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Giving Dogs Another Chance

A group of psychology professors and animal behaviorists suggests ways that shelters can modify the behavior of shelter dogs

A group of psychology professors and animal behaviorists suggests ways that shelters can modify the behavior of shelter dogs

Last September, the journal Psychological Science published an article intended to serve as a loose guide for shelters interested in setting up behavior programs for shelter dogs. Written by a group of researchers in Ohio, "Dogs in Animal Shelters: Problems, Suggestions, and Needed Expertise" is an amalgamation of statistics, observations, and conclusions drawn from 20 years of work in several Ohio shelters.

© Fran Linden
A researcher demonstrates the comforts of a crate to an uncertain occupant.

The authors' two primary backgrounds—animal sheltering and psychology—are both reflected in the research, which employed the principles of behavioral psychology to develop behavior modification techniques for dogs in shelters. The six researchers include professors and graduate students from Wright State University and Ohio State University, as well as a former shelter worker who now serves as a behavior and training consultant. The authors were careful to recognize the funding and staffing challenges many shelters face, while also building a persuasive argument for the need for behavior programs. In those arguments, they presented conclusions culled from various studies, such as:

  • The environment within even the most well-run shelter includes conditions that mimic those already known to activate stress-related physiological systems in animals. Because of these stressors—a new environment, isolation from former owners, exposure to intense noise, and disruption of familiar routines—dogs who enter shelters without behavior problems are likely to develop them during their stay.
  • Following adoption, dogs may have an abnormal dependency on a new owner, displaying "unrelenting shadowing or following behavior" when the owner is present and destructive behavior whenever the owner leaves the animal alone.
  • For a dog in a threatening situation, the presence of a human companion may be more effective in reducing stress than the presence of another dog.
  • Plasma levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol are elevated in dogs in shelters; in one study in a modern public shelter, those levels were almost three times as high as those of pet dogs sampled in their owners' homes.

Acknowledging that many shelters have only limited funding available to them, the article attempts to provide practical guidelines about how shelters can integrate behavior programs into their work. A core feature of the researchers' work at two shelters—the Capital Area Humane Society in Hilliard, Ohio, and the Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals in Dayton, Ohio—is the "living room." Decorated and furnished to look like a room in a home, the living room provides dogs with temporary relief from the sights and sounds of the shelter environment. The room also allows shelter staff to perform behavior assessments and conduct basic training and relaxation exercises.

Because petting has a well-documented, positive effect on dogs' reactions to stress, the researchers also tout performing ritualized massages on the necks and shoulder areas of dogs who are sitting or lying on their sides. The massage is used in conjunction with a cue word, such as "soft," to let dogs know that it's time to be calm. Once dogs are trained to know the cue, the exercise can be used to calm those who are overly excited in the kennels.

In designing programs for shelter animals, the researchers helped shelter personnel learn training methods that they, in turn, could pass on to the public. One of those methods is crate training; the article presents basic guidelines for how to get a dog to accept a crate as a comfortable—and comforting—space.

All of these programs can be implemented with the help of students and researchers, the authors say. The authors encourage animal shelters to view universities as valuable and cost-effective resources. "...We suggest here that there is a greater need for the expertise of psychologists and other animal behavior experts within the confines of the shelter," the authors write. "The shelter, in turn, can offer a fertile ground for training students. . . ."

The authors of the Psychological Science article include the late David Tuber of the Ohio State Universityin Mansfield; Deborah Miller, Kimberly Caris, and Robin Halter of the Ohio State University in Columbus; Fran Linden of Pet Behavior andTraining Services in Dayton; and Michael Hennessy of Wright State University in Dayton.


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