“It’s my first night sleeping in the kennel at Shelter 1 and it’s bright and pretty loud even at 10:24 p.m. I can hear the bulldog in quarantine howling and two dogs are in the outside part of their kennel barking at something in the woods. At 12:24 a.m. two of the dogs are pacing and nervous but another dog straight across from me is sleeping.”
This is my first journal entry from my first night ever sleeping in a kennel at an animal shelter that I would continue to sleep at for seven days. This is where they sleep, eat, defecate, urinate and are exposed to all the shelter’s stressors typically without any enrichment or human contact.
I recently graduated from UCONN with a Masters in Animal Science. One part of my studies focused on sleeping in a kennel at a shelter for seven days. I did this each of the four seasons in Connecticut, to evaluate dogs’ behaviors as a passive observer. After about 15-20 minutes of being in the kennel, the dogs acclimated to me and seemed to accept me as just another “dog.” I sat in the kennel and would only leave to use the restroom- this went on for the week.
I quickly realized how stressful constant kennel life is for dogs. It takes one high strung dog to offset the balance of the entire shelter’s dog room.
I also learned how bright it is in many shelters at night. Many shelters have bright emergency lighting at night causing dogs to not sleep. Dogs pace, cry and circle in their kennel trying to find a comfy position. Food bowls kicked around overnights caused noises which woke everyone up.
During the day, dogs were overstimulated by loud barking, visitors, new dogs and staff cleaning. Sound, temperature and humidity also played a part in dog’s behaviors.
The heat index during summer months made it unbearable to be in the kennels since there was no air conditioning. Floors were wet to the touch from the humidity, the air was heavy and dogs would pace to try to get comfortable and would move from the front of the kennel to the back of the kennel. Dogs would drink water, pant and urinate constantly causing the dog room to smell like urine.
In winter months, dogs would huddle as tight as they could to keep warm all alone in their kennel. The wind would whip through the guillotine doors creating a tunnel of cold. Dogs would shake and shiver trying to maintain their body temperature. These dogs came from homes- most if not all living inside on someone’s bed or couch. I guess eventually they acclimate, but what about when they are first brought there or abandoned?
Then there are ones who just get there. You see the confusion on their face and feel the intensity of the fear in their body language. They grip so harshly with their paws and claws into the floor not to be put into the kennel. Once in there you watch many of them hide in the back or sit in the corner of the kennel. Some of the newbies are immediately so fearful, aggression is the first symptom they display. They will growl, charge or circle in their kennel. Some sit quietly until a passerby stares them down, then they lunge.
While in the kennel, I learned a lot about myself too. Humans like canines are social beings. We require interactions, conversations, touch and comfort. I found myself looking into the dog’s eyes and understanding their fear and loneliness. I became dehydrated and lost weight while in the kennel no matter the season — maybe I didn’t drink enough water, maybe the conditions affected me differently — I’m not sure. The hardest part of each week was the end. I knew I was going to be “freed,” but they weren’t. There was guilt and an awful sense of betrayal that I felt knowing I was leaving, but they were staying. I cried silently and tried not to make eye contact as I would leave. I arrived home feeling confused, sad, angry and helpless.
I believe we only learn by what we are willing to expose ourselves to. I am very grateful to have experienced the kennels as a “dog.” I have a better understanding of environmental changes and other changes I can make to enrich homeless dogs’ lives while they are in kennels waiting to be adopted. I am in the process of writing a book about my experiences of living as a shelter dog. I hope it encourages others to step outside of their box and to make themselves uncomfortable so that they too can learn how they can make changes to positively affect shelter animals that never asked to be abandoned or alone.
Laura Selvaggio-Burban is a life-long animal advocate. Burban currently serves as the director of Branford/North Branford's Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter. Burban received her Master of Science Degree in 2018 from the University of Connecticut. Her degree was focused on Environmental Factors that Affect Kenneled Shelter Dogs. She also received a graduate certificate from UCONN in Nonprofit and Governmental management. Burban has received numerous awards and her most recent was in January 2019 from the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce for her community work as the executive director of the animal shelter.