Socially Conscious Sheltering: Examples in Practice

Written by Dot Baisly MS, CPDT-KA, and Mara Velez MA, CDPT-KA


Summary: Shelters are a part of the communities they serve, and should be aware of the needs and challenges people and animals in those communities face. Socially Conscious Sheltering (SCS) is a framework for helping shelters change the way they operate and make decisions so that they are better aligned with the community’s needs. This article, the third part of a series, is based on a series of interviews with shelter staff who have adopted or who embody SCS in practice. 

Socially conscious sheltering (SCS) is a framework and philosophy against which shelters can align programs and operational structures to ensure that their practices and policies address the needs of their communities. These authors have explored the basics of SCS in two previous articles, Socially Conscious Sheltering: An Overview and Socially Conscious Sheltering: Moving From Aspiration to Operation. In this third article, we will detail conversations with 11 shelter leaders across the country. We not only interviewed leaders at shelters who had adopted the model, we also interviewed leaders from shelters who do not explicitly call themselves “socially conscious” but embody the SCS tenets in their organizational processes and decision-making.

For ease of discussion, we have divided the shelters mentioned herein into three categories: The A group, which are Dumb Friends League in Denver, Colorado; Colorado Animal Rescue in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Boulder, Colorado; and Cleveland Animal Protective League in Cleveland, Ohio. The A group are all early adopters of SCS or heavily involved in the creation of the concepts and tenets. The B group is constituted by the Massachusetts SPCA, with three locations in eastern Massachusetts; Dakin Humane in Springfield, Massachusetts; and The Potter League for Animals in Middletown, Rhode Island. The B group were aligned with many of the concepts but found the model a great way to articulate the work already being done in these communities, where pet overpopulation has been fully or mostly resolved. Finally, the C group, which consists of Orange County Animal Services in North Carolina; Animal Welfare League of Arlington, Virginia; Companion Animal Alliance in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter in Santa Cruz, California. The C group represents a cross section of other shelters across the United States that were in different stages of adopting the tenets of SCS.

Making the shift to socially conscious sheltering

Of the 11 shelter leaders that we interviewed, several had already been living some or all of the tenets of socially conscious sheltering at their shelters prior to the creation of the framework. Once the tenets were released, those shelter leaders had discussions with their leadership teams, boards of directors, and staff about the framework, but there were no major changes in the way decisions were made nor major operational shifts required. These included all of the A group shelters, all of the B group shelters and several of the C group shelters.

While all of the shelters whose leaders we interviewed embody the tenets, a few don’t use the moniker of a socially conscious shelter to either internally or externally identify. Two of these are the Animal Welfare League of Arlington and Dakin Humane. The interviewees at both organizations spoke about how their current operational processes, decision making, and approach to their communities is in complete alignment with SCS, but they did not feel a need to publicly tout the SCS framework. That said, both indicated that SCS is a helpful model to frame their work against, and noted the usefulness of the model to the shelter community as a whole. Carmine, from Dakin Humane indicated that the Northeast is an area in which there is no longer a pet overpopulation problem; as such shelters in the Northeast could benefit by making the shift to SCS through a coalition model, as opposed to shelter by shelter. This coalition model will take socially conscious shelters to socially conscious communities.

One shelter team who embraced SCS is Orange County Animal Services in North Carolina. Prior to the adoption of the model, they had been moving toward the socially conscious sheltering tenets, but without that specific framework in mind. Instead, at that time they were operating against their own identified core values. The awareness created by the rollout of the socially conscious sheltering model provided the leaders at Orange County Animal Services a pivot point to adopt SCS, which aligned to those identified core values that they had previously articulated.  As such, the team at Orange County Animal Services continued on the path that they had previously laid out with a clearer vision for the future. With many internal processes already in harmony with SCS, like enrichment and behavioral decision-making, the Orange County Animal Services team took the opportunity to look at the shelter’s broader role in the community. The team adopted the community-oriented approach articulated in the SCS framework: They enhanced their spay/neuter programing, ensured that they are not adopting out dangerous animals, and capitalized on their volunteer program to create a bridge to their external stakeholders. For the Orange County team, the move to SCS helped them to find ways to be more transparent in decisions about each animal, as well as communicate with staff and their community through the lens of a framework that articulates their broader role.

Similarly, the leaders at Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter  had already adopted many of the principles before SCS was an articulated concept. Even so, they were excited to see the tenets because they describe a positive trend in the industry. The leadership at SCCAS feel that no animal should be turned away for any reason, so in order to align with the SCS model they remain an open-admission shelter. SCCAS’s maturity relative to the SCS model allowed their focus to shift from improving in-shelter processes and decision-making to community engagement. The leadership team at SCCAS does not wait for community members to seek their services; instead they have significant community outreach efforts to address animal welfare, which include a “door-to-door” program in which animal control officers build relationships in order to identify and address specific individuals’ needs, including food and transport for veterinary care. In this way, SCCAS embraces the concept of a socially conscious community, not just a socially conscious shelter.

