Socially Conscious Sheltering: Moving From Aspiration to Operation

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

In the first installment of this article series on socially conscious sheltering (SCS) for the IAABC Foundation Journal, we explored the basics of this relatively recent concept. In this article, we will explore how to operationalize the core concepts that we previously outlined. Moving a shelter toward a socially conscious operating model can take months or years to achieve, and it may not be feasible to adhere to all of the tenets at all times, or with all sheltering processes. However, striving to achieve what is best for the community and the animals in shelters’ care is of paramount importance.

Communicating about SCS

We spoke with James Pumphrey, deputy director of Animal Care of Davis County, who also advises other shelters on all aspects of operations. He noted that one of the first steps in moving toward the realization of the SCS model is gaining buy-in at all levels of the organization and building relationships with key constituents in your community. James suggests using change management tools to gain alignment within the leadership team, as well as ensuring that there is a communication plan that anticipates questions and concerns from all of the shelter’s constituents, from volunteers to city council members. He also advised contacting all interested parties and anticipating any roadblocks prior to engaging in conversations, and before any organizational changes are implemented. Addressing anticipated pushback before it happens is a powerful tool in getting buy-in. Change management will mean working through conflict, not avoiding or putting it off.

We asked James how SCS is different from other sheltering models, and how best to communicate that to constituents. He noted that the focus of SCS is on ethical decisions that are based on a philosophical principle prioritizing the behavioral and medical health of each individual animal, not solely by population-level statistics like live release rate (LRL). Ethical decisions should not rely upon statistical matrices to determine the overall success of an organization. This type of reliance on a single population statistic incentivizes undesired outcomes, including the adoption of medically compromised animals who are experiencing irremediable suffering, dangerous animals, as well as a reduction in capacity for care and a disregard for healthy population management, resulting in a significant increase in the length of stay for many animals.

One example of this type of ethical decision-making is a municipal shelter that in recent years has gone from an LRL of under 50% to over 75%. They accomplished this through building community relationships with veterinarians, rescue organizations, and other types of partnerships. This shelter does not release significantly behaviorally or medically compromised animals into their community, and has also avoided an increase in their average length of stay. These achievements can be celebrated and communicated to the community as part of gaining buy-in for the new model. While this organization has been denied access to funding based on a live release rate below 90%, this lack of access to funding has more to do with outdated thinking in sheltering than a lack of success for this organization. Municipal open-admission shelters such as this one serve communities that are often economically disadvantaged that may have limited access to veterinary care. These shelters that work within the resources they have and serve the community in which they reside may never be able to achieve a 90% or greater LRL. Under conditions such as these, a key component to shifting the conversation with constituents is to focus on ethics, not outcomes.

Getting started with SCS

Once buy-in has been established, there are some ready-made, ethically aligned resources that are available to implement, for example the Fear Free Shelter program; the Shelter Playgroup Alliance enrichment program; and implementing and shifting to a science-based, positive reinforcement training and behavior modification programs. These resources help address some of the daily care needs of sheltered animals, from enrichment to low-stress handling.

James noted that each of these programs are free for shelters, and while the initial training and implementation can be time-consuming, breaking down the time into manageable chunks makes adoption achievable. At Davis County, staff were allotted a few hours per week to complete the Fear Free Shelter program, which made completion for all staff an achievable goal within the span of a few months. Similarly, Amy Schindler, who is the chief operating officer at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington (AWLA), and the AWLA team did something similar, and then rolled the Fear Free Shelter program into their onboarding process, as well as implementing the Shelter Playgroup Alliance enrichment program for their animals.

James advises shelters to “start small and miss small.”  Animal Care of Davis County (ACDC) is an open-admission shelter in Utah and has adopted the socially conscious sheltering model. ACDC uses SCS as a set of guidelines for the ethical treatment of their animals. James was very excited to share with us how he and his organization have made many strides towards SCS, but they are not yet done with the transition. This is a testament to the thoughtfulness of the ACDC team on their approach to implementing SCS and making sure they do it right for their organization and community.

Our industry has a tendency to focus on how decisions impact animals, but SCS emphasizes how our decisions impact the humans involved too. Through transparency and open-source information we can ensure the community members, staff, volunteers, and community partners we work with will be impacted positively. Setting people and animals up for success is a recurring theme in conversations about process change and its impact on daily operations and the larger community. All of us versed in behavioral change principles, including those of us who focus on people or dogs, know that success is predicated upon setting up small approximations that are achievable and measurable, which is summarized by the adage, “Always set your learner up for success.”

As mentioned, SCS is designed to ensure that ethical decisions are made throughout an animal’s stay in a shelter. One of the core concepts is related to behavioral euthanasia. Amy Schindler explored the topic of euthanasia in shelters in her 2019 article in the IAABC Foundation Journal in which she wrote about transparency in decision-making, as well as balancing animal welfare and metrics like live release rate and average length of stay.

Ethical disposition decisions are not solely relegated to euthanasia. Pathway planning is a core and related concept to the effective and efficient decision-making and animal flow process for incoming animals (University of Wisconsin Madison Shelter Medicine Program, 2020).1 Effective pathways can help shelters maintain their capacity for care (University of California at Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, 2020).2 One strategy may be to implement a coordinated admissions system that schedules services, including providing euthanasia and vaccines, as well as ensuring that there is a safety net by coordinating with other local shelters. These are just a few tools used to ensure ethical decisions are made daily for all animals in your shelter’s care.

Expanding beyond the shelter walls

Readers will recall that one of the tenets of socially conscious sheltering is “ensuring every unwanted or homeless pet has a safe place to go for shelter and care.”  This does not mean that every one of these animals needs to land in your shelter. Shelters should be ready to accept the emergency cases while simultaneously assessing and shifting other cases to other resources, such as rescues or other rehoming options that exist in your community. A key step in ensuring this, and all of the tenets of SCS, is to build relationships with other organizations in your community. For example, reach out to human services organizations, rescue partners, veterinarians, boarding facilities, trainers, and behavior consultants. The success of these relationships is based on open and transparent communication about what your shelter can achieve at the moment, and where the gaps are.

One example of this is how Animal Care of Davis County closely coordinates with the local humane society. Both organizations have worked together to agree on, and now share, the same behavior and medical decision-making matrix. Through this process, trust in each other’s behavior and medical evaluations is developed. The implication of this is that when animals are transferred between these two organizations, there is built-in process and resource efficiency. These two organizations are also in the process of implementing the same shelter software, so that documentation flows seamlessly between them.

In our conversation with James, he pointed out that for the last few decades, our industry has been taking in every animal and triaging each case, resulting in barely keeping our heads above water in a reactive mode. As the industry develops and transforms from the “pound” model to socially conscious sheltering, we are intentionally moving to being more proactive, ethical, and professional. This transformation is occurring through community engagement, changes in how decisions are made, transparency, and education. We are planning together for a brighter, more ethical future.


[1] University of Wisconsin Madison Shelter Medicine Program (2020). Shelter Intake and Pathway Planning.

[2] University of California at Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program (2020). Overview of Capacity for Care (C4C).