This is an updated version of the original article which was published in January. The current article has new studies, expanded discussion about cats, alternatives to temperament testing, and additional recommendations for running a humane animal shelter conducive to the well-being of animals.
Shelters are stressful places for dogs and can be stressful places for potential adopters. In most shelters, dogs can’t see people or other dogs in neighboring kennels. Where there is glass, it’s opaque. Where there are fences or bars, they face a wall. When people visit, they are told not to touch the animals. These are mistakes that increase frustration for dogs.
When dogs are frustrated, they are stressed, bark excessively, and engage in antisocial behavior. Moreover, the louder the barking in the kennel, the less time people spend in the kennels looking for dogs to adopt. And the more dogs barks or act out, the less likely they are to be adopted. Add flawed temperament testing and poorly-trained staff who are not held to high standards, and dogs are labeled “unadoptable” and killed.
There are a lot of things a shelter can do to counter these problems, including group housing, dog-dog play, toys, walks, human socialization, visual access outside their kennels, the ability to smell and touch people, and music with soft human voices. Ultimately, the shelter’s own socialization, training, and care policies determine whether dogs live or die, not arcane notions of “adoptability” based on flawed temperament tests.
Shelters are also stressful places for cats. Shelters that do not have a “mental health” component (touch, talk, play through volunteers) in concert with a “physical health” component (vaccination on intake and other medical care, cleaning/disinfection) undermine the well-being of cats and put them at risk of getting sick and being killed.
In the Dog Room
Study: “What is the Evidence for Reliability and Validity of Behavior Evaluations for Shelter Dogs?”
Findings: There is “no evidence that any canine behavior evaluation has come close to meeting accepted standards for reliability and validity.” Some tests were wrong as much as 84% of the time (a combination of poor tests and poor testing practices by pound workers). While shocking, it should not be surprising since the tests rest on a “fatally flawed” premise: “that the provocations used at a single time during a dog’s stressful experience in a shelter will predict future behavior at a different time and place.”
Study: “Enrichment centered on human interaction moderates fear-induced aggression and increases positive expectancy in fearful shelter dogs.”
Findings: Shelters are very stressful places for dogs, causing them to fail behavior evaluations. “Even in well-managed and funded facilities, dogs are likely to encounter an array of stressors including noise, unpredictability, loss of control… disruption of routines…” and unfamiliar people and surroundings. A small amount of enrichment — being spoken to softly, given treats, petted, and played with — can result in dogs passing temperament tests. After just five days of being treated kindly, “nearly all” fearful dogs passed the test. This is true even for dogs deemed “potentially quite dangerous” at the beginning of the study. Without enrichment, eight out of 10 of these dogs fail.
Study: “Characteristics and Adoption Success of Shelter Dogs Assessed as Resource Guarders.”
Findings: While 15% of kennelled dogs guard their food, many of them “do not guard food in their adoptive homes, and, even when dogs continue to display food guarding in the home, adopters do not consider it to be a major problem.” As such, shelters should opt for “adoption rather than euthanasia for most dogs identified as resource guarders during behavioral evaluations in shelters.” Dogs returned for food guarding should be readopted and can be adopted without incident.
Study: “Saving Normal: A new look at behavioral incompatibilities and dog relinquishment to shelters.”
Findings: There is no compelling evidence “for the notion that the general population of relinquished dogs in shelters are there because of relationship-breaking behavioral incompatibilities in their prior home.” Most dogs labeled “behavior” are normal as “surrenders often say more about the people doing the surrendering — about ‘owner-related factors, needs, and expectations’ — than the dogs being surrendered.” As such, shelters should stop thinking of dogs as having “behavior problems” and instead refer to them as “behavior incompatibilities” with the person they were living with before being surrendered.
Study: “Teenage dogs? Evidence for adolescent-phase conflict behavior and an association between attachment to humans and pubertal timing in the domestic dog.”
Findings: “[T]he welfare consequences of adolescence-phase behavior could be lasting because this corresponds with the peak age at which dogs are relinquished to shelters.” In other words, dogs, like human children, go through a rebellious adolescent phase, and reward-based training can modify these behaviors.