Process to implementation

The Companion Animal Alliance in Louisiana is an example of a shelter that is in the very early stages of implementation.  While the team at CAA had already been providing appropriate veterinary care, many of the other SCS tenets have not yet been fully addressed. The first step in moving to an SCS model for the CAA team was to address the emotional health of their animals through the implementation of an enrichment program. Other shelter leaders from emerging SCS-aligned shelters have noted that early shifts have included the adoption of the Fear Free Shelters program and hiring of credentialed and experienced behavior staff as initial steps toward the implementation of the SCS model, in addition to the adoption of an enrichment program.

The A group of shelters, which include the framers of the SCS concept, had different needs and approaches to implementation. The Cleveland Animal Protective League (APL) is an open-admission shelter for animals that are impounded through their humane law enforcement (HLE) work. The APL team, which does not use the moniker of SCS, has retained a prior shift to managed admissions policies, which predated SCS, for non-HLE animals. This allowed them to prioritize animals in urgent need of a safe place to go, avoid overcrowding, and eliminate the euthanasia of safely and humanely treatable animals due to lack of space. Also prior to SCS, the APL implemented “alternative to intake” programs for owned animals and community cats, and currently is in the process of significantly expanding those efforts in alignment with SCS.

In contrast, Maggie of Colorado Animal Rescue shared that CAR had shifted their intake policies to be truly open admission. CAR had previously been identified as open admission, but with a closer look they felt they still needed to make multiple operational shifts to better adhere to SCS. Those changes included adding a surrender diversion program, which includes behavior modification, medical care, and other services. For those pets that could not be diverted, the intake process was made more transparent by including counseling for the surrendering party on all potential outcomes for that animal. Initially they were concerned about seeing higher euthanasia rates by moving to a truly open-admission model, which initially made it harder to get staff buy-in. Over time, however, they found that there was no increase in euthanasia. Across all shelters, finding ways to address the SCS tenet “ensuring every unwanted or homeless pet has a safe place to go for shelter and care” is challenging, at best.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington in Virginia is a behavior-centric shelter to begin with, making the shift easy. While the team at AWLA does not specifically identify their shelter as adhering only to SCS, their practices and processes are in alignment with the framework. Amy Schindler from AWLA felt that post-adoption support is often overlooked by shelters and was a key program to develop in order to achieve organizational goals. As part of their organizational improvement, which aligns to SCS, AWLA also strengthened their foster care program in order to better assess and address the needs of medically and behaviorally challenged animals. AWLA also adjusted their transport program to accept animals from many other locations and bring in pets that fit their community’s needs, including transporting animals who are well-adjusted to living in an urban environment, since both the shelter and adopters are in an urban setting.

The B group’s intake policies did not significantly change as a result of the adoption of SCS. In the Northeast region, there is a low percentage of euthanasia, setting the context for shelters in the area to push the boundaries of SCS toward maximizing animal welfare both in the shelter and the community, so that animals are not just living, but thriving. Mike from the MSPCA talked about a shift in some procedures to address the behavioral health of animals at intake in order to make more efficient outcome decisions. The Potter League’s animals are acquired primarily through transport from outside the area, and thus have been behaviorally screened prior to arrival. Brad from the Potter League indicated that SCS prompted the consideration of length of stay for pets in shelters in the region. Prioritizing local transfers became a goal at this organization. All three leaders in the B group indicated that they carefully consider placing behaviorally challenged animals into the community, in essence posing the question, “Just because we can, should we?” They emphasized the need for looking beyond their own shelters in order to improve welfare of animals across the region.

Communication to staff, volunteers, community

Communication from each shelter’s leadership team about socially conscious sheltering differed from shelter to shelter. Many of the leaders that we spoke to did not need to communicate with the board of directors specifically about the adoption of SCS as a touchstone for operational processes and shelter decision-making, while other leaders, such as those at Cleveland Animal Protective League, provided a formal presentation to their board on SCS as information, but does not use nor promote SCS in their materials.

The team at Orange County is media savvy and used their existing good relationships with the media to get the word out about their adoption of SCS, but not before gaining buy-in from their citizen advisory board and county council. This resulted in a resolution to the board of county commissioners, which embraced SCS unanimously.

