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We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

If a dog displays a behavior in shelter, what might that say about his behavior in the homeand how we can best help that dog? Dr. Emily Weiss continues this important discussion.


Back when I was working as a consultant for shelters and zoos, I developed a project in conjunction with the late, great Victoria Wellens at Wisconsin Humane Society. We acknowledged that as fabulous of a shelter WHS was, there were limitations to behavioral health for the dogs and cats housed there. Simply put, as lovely, clean, calm and enrichment-heavy as the shelter was – it was not like a home. What if, we thought, we could build a dormitory and house it with interns or even retirees who wanted the next phase of their life to include doing good for dogs and cats? We could house dogs and cats who did not do well in the shelter right there. We would be able to observe dogs and cats in a home situation and discover the differences between shelter-specific behavior and potentially risky in-home behavior. We dubbed this project Shelter Smart…

Sadly, life threw some curve balls and the dorm was never realized. But at the National Council Research Day at SAWA (if you have not been, it is a must for 2016 – great stuff), Kristen Auerbach, now with Austin Animal Services, shared results from a piece of work she oversaw while at Fairfax County Animal Shelter (FCAS) in Virginia that embraces the Shelter Smart philosophy.

The project at FCAS looked to answer these questions:

  • Could they place medium and large dogs with behavioral challenges in foster homes and see an improvement of behavior from what was observed in shelter?  
  • Could these dogs eventually be adopted into permanent homes?
  • Could they do these things safely?

The project followed 52 dogs with a variety of shelter identified issues – including fear aggression (described as dogs who hide in the back of the cage and may lunge when the cage is opened, etc), barrier reactive (dogs who are highly aroused and reactive behind fences or cage bars) and resource guarding.  

Fosters were told everything the shelter had observed and learned – and the shelter asked for the same transparency back from the fosters when they took the pets. The program was transparent as well about the potential for euthanasia so that fosters went into the program with eyes open.

We have talked here before about how sometimes the behaviors that cause concern in shelter are only ‘in-shelter’ behaviors – and going home is the best solution to the problem. That is what the work that the FCAS focused on – what does going home do?

What they found was for the 52 dogs in their sample, 45 were able to be safely adopted – and quickly. In fact, 88% of the dogs in the total sample stayed in foster 30 days or less. Much of the behavior that was noted in shelter was not observed in the home (in some cases because of something as simple as no longer being behind a barrier with multiple dogs walking by). Of the remaining dogs, 5 were euthanized, one was still in foster and one went to rescue. 

The majority of the dogs who were adopted were adopted directly from the foster home (with 6 dogs being adopted by their foster families) – and the overall return rate for the dogs in the study was lower than the shelter’s average return rate. They followed up with adopters 6 months and over a year later, and the dogs were still in home.

The data from this pilot is compelling. One of the most powerful pieces for me was the shift from the idea of black-and-white “I see this behavior regardless of context and that means outcome X each and every time” to where we need to be – that an individual dog displayed behavior X in the context of the shelter, so how do we best support his welfare (which can range from adoption, foster, rehab or even euthanasia)? I love that safety was one of the primary goals for this work. As we continue to see live releases increase, finding that balance between saving shelter dog lives and protecting the nonhuman and human animals within our community must be at the forefront of our work.

Are we overbehavioring? In some cases, it appears we just may be… how about giving home a try?


Related Links

Blog: “We Really Just May Be Over-Behavioring…”

Blog: “Are We Overbehavioring?”

Results & Outcomes: Placing Medium and Large Breed Shelter Dogs with Behavioral Challenges in Foster Homes (pdf)

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Saving Lives Research & Data



Is the flip side of this that we should be more worried about behavior issues that occur at a foster's or owner's home than those which occurs at a shelter? I'm thinking of dogs that seem to do OK at the shelter, but start showing resource guarding or fear aggression in a home.


Do you have a link to the actual study?


Awww, you got a nice picture of me (Buster) with LLO (little loud one) on the day we met. LLO and his family adopted me and I've been living the life since. That's one of my favorite pictures since LLO and I happened to be dressed alike! I'm so incredibly thankful that Momma took a chance on me instead of choosing a puppy. Sure you train a puppy how you want, but being older I was already house trained and had learned my manners. My fosters told Momma how well behaved I am and about how I didn't chew anything that wasn't mine and that I didn't counter surf---all things Momma wouldn't have known if not for my fosters--so there weren't any surprises. Fosters ROCK! Wags and licks to my pawsome fosters!


I don't know very much about these things but I was quite surprised to see that five dogs were euthanised. Did the FCAS wait long enough to give these dogs a fair chance?


Hi Ann
I do not have the specifics around those 5 dogs - however it is important to keep in mind that all of the dogs in the study were dogs who were not candidates for adoption - making for a tremendous success rate!


Thank you for this blog. We have sent several dogs into foster with mild resource guarding and/or fear reactivity. We have seen tremendous success and out of the "scary veterinarian like setting" the dogs relaxed began a routine and were adopted successfully.


Thank you, Dr. Weiss for sharing this important work. At Fairfax County Animal Shelter, we are building on Kristen's work and putting more dogs with shelter behavior challenges into foster homes. We are working on expanding the program to include in-home support for fosters and for adopters. We are so excited to generate more positive results!


The shelter I work for has been trying to send dogs into foster homes when they show behavioral issues at the shelter. The problem is some of the foster providers see euthanasia as the ultimate betrayal for the dog & will hide facts that would preclude the dogs from ever being adopted into a regular home. The other issue we have run itno is that some of the adopters are unwilling to invest the time needed to continue with the behavioral training for the dogs, then return the dogs to the shelter for being "out of control" or "wanting to attack" them or their families.

Thank you for mentioning cats. All to often their stress is written off as a bad personality and they are deemed unadoptable. We work with fosters for cats as well, but only a few are willing to take cats with "attitudes".

Great article.


Hey there

How do you feel is the liability with these dogs. If the behaviour you are concerned with is apparent in the home and injures your foster parent how would the shelter be responsible for this.


I have 6 unadoptable large dogs , 5 pit bulls and a SharPei/Lab mix . All are great dogs once away from the shelter . Most slept the 3 hour drive and one laid his head on mine and leaned into me all the way home . It's sad so many of these great dogs are killed when all they really need is a chance .

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