Returning a Rescue Dog: The Guilt When it Doesn’t Work Out

returning a rescue dog guilt

Do you have the guilt and continual questions about why you returned the rescue dog, and if you gave the animal long enough to adjust? If so, does this story about returning a rescue dog sound familiar to you?

“It wasn’t his fault. Through an extremely dark cloud of poor mental health, and even worse decision-making, I had convinced myself that adopting a dog would make me feel better somehow.” 

“His name was Archie. He was truly adorable, kind, and understanding. That didn’t make me a better owner though. I struggled on a daily basis to care for him well with my complete lack of preparation.” 

“In the end, I decided it was best for the shelter to find him a better home. That guilt sat in the pit of my stomach for years.”

Though this is relatively rare, returning a rescue dog does happen and it can make you feel terrible and wracked with guilt.

Is it bad to return your rescue dog?

What do you do if your rescue dog is not working out? Is there a way of avoiding returning your rescue dog to the shelter?

Whether it’s bad to return a rescue dog or not will depend on many factors. The primary driver here needs to be around the welfare of the dog though.

In this detailed guide I wanted to share my opinions on this topic, and how returning a rescue dog can leave you feeling guilty for years, with so many “what ifs”.

A brief word about choosing the right rescue dog for you

This can be an entire topic unto itself, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it here.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Getting to the stage where you are looking to return your rescue dog can be completely avoided at the selection stage.

Both you and the shelter need to be honest and thorough in the adoption process, so that you are matched with the dog that best suits your lifestyle and personality. A lot of this will come down to you knowing what to look for when choosing a rescue dog – here are my tips to help you do that.

returning a rescue dog
What do you do when a rescue dog doesn’t work out? (Image licensed via

That German Shepherd with a violent, traumatic past should not be matched with a first-time owner. An elderly Cockapoo with a distaste for young, poking children should not be matched with an expecting couple.

These seem basic but the process needs to be thorough and slow to truly identify that you are right for each other in the first place.

If you are reading this, however, you are likely past this point, so let’s do our best to solve this tough situation – it could save you having a case of “returning a rescue dog guilt” which is a real thing, believe me.

Handy Hint: Here are the best questions to ask before you even consider adopting a dog, which might help you not make a mistake in the first place.

How to prevent returning your rescue dog

Before you take the leap and decide to return your new furry friend, first follow these steps.

1. Allow your rescue dog time to adjust

A common question is how long does it take for a rescue dog to adjust? What can you do to speed up that process? The truth is the adjustment period wholly depends on your dog’s personality and history. It could be days, weeks, or even months.

The Animal Humane Society has a 60 day adjustment period clause with their adoptions, which should give you a good indication of the average amount of time you should allow your dog to settle.

Naturally, if the situation becomes dangerous to family members or other animals in your household with no signs of improvement, you should take action more swiftly.

2. Set clear boundaries and training practices from the beginning

Instilling structure and calm discipline from the beginning of your adoption is so very important. The first few weeks that a rescue dog is rehomed are crucial to determining their trajectory with their new family.

Don’t allow your dog to steal food in week 1 and then flag it as an issue in week 4. You can’t blame your dog for breaking the rules if you haven’t set any to begin with!

3. Work closely with your vet and shelter to solve problem behavior

According to the ASPCA’s National Rehoming Survey, 46% of owners rehome their dogs due to problem behavior. Therefore, your shelter should have a good record of their past.

It is rare that a dog very suddenly turns aggressive when rehomed if they were the most delicate, docile little thing beforehand.

Of course, the rehoming process is a big change for your rescue. Some bad habits like howling, digging, or chewing can present themselves during the adjustment period, simply because they are nervous.

Think of it like an adopted child bedwetting in their first few months in a new home.

Whatever the case may be, most problem behaviors in rescue dogs are entirely solvable with calm, consistent training.

Speak to your vet and the rescue center for personalized advice as this could mean you don’t need to return your rescue dog and have to deal with the guilty feelings that come with that.

How to deal with the guilt of returning your rescue dog

After all is said and done, things between you and your rescue dog just aren’t working out. It is perfectly normal to regret buying a puppy.

If the above steps are not working for you and there is a fundamental mismatch in personality and behavior, could you be forgiven for returning your adopted dog to the shelter?

I think there is a lot of nuance to be discussed here. Two things can be true at the same time. We can acknowledge that this could be out of your control, but also acknowledge that the vetting process should have been done better.

We can recognize that in the long run, the dog should be with owners that can fully support and love them.

We can also recognize that the displacement of moving from home to home is distressing for the dog and could have some impact on their long-term wellbeing.

To process that conflicting guilt, here is what I would recommend.

Acknowledge your role

In order to write this piece, I have thought about it from multiple different perspectives. Sadly, I cannot think of a single version of this story where the new owner is wholly absolved of any part in it going awry.

For example, even if you weren’t to know that your new rescue dog dislikes children, it is still up to you to be as investigative as possible at the outset about your potential pup’s history and personality traits – these are all reasons why you can’t cope with the dog, but will need to be researched first.

Better yet, it should be on the criteria that your future dog must have a known history of being happy with young children. You should also introduce your children to the rescue dog whilst at the shelter before bringing them home. This is a safe environment for them to meet each other, eliminating any nasty surprises later.

Now please don’t take this as me demonizing you because that’s not true at all. I fully recognize that we make mistakes when we are excited to adopt a dog. The shelter has a part to play in this too.

You are not the first to feel the guilt in returning a rescue dog this way and you won’t be the last.

You should take full responsibility that you just weren’t prepared and you possibly adopted the dog for entirely the wrong reasons.

Acknowledging your role is not about beating yourself up. It is about fully seeing the situation for what it is so that you can learn the lessons.

Learn the lessons

Interestingly, Inga Fricke from Animal Sheltering Magazine, believes that the stigma should be removed from returning rescue dogs because of this very reason. It is an excellent opportunity to learn what is best for the dog and the owner long term.

It all starts with a critical analysis of what went wrong.

Next time, could you do more research on different breeds, life stages, and behaviors of dogs to be more fully prepared?

Could you volunteer at a local dog shelter to get to know potential dogs for a longer period of time before committing?

Could you be more adamant about learning your potential rescue dog’s behavioral and family history?

If you have lost faith in the dog shelter you were working with, then visit other local shelters to review their processes and support structure.

You can and will do better next time!

Don’t give up on adopting a dog

But is there going to be a next time? 

I hear you. This can all be quite heart-breaking. Traumatic even depending on the circumstances.

Please know that you are not a bad person for having a mismatch with your rescue dog. Some things just weren’t meant to be.


I know people who have returned a rescue dog because they simply were not ready and prepared. Those people still have some guilt but have gone on to rescue three beautiful dogs of different sizes, ages and breeds that have brought so much joy to their life.

You are capable of being a great owner to the right rescue dog. Don’t give up on trying to find them!

You might also like…

There’s a lot of content on Doggysaurus to help rescue dog owners, and some of this could support you before you return the dog and have to deal with any guilt.

Image in header licensed via

Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

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