Unmasking the shelter dog

Research redefining adoptability could save many animals’ lives
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Black dogs don’t get adopted. Animals adopted to be given as gifts are usually returned. And dogs that engage in warning behaviors such as whale eye and food guarding should never be offered for adoption.

Behavioral scientists and shelter professionals are disproving many such myths while working toward a future where more animals are regarded as adoptable and fewer are euthanized. Researchers are also refuting certain assumptions about prospective and current owners that could be hampering adoption and retention.

According to these experts, the idea that there are “shelter dogs” and “shelter cats” is itself a distortion, implying that homeless animals are different from their counterparts with homes and feeding the notion that these animals are damaged goods.

“These dogs and cats that are in shelters are just dogs and cats, they are not shelter dogs and cats,” said Dr. Amy Marder, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University. “Every dog is an individual.”

Dr. Marder keynoted the National Council on Pet Population’s second research symposium last November in Dallas, an event that explored the impact and application of behavioral science in animal shelters. Dr. Marder focused on why now, more than ever, it’s important to understand the behavior of animals in shelters.

“For years, we’ve been talking about rescuing, but it wasn’t the time. Now is the time, now things are changing. We have experts. By (May), we’ll have a textbook on behavior in shelters. There’s a great interest in debunking shelter myths,” she said.

She noted there is more need today to identify and manage behaviors in shelters and an increasing number of dogs being handled by grassroots networks.

The much-awaited textbook due out next month is “Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff,” co-edited by Emily Weiss, PhD; Heather Mohan-Gibbons; and Stephen Zawistowski, PhD.

A new source of expertise will be the Shelter Medicine Practice specialty under the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, which was granted provisional recognition by the AVMA a year ago April. Seven veterinarians have applied to take the first certification examination in November. Meanwhile, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians has grown to 750 member veterinarians and 22 student chapters around the globe since its 2001 founding.

This spring, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida launched an online master’s program catering not only to veterinarians, veterinary students, residents, and interns but also to veterinary technicians, shelter administrators, and other animal welfare professionals.

In companion animal behavior, certification is available for veterinary behaviorists, applied animal behaviorists, and professional dog trainers.

Pet population council

The 242 symposium attendees from the animal welfare community heard 10 behavioral scientists describe how their research findings could be applied at the shelter or community level.

NCPP Board Chair Janet Scarlett told them, “We want to put out behaviorally healthy animals, safe animals, but we also want to provide for their enrichment.”

The NCPP was established in 1993. The AVMA was one of the founding members. Dr. Scarlett said the council was founded to address the need for “good, scientifically collected” information that could help ground policies and benchmark progress.

(Courtesy of Cornell University)

We want to put out behaviorally healthy, safe animals, but we also want to provide for their enrichment.

Dr. Janet Scarlett, board chair, National Council on Pet Population



“Back then, there were a number of papers that came out of that original research, and they are still widely quoted today. About three years ago we resurrected the National Council, and one of our goals is to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas between our animal welfare professionals and the research community,” she said. Dr. Scarlett is a professor of epidemiology at Cornell University and founder of its Maddie’s program.

Policies backed by assumptions

Dr. Marder spent 20 years in practice as a certified applied animal behaviorist until a client survey she conducted caused her to move from the private sector to the staff of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City.

Her survey had asked clients how severe their pet’s behavioral problem was and whether they’d considered giving up or euthanizing their pet. Even though 99 percent said the problem was severe, most had never entertained the idea of giving up the pet, and none had considered euthanasia.

Those findings underscored the strength of the owners’ attachment and advocacy, something that animals in shelters were lacking. She said, “They were the same as animals I saw in practice, but they didn’t have an owner standing by their side. I told myself this is where I can save animals’ lives.”

Dr. Marder started collaborating on research with Dr. Zawistowski of the ASPCA, a founding board member and past president of the NCPP. Despite the lack of science to back up the practice, shelters were euthanizing animals that were food guarders or showed whale eye, for fear they’d maul toddlers.

“So many policies were being made leading to unnecessary euthanasia,” she said. “There were reams to learn in shelters.”

Evaluations under scrutiny

Dr. Marder, who has devoted her career to behavior evaluations, said, “The big question people have is: How good are evaluations?”

Various studies have called into question the correlation between food guarding—in the shelter and in the home environment before and after adoption—and aggression, one of the key areas in evaluations. Speaking at the meeting, Dr. Weiss, vice president of shelter research and development for the ASPCA, asked, “Could it just be about the value of the resource, like time is of value to us?”

