Dr. Emily Weiss shares a powerful, easy-to-implement technique that can make a significant impact on stress in shelter dogs and cats.
When I was working in a zoo setting, I spent a lot of my time training animals to accept routine but potentially unpleasant medical and husbandry procedures. Using positive reinforcement techniques, we trained orangutans to allow us to ultrasound their bellies, chimpanzees to volunteer their arms for shots, Komodo dragons to enter crates so that we could safely pull blood from their tails, jaguars to lean their shoulders into the cage bars for vaccinations...
These training techniques are great for all sorts of species – including dogs and cats. However, in a shelter environment where our desired length of stay is measured in days, not weeks or months, this is often not a realistic solution for decreasing the stress associated with the husbandry and vet care dogs and cats need while in your care.
However, there is a powerful technique that you can implement that can make a significant impact on stress. One of the drivers for long-term stress in a shelter is the inability to predict when something unpleasant is going to happen. Back when you were a kid, you may have been unlucky and had a doctor who told you, “This won’t hurt a bit,” and then did something that most certainly hurt—and more than a bit! Or maybe you had that doctor who would hide a vaccine or other injection in one hand and suddenly inject you at some surprise moment. If you were one of those kids, chances also are you started to become emotional at the mere mention of his name. Hopefully you had a doctor who instead told you exactly when the bad things were going to happen, and you could then stay pretty chill until that moment where he gave you the warning.
The same holds true for dogs and cats. And by being able to predict when something unpleasant is going to happen, they can then move out of a state of heightened arousal and stress during other times. Without the ability to predict when something unpleasant is going to happen, the assumption is that it could happen anytime...
We would sometimes use the following technique in the zoo, especially with new animals whom we had not yet trained, or with animals who might be released back into their natural environment. We would wear different clothing (something visually stimulating), and would use some auditory stimulus (a cow bell or a kazoo, for example), and we would sound the auditory stimulus and make ourselves visible. While this did not lessen the unpleasant thing that was about to happen (potentially a dart gun for an annual exam or a capture into a crate for a move), it made them understand that every other time we were visible (or even when we were not), they could anticipate that we were not going to impact them.
If all interactions that we know are uncomfortable are preceded by some signal that is unique and clear, dogs and cats will be able to more quickly relax and move into a regular routine in our care. Kazoos work if a dog or cat is singly housed (not in an area with other dogs or cats), but for most caging situations, a visual stimulus is best. This stimulus could be anything that the dog or cat is not going to see at other times in your care, something big and unique enough to be quickly noticed. For a cat, this is something about the size of your outstretched hand—try a hand-sized Mickey Mouse image glued to a tongue dispenser. Let’s say you are pulling a cat for his neuter surgery—approach the cage with Mickey clearly visible, place it on or in the cage, and then proceed as you would otherwise.
This technique works really well with dogs and cats who are shut down with fear. You can likely assume that if you need to pull a fearful cat from his cage for any reason, it will be an unpleasant event from his perspective. Since we want him to become comfortable with human interaction at and in his cage, his ability to anticipate when something unpleasant is about to happen—and when it’s not—will more likely allow him to relax and respond positively when you offer social opportunities.
Certainly habituation and positive reinforcement are great techniques—and you should use them when possible—but for those short stays, giving the opportunity to simply predict the bad stuff can be a powerful tool!
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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