Helping Abandoned Dogs Find a New Life
By Lindsay Tilton Mitchell

Keyo, a 2-year-old Maltese-Terrier mix, is a happy boy. He loves cuddling by your feet, playing with his many toys, and enjoys people-watching out the window. Though Keyo is only 12 pounds, he has a big personality—he’s confident and always aims to please the family. But before my husband and I adopted Keyo from Homeward Trails Animal Rescue, life for Keyo was not always this blissful and simple.



The Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter rescued Keyo after he was found abandoned in a house with several other dogs in June 2014. He was underweight, matted, and scared. After adopting Keyo through Homeward Trails the following month, my husband and I were able to introduce Keyo to a new home, and most importantly a fresh start.

What is abandonment?
According to ASPCA, animal abandonment is defined when a owners leave their animals in a public or private place with the intent of not returning or continuing to care for them. Approximately 6 to 8 million animals in the United States enter shelters every year, most of which are found neglected on the streets or seized from homes. However, instances where an owner brings his dog to an animal shelter and expresses he no long want his pet is not considered abandonment, but rather “surrendering” an animal.

Animal abandonment also varies by state, but in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C., it is considered a misdemeanor to neglect a pet. Though it’s hard to track down individuals who abandon their dogs, organizations like the Washington Humane Society (WHS) have investigated about 1,400 animal cases each year within the nation’s capital alone.

“As soon as you suspect a dog is abandoned, give us a call, because time is of the essence,” said Scott Giacoppo, WHS’s vice president of external affairs. “We want to get a search warrant as fast as possible in order to save the animal, because we don’t know if its life is in danger.”
Giacoppo explains that after receiving a call of suspected dog abandonment, WHS quickly gets to work by obtaining a search warrant, rescuing the dog, and gathering as much evidence as possible to charge the dog’s owner of animal neglect.

Emma’s Story
If abandoned dogs are lucky enough to be adopted by a new family, they still carry over the emotional scarring from their past. The temperament and attitudes of dogs who have been in abandonment situations vary widely. While some dogs have no problem adjusting to a new home, others develop behavioral issues like separation anxiety, aggression, or even resource guarding, the act of guarding food, toys, and other possessions from humans or other animals. Unfortunately, this was the case with Alexandria resident Betsy Davies’ dog, Emma, a senior English Setter mix.



Emma was about 9 years old when she was surrendered by her family in 2012 because they developed allergies. Just a couple of weeks later, Davies adopted Emma, and after a four-day honeymoon period, Emma’s behavior began to change. She became aggressive with Davies, and would growl or snap if she got too close. Emma also began resource guarding and acted aggressively if anyone went near her stockpile.

“I was literally in tears every day,” explained Davies. “I didn’t know how to help her. I had been in contact with the animal shelter and they kept suggesting that I return her to them; however, I knew if she repeated this behavior in another adopter’s home, that she would either be abused or euthanized. Something in me kept telling me there was a way to get through to her.”
Though Emma was surrendered and not technically abandoned, Davies believes Emma developed these behavioral issues as a result from the dramatic switch of living happily with a family for seven years to residing in an animal shelter against her will. Davies took Emma to a veterinary behavioral clinic, where she was told Emma was under-socialized and in need of training to turn her life around.

The Road to Recovery
Vivian Leven, a dog training director at Fur-Get Me Not, explains the best thing you can do for an abandoned dog is to use positive reinforcement and rewarding techniques.

“Punishing dogs will never help them get back to normal life,” said Leven.

Fur-Get Me Not offers many training classes, but Leven highlights their confidence-building and nose work classes as ones abandoned dogs can benefit from. Confidence-building classes help dogs with separation anxiety develop social skills with other dogs and people, and nose work classes allow dogs to use their natural scenting abilities to search for things as a way to build confidence and focus.

“These classes are a way of showing the dog has control,” said Leven. “With abandoned dogs, they don’t get a choice, so we want to give the dogs a choice with what they’re comfortable in doing, and building up that confidence and sense of security. It’s all about building good experiences.”

