As animal shelters achieve success at battling overpopulation, a new problem has come to light: dealing with dog behavior problems arising from long term shelter stays. Previously, dogs coming into shelters with behavior problems or dogs who developed behavior problems in shelters would have quickly been euthanized as competition for available kennel space went to the most highly adoptable dogs, of which there was no shortage. With population numbers coming under control and shelter stays lengthening, kennel space is now available for "behavior" dogs at many shelters.
Unfortunately, dogs with behavior problems tend to languish longer in shelters due to the understandable reluctance on the part of most adopters to take on a dog with possible ongoing behavior challenges. In addition, shelter staff often hold onto the dogs before making them available for adoption in order to work on the behavior problem. The resulting longer stay puts these dogs at increased risk of developing kennel-induced behavior problems as well as having an exacerbating effect on their existing problems.
The behavior problems seen in shelter dogs can be divided into four types.
(*the same UCDavis study that made these findings, to be published this year, found dogs that had never had formal obedience training or were perceived by their owners to be unaffectionate or unattractive were also at elevated risk)
It is extremely important to note that the problems in categories three and four, those associated with the experience of being re-homed or being kenneled, are all found in categories one and two (or both). The inevitable conclusion is that the rehoming experience, especially through an animal shelter, can cause or exacerbate existing behavior problems, and the shelter experience itself then negatively impacts the dogs adoptability and increases the likelihood of future relinquishment.
Clearly, to be successful at placing longer term dogs, shelters must address the issues of separation anxiety, kennel presentation (barrier issues and social hyper-arousal) and housetraining to improve their track records at placing behavior-case dogs. What follows are overviews of shelter-stay related problems and possible strategies to mitigate kenneling effects and/or solve behavior problems in our shelter dogs.
The prevailing theory of separation anxiety - with its characteristic distress vocalizing, panic elimination and property destruction - stresses that dogs who do not learn to cope with separation from their owners or have developed an overly intense attachment due to continuous access are at increased risk of its development. Furthermore, if dogs are abandoned or lose their owners, they may develop overly intense and insecure attachments to subsequent owners (Borchelt & Voith, 1982 & 1985, McCrave 1991). This is the rehoming dilemma.
Separation anxiety is frequently kicked off by a long period of constant togetherness followed by an abrupt, enforced separation. A typical scenario is a dog acquired by someone during a work hiatus. The dog is with the owner twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and, when the hiatus ends, is suddenly confronted with daily 8 - 10 hour absences. Separation anxiety ensues. Another common presentation would be the development of separation anxiety following boarding or rehoming. It has also been suggested that artificial selection for more affectionate, neotenized animals has increased the genetic tendency towards separation anxiety in domestic dogs (Fox, 1978, Serpell, 1983, Mugford, 1985).
Shelters can both minimize the incidence of separation anxiety and resolve many cases by implementing the following:
Dogs get important information about other beings with their noses and through up-close interaction and investigation. Most dogs therefore feel compelled to make social contact when they see a person or dog. In a kennel, tie-out or in many on-leash situations, they may be repeatedly unable to do so. The result is barrier-frustration. Barrier frustration behaviors - barking, lunging and aggressively displaying at dogs or people from behind bars, fence or glass - exemplify the general concept of "thwarting": the physical prevention of an animal behaving as it is highly motivated to behave.
Physiological stress responses, emotional states and certain well-known behaviors (agitation, barking, aggression) can all be reliably predicted by thwarting scenarios, especially chronic ones. The epidemic of thwarting situations in the daily lives of dogs is not yet widely recognized, nor the impact it has on their behavior. Most notably, environmental exploration and establishment of social contact with people and other dogs are prohibited by leashes, fences and enforced obedience.
It would be difficult to design a more frustrating environment for a dog than a kennel. In most kennels, dogs are kept alone in extremely barren environments virtually around the clock, with some tantalizing visual access to the outside world. This low-stimulation situation is then punctuated by people and other dogs going by - they're always visible but they can't be investigated. The dog's urge to meet and investigate is repeatedly frustrated. With repetition, the sight of dogs and/or people becomes associated, through classical conditioning, to the feelings of frustration and agitation. When the dog finally has the opportunity to meet, his behavior is over the top in intensity and may be aggressive.
The dog's poor social behavior may then cause the staff to prohibit the dog from further social contact. In addition, defensive responses from the other dogs he encounters or punishment by walkers for unruly or seemingly aggressive behavior may make the dog's behavior even worse. The sight of dogs and/or people may then be associated with a high likelihood of punishment and aggressive responses from other dogs, along with the original frustration. This results in further deterioration of behavior and a cycle develops.
Barrier frustration usually manifests in a shelter environment as dramatic barking and lunging displays at passers-by to the dog's kennel. This can bleed over to on-leash lunging and aggression and, with sufficient time for classical conditioning to take place, aggression directed at people or dogs, including out of the original context of the kennel or other thwarting situation.
This is a severe problem. Fortunately, however, it's well-understood and relatively simple to remedy by:
This latter solution is more labor-intensive and requires kennel design to incorporate regular food delivery in this manner. However it has nice fringe benefits (socialization, conditioned emotional response to people/dogs and the possibility of using food to reward desired behavior such as sitting) whereas the management by blocking visual access approach requires some rudimentary kennel remodeling.
Dogs adopted out from animal shelters will often lapse in their housetraining following their stay in the shelter. The likely reasons are:
A few different measures might address this concern:
Everyone pays lip service to the refrain that dogs are social animals and yet most animal shelters in the US are still housing dogs singly, for days, weeks and sometimes months at a time. The result, at worst, is compulsive behaviors in the form of pacing, circling, bouncing off walls and self-directed behavior and, at best, over-excitement on those occasions when the dog gets social contact. This is off-putting to potential adopters who are likely to label a dog "hyperactive" or unmanageable rather than see the dog's behavior as driven partly by the abnormal context. The solution is, again, multi-fold:
Both environmental stimulation and rehabilitation of shelter dogs with serious behavior problems are fields in their infancy. The next few years are likely to yield important insights and technical breakthroughs, which will have significant impact on the quality of life of dogs in shelters and number of dogs saved.
After reading this article, click here to take the quiz and receive a Certificate of Attendance!
Jean Donaldson is a widely known and respected dog behaviorist and trainer. Her two books, The Culture Clash and Dogs Are From Neptune have exploded many of the myths we hold about our "best friends". Her aim is to provide accurate and "user friendly" information to enable dog lovers to build harmonious relationships with their canine companions.Jean is currently on staff at The San Francisco SPCA where she is formulating a new dog training model for both sheltered and owned animals. Previously, she ran her own dog training school in Montreal, Canada.