shelters & rescues
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
There has been a man in our county for many years who has been breeding and advertising his large mixed breeds as the world’s perfect dog. The dogs live outside on runner systems and the pups are raised outside. He gives them an impressive designer name and offers his unwitting buyers a great story about why they should pay big bucks for them. I love all dogs, mixed or purebred, but as an animal control officer I've got a hundred dogs in my shelter that nobody wants and a good percentage of them are large mixed breeds. It’s hard to watch this man’s dogs produce litter after litter of puppies every year. He sells most of them as cute babies. Those he can’t sell grow up in the back yard until he surrenders them to the shelter at a year or two of age, never having seen a vet, had a leash on, or been socialized to strangers or other animals. He also has deafness and some other health problems in his line so we usually end up with those and it’s a huge ordeal to find an adopter or rescue to take them. In the cases where the dog’s poor health or temperament cannot be overcome, the shelter staff, myself included, faces the heartbreaking task of euthanasia.
A truly responsible breeder will not knowingly reproduce health problems and takes responsibility for the dogs he produces for life but this guy isn't doing anything illegal so there isn’t much I can do about it. It’s been a source of frustration for years. I was recently there for annual kennel inspection (he has over the regular legal number of dogs so he pays for a kennel license and inspection). I started talking to him about the number of unwanted dogs in our shelter. I also expressed concern about the deafness in his line. I was very nice but I put a bug in his ear about overpopulation etc and then let him sit on it for a week.
The following week I consulted the manager of the local low cost spay/neuter program for openings and looked up when the man’s licensing is due (next month). The licensing has gone up tremendously for intact dogs and as a senior he will pay next to nothing once they are spayed. I called him up and reminded him that his licensing was almost due, amounting to hundreds of dollars, and let him know we had openings for surgery. I also offered to pay the minimal fee at the low cost clinic (believe me, it’s more than worth it) and to pick them up and drop them off. So he agreed! He’s already gotten two of them done and has tentatively agreed to get them all done and stop breeding. The key was gently educating him and making it as easy as possible to accomplish.
In many cases people want to get the surgery done but don’t have the resources. Donating to low/cost spay neuter clinics is one of the best ways to save lives on the least money. Bang for your buck it’s hard to beat. One dog sterilized can potentially prevent hundreds of unwanted births. A two-year-old dog I know of had already produced 3 litters of ten or more puppies per litter. That’s more than 30 puppies by one mama dog who hadn’t even reached maturity and of a breed that is most overrepresented in shelters. And those 30 puppies are now at reproductive age. It’s a mind-boggling problem and one of the reasons I donate most of my book sales to low cost spay/neuter programs.
It feels good to know that there will be fewer unwanted puppies entering our shelters in the coming years.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Helping Save a Dog's Life
I had a profoundly moving experience recently. I pulled up on a call to pick up a sick kitten and the song The Christmas Shoes came on the radio. I wrote about this song in The Secret Life of Dog Catchers because it always makes me cry. Sometimes I see so many sad, terrible things on the job that I lose the ability to cry even when I need to. A tender song can be a catalyst to release some of that pain. The Christmas Shoes is about man who is feeling caught up on the stress and commercialism of Christmas. He’s in line to buy something and the little boy in front of him doesn’t have enough money for his purchase. The child is trying to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother to wear to heaven. The boy asks the stranger to help him and the man finds the true meaning of Christmas in helping a stranger.
The song had me feeling teary as I got out of my animal control truck and as I crossed the parking lot a woman called to me from a car. She asked me to please help them so I approached and saw a family holding a tiny, older Chihuahua in their arms. The dog, Lilo, was the special pet of the ten year old daughter and was critically ill but they had no money. Every vet clinic and shelter had turned them away. Veterinarians are generally hard working and compassionate people but they have to make a living just like everyone else and shelters are there for animals who have no owners.
Lilo probably didn’t weigh more than 3 or 4 pounds, with just enough gray around her muzzle to show her maturity without advanced age. The big brown eyes were resigned to her fate, whatever it may be and I could see that she was lethargic and dehydrated. The family was distraught and obviously adored their pet. I asked a few more questions and then called in my credit card number to a nearby vet clinic and asked them to please see the dog. The family and I embraced and exchanged some tears and I sent them on their way.