Leven also explains there are simple tasks you can work on at home with your abandoned dog:
• Create a structured schedule. The dog will know what to expect throughout the day and when.
• Leave in short increments. If your dog has separation anxiety, try leaving the house or going in a different room in short increments, such as five minutes, and build up to several hours, but making sure they feel comfortable along the way.
• Give your dog an activity toy. Toys like a Kong or marrow bone help distract your dog from any anxiety, and allow them to problem-solve on their own. Giving them this toy right before you have to leave the house also helps them cope with the temporary separation.
• Go on a long, quiet walk. Give them some doggie therapy by taking them on a long walk in an open area. Put your dogs on a long lead and let them sniff around in their natural environment.

Moving Forward
After many training classes with Fur-Get Me Not, Emma’s behavior has immensely improved. She shows love and attention toward Davies and her family and is a much different dog now, Davies says. Emma is about 13 years old now, and she is a prime example that an old dog can learn new tricks.

Keyo has also shown improvement since being adopted less than a year ago. He graduated from PetSmart’s six-week beginner course, having improved on his listening skills and bonding with the family. He is still learning to socialize with others, but with time and patience he will eventually get there.

As a pet owner who considers her animal a member of the family, it’s very hard for me to imagine why someone would want to abandon an innocent pet. Though it disturbs me to think about Keyo’s past and imagine how he lived each day without someone to care for him, I look at how content he is today, with a loving family and a warm bed to sleep in every night.


How to Find a New or Temporary Home for Your Pet

We all love our dogs, but sometimes circumstances arise where we have to find them a new home, either temporarily or permanently. Or, we may hear about others struggling to find homes for their dogs. Here are some resources to help:

Temporary Care
Whether it’s military deployment or a long-term illness, dog owners find themselves between a rock and hard place on finding temporary care for their pets. Here are a few organizations that are always looking to help families in a bind:
Dogs on Deployment: Started by a military couple in 2011, this nonprofit dedicates its time to providing assistance to members of the armed forces with military commitments who are unable to temporarily take care of their pets. Dogs on Deployment matches your dog with a volunteer willing to board your pet for as long as you need to fulfill those military duties. Dogs on Deployment also serves veterans who may be in long-term clinical care.

PACT for Animals: Based out of Philadelphia with several PACT communities scattered throughout the country, PACT for Animals has a military foster program and hospital foster program where volunteers temporarily take care of your dog while you are either away on military duties or in a long-term hospital stay. Volunteers will send weekly updates and pictures, so you are able to see how your pet is doing while you’re away. PACT for Animals’ volunteers can foster your pet at a minimum of one month and maximum of two years.

These organizations are always looking for more volunteers. If you’re interested in volunteering or donating toward these initiatives, contact Dogs on Deployment at and PACT For Animals at

Permanent Care
From animal allergies to moving to a new home that does not allow pets, there are many unfortunate situations where dogs need to be placed with a new family. Here are some tips to consider:

Evaluate the situation: Make sure you are giving up your dog for the right reasons. If you adopted your pet from a shelter or recuse they may require that you return your pet to them if you can no longer care for the animal. If it is a problem that can be managed, seek resources from your local veterinary clinic or a behavioral training facility. A professional Realtor,  may be able to help you find local, pet-friendly housing.

Family & Friends: Look to see if any family or friends are willing to take in your dog. If it’s someone your dog has previously met and gets along with, then the dog will have an easier transition.

Find a responsible home: If you’re looking to adopt your dog to a family on your own without the help of a shelter, be sure to never solicit your dog for adoption on CraigsList or similar websites. When finding a potential new family, meet them in person, visit their home, and see how they interact with your dog to ensure they are trustworthy and capable.

Find a reliable source: Always look for a credible and highly recommended animal shelter or rescue organization within your community, and be sure you understand their policies.
Lindsay Tilton Mitchell is a writer born and raised in Northern Virginia. She currently resides in Herndon with her husband, Sean, and their dog, Keyo. To get in contact with Lindsay, email her at