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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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