we were, surrounded by victims—true victims, psychologically and physically traumatised—of the property paradigm. “What can we do to make it end?” she asked. And we know the answer: it will never end as long as we’re not vegan because animals will continue to be brought into the world to satisfy our trivial wants—for food, for clothing, for companionship.

If you’re a rescuer, please know that you’re my hero; I could never find the strength to do what you do and see what you see. But please realise that the animals you try to rehome are no different from those you eat, wear, and otherwise use. They are all in this horrible mess because we think of them as objects rather than persons, and when we recognise that the converse is true, veganism is the only option we have. If you are already vegan, please ask yourself whether you have a good reason not to open your home to one more animal. Domestication is in no way morally justifiable—we can’t continue to perpetuate this misery—but providing shelter, food, and love to those who are already here is our moral obligation, where we can.

*Pronounced “AY-veen”, and meaning “radiant”.




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