A couple of hours later the clinic called and said Lilo had a life threatening pyometra and needed emergency surgery to save her life. Pyometra is a nasty uterine infection common in un-spayed female dogs. The kind-hearted veterinarian gave me a break on the surgery and many generous people chipped in to help pay for it. Lilo ended up with major complications and spent 5 days in the hospital before she was well enough to be released. I was finally able to pick her up and drive her home and placing her in the daughter’s arms was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time.
Now animal control officers don’t make a lot of money. I buy most of my clothes at the Goodwill and drive a 20 year old car. We don’t spend much at Christmas other than some gifts for the kids. We have everything we really need and although I love giving gifts, I don’t like buying them just for the sake of buying them. Helping this family meant more to me than any gift I could ever get.
If I look close I can see my reflection in the dog’s eyes.
Dog's Life: Humane
Helps ease retired lab Beagles into new lives, and a whole new world
Despite the open door, the sturdy little Beagle huddled inside the transportation kennel; it took him 10 minutes to put a paw tentatively on the unfamiliar surface, then move completely outside, high-stepping all the way. It was the first time this adult Beagle had ever walked on grass.
Everyone loves stories about dog heroes—the police dog who leads the chase for an armed criminal, the military dog who goes ahead of the troops to sniff out hidden bombs or the service dog whose devotion and skill give a person with a disability greater independence.
But what about the thousands of dogs who sacrifice years of their lives—or even their very lives—to science’s controversial pursuit of everything from cures for deadly diseases to safe cosmetics? Who speaks for them?
In December 2010, the Beagle Freedom Project (beaglefreedomproject.org) joined the list of those who advocate specifically for these small hounds, and since then, it has mounted multiple efforts on their behalf. Founded by animal-rights attorney Shannon Keith to help a group of Beagles she learned were about to be released and needed homes, BFP now has six full- or part-time paid staff and has helped place or foster 215 lab dogs since its inception. (Keith also founded BFP’s parent organization, Animal Rescue Media Education [arme.tv].)
More than 95 percent of the dogs used in research are Beagles. The same attributes that make them great family pets—“docile, people-pleasing, forgiving, gentle, easy to care for”—also make them desirable research subjects, says Kevin Chase, director of operations for BFP.
BFP had its first legislative victory earlier this year when Minnesota governor Mark Dayton signed into law an act that requires the state’s higher-education research and related facilities receiving public money to offer their dogs and cats to nonprofit animal rescue organizations when the animals are no longer needed.
The law, based on BFP’s “Beagle Freedom Bill,” is a modest first step. Similar bills have been introduced in California and New York. Other states will follow, BFP organizers hope.
“The law is meant to bridge two sides of a very polarizing debate over animal research,” says Minnesotan Chase, who spearheaded the law in his home state. Although BFP opposes any use of animals in research, the legislation is intended to allow adoption as an option for “retired” research dogs and cats. It fills the regulatory gap between the care animals are mandated to receive while being actively used and what happens afterward, when they’re no longer needed.
“If a dog is at the end of its utilization with research and can be placed with a family, why not? It just makes sense,” says Minnesota Senator Scott Dibble, who authored the legislation along with Representative John Lesch. But though it did indeed make sense, it wasn’t easy. As Dibble admits, “It turned out to be a little more contentious than we anticipated.”
In 2013, when the idea for the law was first floated, the University of Minnesota—which, along with the Mayo Clinic would be the most affected—was reluctant to support it, and the bill was shelved. This year, Dibble and Chase approached the university again and got, if not support, at least no overt opposition.
The Minnesota law includes a provision that eliminates certain liabilities for research facilities that release lab animals, something the university requested in discussions with Chase and Dribble, according to the Office of the Vice President of Research.
In statements released through Communications Director Andrea Wuebker, that office said of the law, “This legislation allows the university opportunities to do what we can to offer dogs and cats, available after the study concludes, for adoption without threat of liability by potential or future owners regarding any unforeseen behaviors by the animal. What this law will do is help us partner with outside groups to make available animals for adoption, should the animal not be adopted by the researcher or persons close to the animal, at the end of the study.”
