This past weekend (Feb 1-4, 2019), the Pawlytics team went down to Austin, TX for the American Pets Alive! Conference to soak up information from some of the most successful animal welfare organizations in the country. One of the classes we attended was “Why are big dogs so hard to save?”**, and here is a little bit of what we learned.

When working hard to save every animal in your care, you may have noticed that some dogs are much harder to find homes for than others…ahh yes…large dogs. But why is it so hard to save these giant lovable goofs? Well, to name a few…

Housing Issues and Breed Discrimination

Big dogs need…well…a big space. Their kennels and items are much larger and they need more room to move and stretch their legs. Even if the dog is a couch potato, most rental complexes have policies against large dogs over a certain weight. Many apartment complexes and cities also have breed restrictions that single out dogs who tend to be in the large breed dog spectrum. These constraints reduce the adopter pool significantly.

Strength of Dog

Many people love dogs but may feel intimidated by a large breed dog and not feel equip to handle a dog of that size. If there is ever an emergency, depending on the dog’s size, it may be difficult to gain control of a situation – say the dog decides to pull you on a leash into traffic after a squirrel.


Big dogs mean bigger bills. Large dogs eat more than small dogs and their vet bills tend to be bigger as doses of medication are greater and bigger tools are used to accommodate their needs. The toys you purchase may need to be more durable and the beds and kennels are larger and more expensive. Simply the cost of owning a large dog can be a barrier to adopting one.

Fear of Size

People who fear dogs tend to be even more afraid of large breed dogs. Their size can make them much more intimidating especially if they have been in the shelter for a long time and are not giving a great first impression.


Let’s face it…if 120 pound Hercules chews up the leg of my kitchen table, there will be extensively more damage than if 13 pound Teddy takes a few munches. Large dogs who have no training have the potential to destroy more things inside the home.

Age Discrimination

Large dogs on average don’t live as long as small dogs. Seeing a large dog at the shelter may make potential adopters believe that dog won’t live much longer and opt for a puppy or small dog instead.


All dogs can get wound up when they have a lot of energy to burn. This could mean bouncing all over your home and accidentally being destructive or a nuisance. This is not singular to large dogs however a large dog jumping around will cause more of a scene making the owner or potential adopter feel inconvenienced to work with the dog or walk it.

Shelter Stress

Almost all dogs have a hard time in the shelter. But, large dogs can get extremely wound up in the shelter environment from a lack of stimulus, socialization, and exercise. This causes them to bark at passerby, whine, pace, have accidents, and therefore may not be able to get their true personalities across in the first meeting.


All dogs should have basic training and socialization. But for larger dogs this can mean life or death. If a larger dog decides to bite or is provoked into biting, the damage done will often be much more significant than a small dog. This can cause massive liability issues for pet owners.

It’s us not them…

Now that we have examined why people shy away from large breed dogs, it is time for us to realize that we have been the ones unintentionally failing them. Let’s examine the data.

Austin Pets Alive! wanted to get to the bottom of how to save more large dogs. So, they set up a check in iPad at their door, set up cameras around their shelter, and really observed how people interacted with the dogs and staff. What they learned was that 75% of all people were coming in looking to adopt a large breed dog. GASP That is a lot of homes. So what has gone so wrong?! In getting to the root of the problem they had to study their data, staff, and volunteers. They identified a number of factors that were falling short for the tall dogs (bad joke, I’m so sorry).

Most shelters are built the same size

If you examine every shelters’ floor plan, you’ll quickly notice all shelters are built with near identical floor plans and are all around the same size with same number of kennels. But why?! We know that every community, its resources, and its lifesaving percentage are different. To prepare your shelter for success, you’ll need an adequate capacity for these large dogs. What is an adequate capacity? Well, according to Dr. Ellen Jefferson, the Executive Director of Austin Pets Alive! and American Pets Alive!, there are three intentional building blocks in finding adequate capacity for your shelter and utilizing it right.

1. Figure out how many large kennels you truly need.

To figure this out we use a simple equation of 1 kennel for every 25 dogs you intake in one year.

Example: If your shelter takes in 10,000 dogs in a year you would need 400 kennels to save 90% of those large dogs.

