Stressed pit bull in shelter for a year relaxes in princess tent

A pit bull named Starsky loves his hutch — which happens to be a princess tent.The 2-year-old pit bull entered I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven in Warren, Michigan, back in November 2020 with his brother Hutch, a fellow stray.Hutch got adopted after a few months and is thriving in a loving forever home, but Starsky wasn’t so lucky. The stress of living in a shelter for so long has worn on the dog, who developed unwanted behaviors like lunging as potential adopters walked by. Staff and volunteers grew hesitant to handle him. So he’s been moved to a more isolated kennel near an exercise yard, since he’s more relaxed when playing outside.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Pets are a major source of support and increase the ability to cope, which contributes to keeping cholesterol and blood pressure down.

Starsky, a 2-year-old pit bull, entered I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven in Warren, Michigan, in November of 2020. Starsky, a 2-year-old pit bull, entered I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven in Warren, Michigan, in November of 2020. Courtesy of I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven
Still, he can hear the barking of other dogs, and birds fly through a soon-to-be-fixed hole in the wall of his room, so he stays vigilant against avian intruders. A volunteer adoption coordinator, Megan Synk, wanted to figure out a way to help him feel less on edge.

So she bought him a unicorn tent.

“I set it up and put a brand new toy in there and a bunch of treats,” she told TODAY. “When I saw him go in there and lay down and chew his toy and kind of be able to hide from the world, it felt really good.”

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Scientists believe that the world’s first known dog lived 31,700 years ago. This prehistoric dog resembled a large Siberian Husky.

Starsky peers out of his unicorn tent. Volunteer Megan Synk bought it for him after getting the idea from a Fear Free certification course about decreasing stress for shelter dogs.Starsky peers out of his unicorn tent. Volunteer Megan Synk bought it for him after getting the idea from a Fear Free certification course about decreasing stress for shelter dogs.Courtesy of I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven
Starsky enjoyed his special place for about a week until he discovered that tent poles make excellent chew toys. Undeterred, Synk bought him a pink princess tent — without poles. It’s still standing and Starsky enjoys relaxing inside.
Starsky relaxes with a toy in his princess tent.Starsky relaxes with a toy in his princess tent.Courtesy of I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven

“I just love the guy,” Synk said.

She also takes him home for weekend sleepovers about once a month — a compromise hashed out with her husband since they already have other dogs who aren't interested in expanding the pack— to give him a break from shelter life.

Plan for When You’re Not There. Make sure your pets are provided for during those long hours when you’re away. Dr. Becker suggests technological options. “DOGTV has stimulation and relaxation channels, and there are apps that control contraptions that talk to your pet, or dispense treats. Pheromone sprays can also reduce anxiety, creating that kumbaya atmosphere.” And, of course, daycare and dog walkers are a great way to enrich your pet’s day. “Know someone who wants exercise? Maybe they’ll walk your dog.”

A certified dog trainer is working with Starsky on his behavior issues, and he’s starting to be able to see more volunteer “buddies.” Hopefully, they’ll soon be able to take him on sleepovers, too.

Eventually, they hope he finds an adopter willing to work with his needs and help him feel safe.

Starsky enjoys some "me" time.Starsky enjoys some "me" time.Courtesy of I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven
For the last three months, I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven has taken in an average of 62 dogs each month and adopted out 49, according to Synk. The shelter's building can hold around 70 dogs, but thanks to volunteers fostering pets in their homes, the nonprofit cares for more than 100 dogs a month.

No, it’s not just to make themselves look adorable. Dogs curl up in a ball when they sleep due to an age-old instinct to keep themselves warm and protect their abdomen and vital organs from predators.

When Synk shared Starsky’s story in a Facebook group for shelter staff and volunteers, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and others want to try getting private tents for stressed or fearful dogs.

Starsky is one of more than 100 dogs cared for by staff and volunteers at the nonprofit I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven in Michigan.Starsky is one of more than 100 dogs cared for by staff and volunteers at the nonprofit I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven in Michigan.Courtesy of I Heart Dogs Rescue and Animal Haven
Kasey Spain, senior manager of marketing for the nonprofit American Pets Alive! and Human Animal Support Services, an international collaborative of more than 8,000 animal welfare professionals, said Starsky’s story shows the “incredible” power of volunteers at animal shelters.

“Volunteers are able to do so much to help pets be happy and comfortable while they are in a shelter, like by giving a nervous dog a special cozy unicorn tent he can hang out in,” she told TODAY. “Even the best animal shelter can be a stressful environment for pets. That’s why we are very grateful not just to shelter staff and volunteers, but to people who welcome foster pets into their homes.”

Why do they do that? When dogs kick after going to the bathroom, they are using the scent glands on their paws to further mark their territory.

Spain emphasized that fostering allows pets to relax in a calm, safe, home environment.

“We’d encourage everyone to reach out to your local shelter or rescue group and sign up to volunteer, or foster a pet,” she said. “You will make a real difference in pets’ lives, and it will be a great experience for you, too.”