At Shep’s Place, we don’t call ourselves a rescue or a shelter, but a Sanctuary. It’s a comforting term, implying safety and rest. But, when applied to an animal facility, what does that word mean exactly? There are a number of senior dog sanctuaries (SDS) around the country, and each has its own unique structure and viewpoint. So what qualifies each to be called a Sanctuary? What does that word imply?
We have been asked variants of that question several times recently. When it comes up, the speaker is primarily concerned about the issue of adoption. They’ll say, “how can you call yourselves a Sanctuary when you adopt out dogs?” It’s a fair question, and it deserves a thoughtful answer.
For some folks, the word Sanctuary implies a forever home. When a dog arrives, it stays for the rest of its life. There are no further adoptions or transfers, so it never again has to undergo the trauma of relocation. There are a number of SDS’s that operate this way.
Other sanctuaries actively try to find new families for their dogs. These include our friends at the Senior Dog Sanctuary of Maryland, and Always & Furever SDS in Spring Hill, KS. To them, a Sanctuary is a safe place, but not necessarily the end of the road. They believe that dogs are better off in an individual home than in a group setting, so they push for adoptions whenever possible.
Neither viewpoint is wrong. As far as Shep’s Place is concerned, any group that helps old dogs deserves our support and respect. But for our own guidance, we need to be clear about where we stand on the issue of Sanctuary adoption, and why.
So here’s how we (meaning the Board) think about it.
Sanctuaries for people existed long before sanctuaries for animals. For centuries, people have sought safety in a church or an embassy, a refugee camp, or an attic or basement. When people take refuge in such a Sanctuary, they do not usually intend to remain forever. A Sanctuary is a safe place where they can stay as long as they need. While there, they will be cared for, and they will never be forced out. But, for humans at least, the hope is that the situation outside will eventually improve, and they can someday leave the Sanctuary for a better, more permanent home elsewhere.
Our concept of a dog Sanctuary is based on the same principles. It is a place of safety, shelter and rest for displaced dogs in need. As long as they are with us, they will be cared for and loved fully. And they can stay as long as they need, including forever; we are under no pressure to move them out, ever.
BUT! Like people, dogs are not required to stay in the Sanctuary indefinitely. They are welcome to stay, but if a better situation presents itself, so that the dog would be happier elsewhere, then they should go. Why would we want to prevent that? The guiding principle has to be what’s best for the dog. If they have the opportunity for a higher quality of life in their own home with their own family, then why stand in the way?
That is not to say that dogs at Shep’s Place aren’t happy. We work very hard to create the most homelike, supportive environment we can. But, we must also be honest. There are dogs that adapt well to group living, and others that don’t. Some dogs have personalities, or breed characteristics, or life experiences that make it difficult for them to live closely with other dogs. And, more importantly, most of us still believe that even the friendliest dog is better off with a single, supportive family than in a communal setting with many volunteers and dogs.
So, for Shep’s Place, Sanctuary and adoption are not mutually exclusive. Rather, adoption is a tool we sometimes use to better a dog’s life. We want each dog in our care to have the most fulfilling life possible, and adoption is one way to achieve that. It will never be our main focus, but we will at least make most of our dogs available. And we will celebrate when pups like Chug and Loretta find their loving forever home.
Our position is summarized in our Mission Statement, which says “We will try to find new families for [our dogs], but if we can’t, we will be their family and home, for as long as they live.” We will be their refuge when they need it, their surrogate family while they remain, and their cheerleaders if they move on to greener pastures. We believe that gives the dogs their best chance for a happy life. That is what Sanctuary means to us.