Shelters responding to a 2006 nationwide survey by the ASPCA reported food guarding to be a top reason dogs were not eligible for adoption, according to Dr. Weiss. Of the 77 responding shelters, the 71 that assessed for food aggression reported that 14 percent of their dogs showed food guarding behavior during an assessment. Only 34 percent of the shelters tried behavior modification, and 51 percent made no attempt to adopt out these dogs.

But behaviorists such as Drs. Marder and Weiss say that food aggression is both treatable and controllable.

In the shelter, Dr. Weiss and her colleagues developed a behavior modification program for dogs assessed as food guarders that includes free-feeding of dry food. They provide enrichment along with a protocol for adopters to begin as soon as they take their dog home.

It seems to work, Dr. Weiss said. In a 2004 study, the Wisconsin Humane Society followed 96 dogs with food guarding after sending them to new homes on a food program. The researchers conducted phone surveys at three days, three weeks, and three months, at which time they asked the owners to videotape the dogs at mealtime to confirm there were no signs of aggression. Only six dogs were reportedly guarding in the first three weeks—only one of them at the food bowl, and by three months, even those dogs were not guarding.

Dr. Marder said food guarding is part of what used to be called dominance-related aggression. “Why do dogs do this? They’re dogs,” she said.

When interpreting food guarding through a behavior evaluation, Dr. Marder said one must keep in mind it doesn’t necessarily mean a dog would behave that way in a home. About half the dogs in her food aggression study were not food-aggressive in the home after adoption. Dr. Weiss, in a recent blog, wrote that often, dogs and cats may be “un-shelterable” but be quite “home-able” and thrive there.

Copyright © 2015. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). All rights reserved.

If a shelter does not have resources for behavior modification, Dr. Marder said it is possible to safely adopt out food guarders with pre-adoption counseling, adoption with restrictions, and follow-up. In fact, the ASPCA has a campaign “Time to Send Food Guarders Home,” with resources.

Dr. Gaille Perry of the RSPCA Australia told attendees that in 2012, the society decided to standardize the behavior assessments in RSPCA shelters. Assessors meeting from around the country decided on the test components, and a protocol was developed that included a range of levels for food guarding from 1 to 8. Handlers and observers were trained, handouts were developed for adopters, and a new-owner survey was developed.

Dogs were assessed four to seven days after intake, and 175 were eligible for inclusion in the study. Dogs were assessed initially with dry food, then wet food, then with a freeze-dried bone. Those that displayed no interest in the bone were assessed with a pig’s ear. Of this sample, none were assessed at higher than level 3 for wet food, and levels were similar or lower for dry food. Levels were higher with the bone, with five dogs assessed at level 4, seven at level 5, and one at level 6. One-third of the dogs showed no interest in the bone. A vast volume of data has been collected for analysis.

Myths about relinquishers

Dr. Marder said some research has found a disparity between a dog’s behavior and the owner’s perception of it, and most owners said that even if their dog were food-aggressive, they would adopt it again.

Are shelters evaluating what’s important to the public? Dr. Weiss said, “I don’t think we know. People are keeping dogs with significant behavioral issues. … It’s time for us to take off the veil in terms of us deciding what they want.”

Much of her research has focused on the human animal. For example, the areas of focus in the upcoming text on animal behavior in shelters are basic behavior, applied behavior in shelters, and the human animal.

And owners were central in a survey on large dog relinquishment to two municipal facilities in New York and Washington, D.C. (Animals 2012;4:409-433), which she co-authored with Dr. Scarlett and five others. In most shelters, large dogs are at greater risk of euthanasia, so the survey was geared at finding reasons owners relinquish them and ways to help keep them in their home.

Dr. Weiss said the survey “busted a few myths.” “Not everyone relinquishing was severely impoverished,” she said. A large percentage had household income greater than $34,000, the point where it’s often hard to get help. Most had finished high school, and cultural identity was not a factor. And most considered relinquishment for at least a week and had tried to get help.

These dogs and cats that are in shelters are just dogs and cats, they are not shelter dogs and cats. Every dog is an individual.

Dr. Amy Marder, adjunct assistant professor, Department of Clinical Sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

Behavior problems were not on the top of the list of reasons for relinquishment. Issues such as access to affordable pet-friendly housing, temporary life issues with the pet owner, and health issues with the pet were all drivers. Local ordinances and insurance restrictions often led to relinquishment of large and bully-type dogs.

Dr. Weiss said temporary help can often keep a pet with its family. Supporting an animal in its home could mean paying a pet deposit on an apartment or providing the cost of training or veterinary treatment. She commended shelters that already offer such help, noting that some are even taking back an animal from the family to give it needed medical care and then re-adopting to the owner. Finding pet-friendly housing is another challenge, and she mentioned Lollypop Farm, as one group that has been working on this issue.