As mentioned previously, the team at Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter has been leaning into the tenets of SCS for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation about SCS is done and in the past. The general manager at SCCAS regularly reminds her constituents of the purpose and function of an open-admission shelter in the community, and proactively sets expectations for euthanasia decisions as well as how SCCAS is living the tenets of SCS. The SCS logo is included on the organization’s website as well as other materials as a regular reminder of the framework.

Recommendations for those considering the shift

Maggie of Colorado Animal Rescue reminded us that the process is important, taking things step by step, having a plan for implementation and celebrating along the way. It took her team eight months to develop a revised euthanasia protocol in such a way as to be transparent. Once completed, they celebrated and then laid out the next steps so all stakeholders knew the strategic plan ahead.

Amy from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington suggests that each shelter start by choosing the one tenet that speaks to them the most. Start there and then build in a way that is aligned to your organizational goals.

Dr. Apryl Steele from Dumb Friends League, who is one of the key architects of SCS, underscores the need to be transparent, tell the whole story, and use SCS as a tool to have conversations about animal outcomes and shelter processes. Jan McHugh-Smith at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, also one of the key architects of SCS, reminded us of the importance of respect, not only for your community and those in your own organization but for other organizations. Both Apryl and Jan emphasized that the commitment to the goals of SCS is the first step, and operationalization will take time. Not every shelter is in the same place, nor will they interpret nor implement the tenets in the exact same way, but when we respect each other we can build toward a better future together.

Author commentary on shelter behavior professionals’ contributions to SCS

Both of the authors are shelter behavior professionals and are immersed in shelter behavior. As such, the discussions with the shelter leaders that we interviewed included talking about behavioral euthanasia. Almost all of the shelters we spoke to remarked on the difficulty of determining behaviorally healthy animals and challenges around communicating policies and decisions to staff and community members. Mike from the MSPCA said that their community expects that they do not adopt out dangerous or suffering animals. Unlike many other areas, the Northeast community conversation is focused on creating optimal outcomes and better welfare, as opposed to addressing the issue of overpopulation. The Northeastern community does not question outcome decisions as frequently as in some other communities.

All of that said, almost every interviewee mentioned how difficult it is to locate and hire qualified, experienced, and professional behavioral staff with relevant certifications, for example, CDBC,​      CCBC, IAABC Shelter, CPDT-KA, or KPA-CTP. It is the opinion of these authors that behavior​ professionals can support socially conscious shelters and socially conscious communities by using LIMA in all aspects of sheltering, prioritizing the behavioral health of all animals that enter the shelter by implementing consistent enrichment opportunities, identifying the animals that need additional support, and implementing behavior modification protocols. Socially conscious behavior professionals are well-trained in fear-free or low-stress handling approaches and teach all direct care staff how to employ these techniques. Also critical is consulting with other behavior professionals on difficult or unusual behavior cases as well as developing decision-making guidelines for your organization based on the behavioral capacity of the community and the shelter’s resources.  We would like to see more qualified behavior professionals choosing shelter work as part of their career journey. Will you join us?

Dot Baisly is a certified professional dog trainer (through CCPDT), a certified dog behavior counselor, certified cat behavior consultant, and certified shelter behavior professional (through IAABC). She also holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University.  She has been working in animal welfare and behavior for over 20 years, both in animal welfare and rescue organizations in New York and New England, and with private clients as a consultant for dogs and cats. Currently she works as the director of behavior for Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Massachusetts. Dot also works with many shelters and rescues as a consultant, evaluating dogs and educating staff and volunteers on a wide variety of subjects.
When not working with shelter animals she also works with service dogs as a field representative for Paws With A Cause. She shares her home with her “demo” dog for Paws With A Cause, Angus, and her pit bull, Porkchop. Dot is dedicated to helping professionalize shelter animal behavior through her work with IAABC and other animal welfare and behavior organizations.

Mara Velez is a certified professional dog trainer who specializes in training fearful dogs; helping families with dogs recently adopted from a shelter; managing and training leash-reactive dogs; and modifying fear-based aggression behaviors. Mara has spent more than a decade in sheltering at both open-admission and limited-admission facilities. She is now the executive director for the Shelter Playgroup Alliance (SPA), a shelter enrichment organization that helps shelters implement enrichment programs, including playgroups. Mara is also the executive director of Humane Dog Training Advocates (HDTA), an owner-education focused nonprofit. Mara holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology and completed all of the course work for a doctorate in education. Mara is also a learning and development consultant to corporations across a variety of industries, where she advises and works on projects related to leadership development, process improvement, and learning program management.

TO CITE: Baisly, D. & Velez, M. (2020) Socially conscious sheltering: Examples in practice. The IAABC Foundation Journal 18, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj18.6