Exactly what kind of impact the new law may have remains uncertain. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report cited 317 dogs and 278 cats as being used in research at the university in 2013. Of those, 307 dogs and 273 cats were from humane societies or other animal shelters, or were student-owned animals, and were returned to the shelters or students after use.
That number is, however, a fraction of the 4,148 dogs listed for research in Minnesota in a fiscal year 2012 USDA report (the most recent year for which figures are available). Minnesota ranked fifth in the nation that year in the number of research dogs. With 9,434 dogs, Wisconsin ranked first, and in the United States as a whole, the report cited 72,167 dogs and 24,578 cats.
HSUS estimates that 25 million “vertebrate animals” are used each year in research, testing or education, while the USDA tallied 1,110,199 animals in their FY 2012 report. After mice, rats and birds, research animals used that year—in descending order of frequency—included guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, non-human primates (including monkeys and chimpanzees), farm animals (including pigs and sheep), dogs and cats.
At the University of Minnesota, research involving animals is mostly medically based, according to the Office of the Vice President of Research, related to cardiovascular devices, isolated working heart models and dental implants as well as understanding and treating strokes, epilepsy, overactive bladder syndrome and other human or veterinary diseases.
Like the Beagle Freedom Project, HSUS advocates an end to the use of animals in research, particularly in product testing, encouraging companies to use some of the 5,000 chemicals already tested and approved for human use. Others believe that animals have and still play a critical role in the development of live-saving treatments.
“Indeed, if one reviews the history of medical science, it is clear that every major medical advance has depended on animal experiments … Almost every vaccine used by humans had to be first tested on animals to ensure that it would be safe and effective. Insulin, which has saved millions of diabetics from an early and painful death, was discovered through research on dogs; until relatively recently, the only way to test insulin during the purification process was to inject it into mice and monitor the effect on their blood sugar,” the late John Vane, an Nobel Prize–winning British pharmacologist, said in a “Pfizer Forum” speech.
Both under the new Minnesota law and elsewhere around the country, when laboratory animals are made available for adoption, their actual research history is rarely, if ever, disclosed. That makes it difficult to predict the animals’ adjustment needs. In general, however, BFP has found that many of the Beagles they place are not house-trained, and tend to be shy around people and new situations, certainly at first. Also, because laboratory diets are generally formulated to reduce the amount of cleanup necessary, the dogs initially have digestive trouble with the richer food commonly fed to companion animals.
“On the whole,” says Chase, the dogs “have never been on grass, have never been on a leash for a walk, they’ve never been on steps. They’re like adult puppies; the whole world is new to them.”
To date, BFP has received lab dogs—and a few cats and a pig—from California, Colorado, Nevada, Massachusetts and New Jersey as well as the Midwest, and has had great success both in fostering these lab-released dogs and then matching them with appropriate families. None of their adoption placements has been returned, even from the group of 40 Beagles flown from Spain who were suffering severe health and anxiety problems. The search for additional adoption and fostering homes is, of course, ongoing.
Sometimes, the organizers themselves end up providing the first line of fostering. Kevin Chase already had Junior, now seven and rescued when he was four. But when Chase organized a gathering to solicit foster parents for 10 former lab Beagles, he ended up bringing home Raymond, three, the last Beagle in the room.
“We let the families and the dogs kind of choose each other,” Chase says of the December gathering. “I wasn’t anticipating taking home one of the dogs, but nobody chose Raymond because nobody could catch him. He was afraid of everybody … I said, ‘Come on, buddy. You’re coming home with me.’ Once we got home, he wasn’t going anywhere.” Chase chuckles about how quickly “fostering” became “adopting” with Raymond. These days, he says, Raymond “loves his walk, loves lying in the sunshine.”
Some day, BFP might be able to add a Minnesota senator to its list of adopters. “If my life ever calms down so that I can be home,” dreams Dibble, “I’m totally going to get a lab Beagle.”
Go to the Beagle Freedom Project website for a link to the Cruelty-Cutter app, which allows you to use your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to scan products and identify those that have been tested on animals.
Interested in helping out a lab Beagle? Click on beaglefreedomproject.org/adopt_or_foster to find out how to do it.