10,000 dog intake / 25 dogs = 400 kennels

If you are a shelter that double houses dogs (2 per kennel) then you will divide by 40 instead.

Example: If your shelter takes in 10,000 dogs in a year you would need 250 kennels to save 90% of those large dogs.

10,000 dog intake / 40 dogs = 250 kennels

2. Figure out how many foster homes you need.

For the same reason an adopter may lean away from adopting a large dog – so will a foster home. And the beautiful thing is if you solve one of these problems you solve both. If you are able to find foster homes for these large dogs, the reasons the public is not adopting them doesn’t end there. What I mean by that is that just because a large dog is in a foster home doesn’t affect housing issues, breed discrimination, size issues, liability, or anything I listed above. However, finding foster homes is necessary to keep your cage capacity open. So how many foster homes do you need? And how do you keep them around?

To figure out the total number of fosters necessary for your shelter – you’ll again do the math! Sorry – I should have mentioned there were a few pop quizzes coming! The equation for foster homes is: 3% of your total annual dog intake should be in a foster home at any given time.

Example: If your shelter takes in 10,000 dogs each year, you need 300 dogs in foster at any given time.

Now that you know how many fosters you need…how do you keep them around or attract new fosters? We’ll get to that…

3. Figure out how many adopters you need.

Adopters face a lot of the same challenges that fosters do, but this problem can be compounded because adopters are making a long term (lifelong) commitment – whereas fosters are only making short term commitments. Setting a goal for how many large dog adopters you need each month will help your life saving percentage be more attainable and focused. To calculate this, we are going to borrow some average numbers from the Dallas and Austin data. They discovered that 44% of their total dog intake were large adult dogs. This number might be different for your organization so we suggest using your data if you have some. Otherwise taking an educated guess or borrowing numbers from another organization in your area will help set this goal. So, to save every large dog, they need to save 44% of all dogs.

Example: If your shelter takes in 10,000 dogs each year, you will need to adopt out (at a 44% large dog annual intake) 4,400 large dogs each year.

Now that you know your numbers, let’s revisit the question I posed above. How do you find and retain fosters and adopters for large adult dogs? The first step is making sure people know you have the dogs. Excellent marketing will go a long way these days when everything is fighting for seconds of someone’s attention. Some excellent marketing tips for a stellar digital presence:

  • Use a good photo (clear, happy, bright)
  • Write a happy and positive bio
  • Use videos!! Good videos will show case the pet’s personality
  • Web presence – post them to your website and other common adoption websites
  • Facebook and Social Media – because every impression counts
  • Craigslist – we know people use it to look for animals, let’s take advantage of that and guide people in the right direction
  • Nextdoor or neighborhood apps – let your neighbors know how close a perfect match might be

Now that you have the fosters and adopters thanks to great marketing efforts…how do you keep them around? Big dogs need a big program that is dedicated to setting these dogs and their families up for success. Listed below is programing to consider in your shelter to help big dogs and the people bringing them into their homes.

Tire Them Out

A tired dog is a happy dog – a tired dog is also more likely to be a well behaved dog. And, to come full circle, a well behaved dog is more likely to get adopted. All dogs should get out of their kennel at least twice a day and receive play time, exercise, and enrichment. To do this successfully, arm your shelter with volunteers and train your volunteers to be able to handle big dogs. For a great resource and guidance into setting up play groups at your shelter check out Dogs Playing For Life.

Train Them

Leverage your volunteers and set your volunteers up for success. Large dogs will knock potential adopters off their feet if they display any sense of having had training. Every dog comes into the shelter with different levels of training from past families or none at all. Provide structure to your volunteers and categorize dogs by different levels of training. This will help your organization create volunteer training programs on how to work with each “level” of dog. This also ensures no dog goes without training and that dogs with training do not plateau or regress. A dog that can walk nicely on a leash is far more likely to get adopted than one that cannot.