In a similar vein, Alexandra “Sasha” Protopopova, PhD, in her talk on adopter-dog interactions at shelters, said, “Instead of focusing on animal welfare from the perspective of the dog, I’m going to take it from the perspective of the adopter.” A certified professional dog trainer at the University of Florida, she found that adopters are more likely to adopt dogs that play with them. She then talked about how a shelter can identify an individual dog’s preferences for play and engagement, then encourage potential adopters to do the same with that dog to see whether they are a good match.

Inside the shelter

Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania related how the population at a municipal, open-access shelter doubled when the other area shelters became “no-kill.” She intervened to reverse the inhumane conditions. She said, “The way we treat dogs in these municipal shelters is a civil rights concern. And we do it because we can. And when we stop treating dogs this way, we’ll stop treating people this way.”

A diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, she said shelters need to test and collect data on the hypothesis that shelters cause or worsen fear and anxiety in dogs. She said investing in informed, standardized, reliable, and valid behavioral evaluations; staff education; and true veterinary behavioral care makes for a more humane experience for the dogs and the volunteers and staff.

Lisa McCluskey, a certified professional dog trainer and certified canine behavior consultant, described a study she conducted to measure whether instituting a canine companion training curriculum could reduce return rates in a “no-kill” shelter environment. The study found that dogs that attended training were 2.63 times as likely to stay in their adoptive home. Her conclusion: A training curriculum can substantially reduce the return rate.

Dr. Linda Lord, associate dean for professional programs at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, filled in for Dr. Meghan Herron, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at the college, on the effects of environmental enrichment on the behavior of dogs in shelters. Dr. Herron started this program in 2011 as a partnership between the veterinary college and the Franklin County Dog Shelter, an open-access, municipal facility that adopts out about 4,000 of the 11,000 dogs it impounds annually. The program runs as a hands-on elective course opportunity for veterinary students. The hope was that a program combining inanimate enrichment such as food-filled toys with animate social interaction would improve behavior and increase adoptability as well as increase student community service awareness.

The program has increased desirable behaviors and decreased undesirable ones, and the study presented by Dr. Lord found that dogs that are not enrolled in the program develop a worsening of behavior. Adoption rates during the study time period were not measurably different, likely because almost all dogs were adopted within a week. Although a lack of proven effect on adoption rates is disappointing, Dr. Lord said the enrichment still improves animal welfare, and the shelter and college partnership offers a new approach to providing education for students and a service to the population of disadvantaged dogs.

Terri Bright, PhD, director of behavior services with the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, profiled the SafeWalk program she created in 2009 to improve enrichment for dogs in shelters. It is based on the Dick and Carey Instructional Design Model. Volunteers are trained to increase their expertise and interaction with the dogs, such as by taking them to obedience classes. They write behavioral observations for each interaction in a “dog log” so everyone learns from the notes.

Pit bull–type dogs account for a large percentage of the dogs this open-admission shelter takes in. A special class was created to teach the volunteers behavioral skills to save those dogs’ lives. Since SafeWalk was begun, adoption rates for pit bull–type dogs have risen from 77 to 91 percent. Dr. Bright said the goal is to create a program over the next two years that teaches other shelter directors to set up a SafeWalk program.

Animal behaviorist Monique A.R. Udell, PhD, an assistant professor of animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University, spoke on evaluating and understanding the social cognition of dogs living in shelters, which have been underrepresented in basic research, she said. Behavioral and cognitive tests find shelter dogs, feral dogs, strays, and working dogs often perform differently from pets.

Fanning out

“Where do we go from here? We can use research to save so many animals’ lives. If we work together with shelters, universities, coalitions, and volunteers, we can leave our old ways, take our scientific abilities to debunk myths, and establish new ways,” Dr. Marder said.

Discussion ensued on how to widely reach shelters and the public with new research. Fanning out with it via the Internet and social media was encouraged. A primary clearinghouse is the ASPCA’s online shelter resource. The Center for Shelter Dogs at Tufts, is another outlet. How can municipal shelters with limited resources implement new science? In baby steps.

Dr. Marder said behavioral work in cats is lagging behind that of dogs but will eventually catch up. Last December saw the launch of the Million Cat Challenge to reduce loss of life among cats in shelters by the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California-Davis, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF, and hundreds of shelters.

At day’s end, Dr. Scarlett appealed for good ongoing data the NPPC can collect and release.