Treating Shelter Dogs Part One

January 2011

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Dr. Elizabeth Berliner, Director of Clinical Programs, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, Cornell University

Who doesn't love to give a dog a treat? And no one deserves a good treat more than a shelter dog waiting for a new home. However, there are a few aspects of being a shelter dog that make giving treats more complicated, and often more dangerous, than in the home environment. Here are a few things to think about:

Shelter dogs are unsupervised upwards of 12 hours a day.  This means that more "risky" treats that may work well for privately owned, well supervised pets in homes are not so safe for shelter dogs.

Shelter dogs have less stability in their life and diet, contributing to stress.  Stress colitis is fairly common in dogs from all walks of life, but very common in shelter environments where human contact, food sources, housing spaces, and the influences of other dogs are changing constantly.

Shelter dogs receive treats throughout the day, from many different people.  It is possible for a shelter dog to be treated by literally dozens of people a day. The shelter needs to be careful about both amounts and types of treats that dogs receive.

Shelter dogs have differing degrees of dietary tolerances.  Unlike a privately owned dog, there is not one person who keenly knows the dietary sensitivity for each dog. Some dogs do well on rich treats, but other dogs do not - and this is not always apparent to the person doing the treating.

Shelter dogs may have unknown levels of resource guarding that could manifest in the treating situation.  This could make it unsafe for the visiting public.

Shelter dogs are often undergoing training or behavioral modification while in the shelter.  It is important we save the most valuable treats for these episodes (training sessions, medical exams) so that they can be effective.

The truth is, shelter dogs are likely to get more treats than a dog in a private home because there are simply more people acting in their lives, often without knowing what others are doing.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that for dogs, size doesn't matter.  Dogs do not recognize the difference between a large treat or a small treat. Therefore, give the smallest amount that you can; this will still provide the treat experience. Breaking a biscuit into multiple pieces, or using tiny bites of treats is more than adequate, and better for the pet. Furthermore, regular treats for our shelter dogs should be at least minimally healthy, saving the really delicious, not-so-healthy treats as rewards. In our next issue we will talk more specifically about appropriate and inappropriate treats for shelter dogs.

Reprinted courtesy of Shelter Watch, Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Program, Cornell University.

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