Be sure that every potential adopter who walks through the door gets excellent customer service. Train specific volunteers to be “matchmakers” whose sole mission is to help potential adopters make a connection with a large dog suited to their home. The number one reason adopters cited their adoption happened is because they made a connection with the animal. One local research study found that if a dog plays with or sits by the person, the person is 10 times more likely to take that dog home. Listen to what the adopter is looking for and try to make that match. When introducing that dog to the potential adopter, make a great effort to get the animal and person to engage. If you know a dog loves to get treats, bring in treats. If you know a dog is obsessed with bones and will ignore everything when a bone is in sight, remove all bones from the meet and greet room.

Virtual Fosters

This is honestly one of the coolest and most innovate initiatives I heard about while attending this conference. Virtual fosters are people who are unable to foster that pet at home but are willing to be that pet’s advocate. In this instance they are the advocate for the dog in the shelter kennel. They are the ones who come in and take time to get to know the dog, be the dog’s buddy, work on a training plan for the dog, take pictures of the dog, and keep marketing content for the dog fresh and fun. Virtual fosters are the first point of contact for potential adopters and should be able to offer support (answer questions, etc) once the dog is in its new home. This is a fantastic program for people who can’t foster, donate, or help in other ways but have the time to advocate for one dog till it finds a forever home.

Post Your Euth List

People in the community do generally want to help. By creating proactive programs you will surely chip away at your large dog euthanasia rate. But – it won’t always be perfect. For the dogs who still are falling through the cracks, post them. Let the community have an opportunity to help and they will surely surprise you. If you are making every effort to save them, the community will understand that any dog making it to this list has had every effort for them exhausted in the shelter.

Reduce Length of Stay (LOS)

Large dogs have a higher tendency to exhibit stress in a shelter environment. Set goals for the maximum length of stay a large dog should have in the shelter and always be working to get them adopted out before that day. One local study happening in a Missouri shelter found that if their large dogs’ length of stay exceeded 30 days then they were 90% likely to still be in the shelter after 1 year. Obviously it became their goal to get every large dog adopted before the 30 day mark. Collect data so you can set these goals. A few proactive ways to reduce a large dog’s length of stay are:

  • Fostering
  • Training
  • Marketing (every day you don’t get marketing out is a day added to that dog’s LOS!)
  • Enrichment

Don’t be surprised if the large dog program gets expensive. This is normal and if you are on your journey of reaching better live outcome percentages, this makes sense. Large dogs (and large dogs with behavior issues) are typically the animals the most in need to close the gap. With a large dog program, you are able to be hyper focused and your hyper focused program will be extremely effective and worth every penny.

Measure, Set Goals, Repeat

As with anything, it is important to collect data on your large dog program. When studying the effectiveness of their large dog programming, Austin Pets Alive! set up a check in iPad to measure the number of large dog potential adopters, set up cameras to watch what adopters were not getting serviced or even spoken to while in the shelter, set up a Matchmakers log, and matched everything up with the end of day adoption list. This helped them quantify their success (or failures) and gave them the ability to see gaps in their own program. Scrutinize your program regularly and always be changing it to better match the needs of the large dogs falling through the cracks.

What about returns, you ask?

Don’t worry – this was a common concern from the audience. It is best to have a dedicated volunteer who runs a behavior hot line. Obviously this volunteer should be well versed in doggie behavior and have great people skills. Virtual fosters are also great in helping with transition questions for a dog going into a new home. To get in front of potential returns, educate adopters and fosters and always fully disclose ALL information you have on a dog (yes, every note a foster, virtual foster, vet, handler, or volunteer made on a dog) to reduce potential surprises in the new home.

Finally, think about what you can control

Did reading this novel (it was as long for me to write as it was for you to read, lol) overwhelm you? Well! Do not fear! Think about what you can control first. Set goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) using the equations above. Create manageable programs and policies that set your large dogs, volunteers, fosters, and adopters up for success. Look for barriers you may be unintentionally creating and reduce or get rid of them. This program may not be “easy” but it will be well worth it when you get those happy adoption tails from very happy adopters!

Big dogs need big hearts to help them find forever homes!

**This talk (Why are big dogs so hard to save?) was given at the 2019 American Pets Alive! Conference by Dr. Ellen Jefferson (Executive Director of Austin Pets Alive! & American Pets Alive!).