Study: “Impact of Visual Barrier Removal on the Behavior of Shelter-Housed Dogs.”
Findings: Letting dogs see people and dogs in shelters by removing visual barriers that block such access reduces stress in shelter dogs. Stressed dogs are likely to fail their behavior evaluations.
Study: “An Evaluation of Respondent Conditioning Procedures to Decrease Barking in an Animal Shelter.”
Findings: Poor behavior in shelter dogs is often a sign of frustration. Specifically, dogs can see people and other dogs, but can’t interact with them. Over time, they associate people and other dogs with frustration. It found that giving dogs treats counter-conditioned them. It doesn’t matter if dogs are given treats when they weren’t barking, even if they were barking, or by conditioning dogs to identify a sound – such as a door chime – with treats until the door chime alone got them to stop barking. All three improved dog behavior.
Study: “Evaluating pair- vs. solitary-housing in kenneled domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) using behavior and hair cortisol.”
Findings: Group housing dogs reduced frustration since dogs had access to other dogs. Over one-third of dogs housed alone suffered behavior problems, and 10% engaged in repetitive behavior (like endless barking). As such, dogs in shelters for more than two weeks should always be pair or group-housed if they get along with other dogs. Fears about aggression and fighting in pair-housed kennels tend to be overblown, with fights being rare so long as the staff are thoughtful about pairing.
Study: “Identifying environmental and management factors that may be associated with the quality of life of kennelled dogs.”
Findings: Conventional wisdom says the longer dogs are in the shelter, the more likely they are to become “kennel crazy” and thus “less adoptable.” This is false as “dogs adapt to the kennel environment over time” and “environmental enrichment helps animals to cope with their environments.” In other words, newly admitted dogs tend to be stressed. Dogs who only get the basics — food, water, and shelter — are stressed. But socialized and exercised dogs are not stressed, and the longer they are in the shelter, the less stressed they become.
Study: “Welfare Assessment in Shelter Dogs by Using Physiological and Immunological Parameters.”
Findings: “During the initial physiological adaptive response, novel environment, manipulation, change in social structure, and different cages can represent sources of stress for dogs entering a shelter,” but, for dogs housed with other dogs, the result is “a decrease of stress after long term stay in the shelter.” In other words, dogs should be able to see and interact with other dogs and people to “reduce frustrated attempts to see what is going on beyond their kennel.”
Study: “Ancestry-inclusive dog genomics challenges popular breed stereotypes.”
Findings: Breed tells us how dogs look, not how they behave. For “predicting some dog behaviors, breed is essentially useless, and for most, not very good.” For example: “What we found is that the defining criteria of a golden retriever are its physical characteristics — the shape of its ears, the color and quality of its fur, its size — not whether it is friendly.” Likewise, the findings “would seem to cast doubt on breed stereotypes of aggressive dogs, like pit bulls.” The study adds to a growing scientific literature that demonstrates breed bans are useless for public safety and breed descriptions are useless for matching dogs who exhibit desired behaviors with prospective adopters.
Study: “Perceived importance of specific kennel management practices for the provision of canine welfare.”
Findings: Compared to volunteers, rescuers, and the average person, shelter employees were less likely to view health, hygiene, and enrichment as necessary or important. These false beliefs put dogs at risk: “What people believe is important will influence their behavior, with direct relation to care provided to animals.” Given inconsistent, unenforced, and in many cases, non-existent regulations that mandate a commitment to dog welfare, what dogs need “may not be successfully translating into evidence-based changes in industry practice.” In other words, shelters are not likely to ensure dogs are kept healthy, clean, and socialized unless forced. Failure to force them to do so puts dogs at risk of being killed.
Study: “The effect of different genres of music on the stress level of kenneled dogs.”
