Open That Door—and Save a Dog’s Life
Over and over again I have gone on tours of shelters around the country and have been confronted with shelter professionals making life-and-death decisions without taking the dog out of the cage.
A long, long (long) time ago, I was working on my graduate degrees and studying the predictive value of certain assessment items for the selection of service dogs from shelters. The assessments ranged from cage observations to training of behaviors such as “Heel” and “Sit.” Some of the cage assessments involved staring at the dog, standing fully frontal to the dog and other interesting postures. We did not find any of these to be predictive.
While there may be some predictive value of how a dog behaves in a run (there is data to suggest that some arousal barking at stimuli can be predictive of arousal barking in the yard in a home), the thought that a dog’s life can be decided without taking him out of the run is simply unconscionable.
Shelters, and kennel runs specifically, can be completely and utterly alien places for many dogs. The pheromones from other dogs likely communicate fear, the runs are filled with unfamiliar scents, the sounds can be booming, and dogs and people can loom in front of them while they are cornered in an unfamiliar environment. All animals – be they canine, equine, fish or human – will revert to some primal behaviors of fight/flight when faced with the perception that significant pain/death is imminent. This does not mean the dog may not show well on your adoption floor or do well with a rescue/adoption partner.
How a fearful dog behaves in his kennel run is quite likely to be different from how he will behave when taken out of that run. Further, if the person who then brings him back to his run comes in with him and provides him with some appetitive stimuli (e.g. food treats, touch if he perceives that touch as comfortable), the dog may soon behave less defensively and be quite comfortable both in his run and out.
Figuring out how to get a fearful and defensive dog out of a run can be challenging – I have a tool I use that may work well for you, too. Sometimes the presentation of familiar stimuli can produce profound changes. I use a simple leash and a word many dogs know – Walk.
The visual of the leash can sometimes turn a dog from growling, snapping and trembling to a more relaxed canine. I keep my body turned to the side, avoid direct eye contact, present the leash in front of my body and in a soft tone give the verbal cue, “Walk? Do you want to go for a walk?” I then open that cage door. Often the dog softens and we can quickly loop-leash and leave the kennel run for a quick spin outside before heading to an assessment room. Unless physical injury to yourself or the dog is imminent, the dog needs to get out of that run and get a chance.
ASPCA SAFER® is a tool that can be used to help best track dogs who display challenging cage behavior to a live outcome – be it out to foster, rehab, transfer to rescue, adopted out through their foster family, or straight to your adoption floor. Taking the time for a six-minute assessment can mean the difference between life and death.
I suspect many of you amazing canine handlers out there have similar techniques for getting those dogs out of their runs – please share your techniques with us!
Photos: Trish McMillan Loehr
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