Findings: Soft music with human voices reduces stress in kenneled dogs. This was measured by lowered cortisol levels, heart rate, and stereotypy behavior. Dogs preferred, in order, soft rock, reggae, pop, and then classical. The soft human voice is the most important part of the musical experience for dogs. Of note, dogs, like humans, get bored of the same playlist. By the end of the first day, the impact on stress reduction of playing the same songs was eliminated. By day 7, the impact of the same type of music (e.g., classical or soft rock) was eliminated.
In the Cat Room
Study: “Effect of gentle stroking and vocalization on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease in anxious shelter cats.”
Findings: Cats who are gently petted and talked to have a markedly lower chance of getting an upper respiratory infection. Cats not stroked and talked to gently were over two times more likely to get sick (due to stress) than cats who were. Ironically, many shelters do not allow people to touch cats due to fear of disease, placing signs throughout the shelter to that effect, even though the absence of touching makes them 2.4 times more likely to get sick.
The study also has enormous implications for the lives of cats deemed “feral.” Cats who are labeled “feral,” “unsocial,” “fractious,” or “aggressive” are virtually all killed unless the shelter embraces a community cat sterilization program. The study found that while 18% of the cats they tested would have been deemed “feral” due to “aggression” when they started (and thus killed), none of the cats responded that way after day six. This is also true of cats who could not be touched when they arrived and were stroked “mechanically” with a fake hand. The study concludes that “a 3-4 day holding period” is not “sufficient to differentiate non-feral from feral cats.”
Note: Killing a cat for “behavior,” “aggression,” or being considered “feral” should never occur. There isn’t even a need to delay finding homes for these cats. They can be sterilized and returned to their habitats if they are not social with humans and are used to living outdoors, or they can be adopted out immediately if they are. Simply put, people will adopt cats with “cattitude.”
This is not to say that cats who experience behavior issues in the shelter do not warrant changes in shelter housing, shelter treatment, and behavior intervention to address those needs. They do. But they can be adopted despite those issues because the resolution of behavior challenges is almost always done by getting them out of the shelter. Moreover, for those who do need further treatment, treatment in the home will be more effective and focused, as it is for many dogs.
As the director of an open-admission animal control shelter, I eliminated any “behavior category” for cats and thus any killing of cats for “behavior,” “aggression,” or being “feral.”
What Shelters Should Do Instead
Guide: “No Dog Left Behind.”
Findings: Based on four recent studies, the pioneering work of behaviorists, and the results of some of the most successful and progressive shelters in the country, shelters can place 99% of dogs.
Guide: “Animal Evaluation Matrix: Policies & Procedures That Protect the Lives of Shelter Animals.”
Findings: The Matrix includes medical and behavior protocols, diagnostic tools, and end-of-life protocols, with forms and checklists to increase accountability and improve performance. The No Kill Advocacy Center developed these protocols in collaboration with some of the most successful shelter directors in the country (directors running municipal and animal control-contracted shelters with placement rates of 99%).
Guide: “What Shelters Owe Traumatized Animals.”
Findings: Traumatized dogs deserve safe harbor and time — time to abandon fear, forget a haunted past, and, most important of all, learn to trust. With the right amount of love, kindness, compassion, positive conditioning, and, when necessary, veterinary intervention, psychologically wounded animals, like humans, have a remarkable capacity for resilience.
Guide: “Protecting Community Cats.”
Findings: A community cat program reduces intake and killing of community cats, illness in the shelter, complaint calls to animal control, spending (and waste of taxpayer money), and increases opportunities to expand lifesaving of other animals, such as dogs, too.
And my own small contribution to these issues:
Article: “Making Shelter Dogs Happy”
Findings: How to design an animal shelter to create healthy and happy dogs.
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A Successful Shelter is one that gives Animals love, care, science & ensuring they land with loving Adopters — Thinking about this, so much is based on common sense — I strongly believe that everyone — all — staff, volunteers, fosters, etc., KNOW this — but they play dumb and DO the opposite — they do NOT give a damn about the Animals — in the end, they continue living their lives, they blame the Animal, they blame Society, and they continue “earning a living” by collecting their paychecks & socializing with their buddies on everyone’s dime — either the Staff changes itself OR we get NEW Staff.