With Dogs Galore + Hilary Swank, Jane Lynch and many more stars
There is a must-watch TV telethon on Thanksgiving night for all dog lovers. We urge you to tune into the history-making Fox’s Cause for Paws: An All-Star Dog Spectacular, a first-of-its kind program that features rescue dogs, and only rescue dogs. The show came out of the remarkable efforts of co-producers, Hilary Swank and Michael Levitt, both of whom are big-time advocates for dog rescue/adoption. The show will be cohosted by Hilary Swank and Jane Lynch, and feature a cast of leading Hollywood celebrities, including Channing Tatum, Miley Cyrus, Queen Latifah, Betty White, and so many more.
The idea behind the program is the need to bring the plight of rescue dogs to center stage. It’s amazing, but sadly true, that many Americans still do not understand that millions of dogs are needlessly killed annually in this country, or that others are languishing in overcrowded shelters waiting, and waiting for their forever homes. This program wants to convince people that dogs must be saved and that the perfect dog is waiting for you at your local rescue group or area shelter. From purebreds to one-of-a-kind mixed breeds, there is a rescue dog there for you and your family.
The show will also be a celebration of the human-dog connection and, as Hilary explained, “it will be a joyful family show with a lot of fun and lots of dogs, with best tricks, best howlers, celebrity lookalikes, best viral dog video, plus celebrating the people who have done good work to help dogs and organizations that are doing good things and sharing all those stories.” It’s great that they’ll be featuring the heroes on the front lines of animal rescue, those rescue organizations that work tirelessly to save lives, such as Beagle Freedom Project (featured in Bark’s fall issue) This remarkable show will celebrate not just the rescuers, but also, the dogs themselves, from mixed breeds to purebreds, from youngsters to seniors and those with special needs, highlighting their uplifting, life-affirming stories. This makes for perfect viewing for the whole family.
On Tuesday, Hilary Swank was interviewed by Ryan Seacrest on his very popular iHeart radio show , she explained to the listeners, as she did in our winter issue, the problems faced by dogs in shelters and how grateful they are to their rescuers, she explained how tirelessly rescue groups work to care for dogs and connect them to forever homes, and she also gave The Bark a big shout out. She told Ryan that while she has been on the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair, it was more important to her, and a bigger honor, to be featured, with her dear dogs, Rumi and Kai, on the cover of The Bark!
We were thrilled by her words but we’ll be even more thrilled if you tune into Fox’s Cause for Paws: An All-Star Dog Spectacular, 8 to 10 pm (7 pm Central time) on Thursday, Thanksgiving night on your local Fox station—tuning in is very important because a large viewership will give networks the green light for further rescue advocacy programming. And, as executive producer Michael Levitt notes, “This is our big opportunity to change the misperception of shelter animals and show the world that rescuing a dog is always the way to go.”
I hope you will be moved to donate to the cause and open your hearts to adopt a rescue dog or help in any way you can. This is a cause where every person can make an important difference. So remember: adopt, foster or donate, and most importantly, spread the word. Join Swank, Levitt and your local rescue communities in saving the lives of animals and enriching your own as well.
For Q&A with HIlary Swank, see here
News: Guest Posts
Smiling Dog Jack helps local shelters
We love getting your smiling dog submissions and your stories. We've heard some great stories from past Smiling Dogs like Jedi who has a passion for surf to Cayman who has amazing pen pals.
Lexie Harpold submitted her photo to our Smiling Dog contest and we were smitten with Jack as Batman. We selected the photo for use as a Weekly Smiler and just recently learned about Lexie’s trips to the Arizona Humane Society where Jack was adopted.
Lexie described the shelter saying, “There are many animals that do not have blankets or beds”. She visited the shelter recently noticing that many of the dogs were depressed, scared and anxious, so she decided to start a donation drive.
I love the idea and want to encourage everyone to get out there and do something. November is Adopt A Senior Pet Month, not everyone can adopt, but everyone can contribute.
Whether you help Lexie with her goal, donate to your local shelter/rescue, or volunteer to foster or walk, anything helps.
You can donate or get information about Jack & Lexie’s fundraiser My Favorite Breed is Rescued here.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
There is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it
I followed the sweet, white-haired woman down a flight of stairs as we chatted about her day. She had called our shelter and stated that she had found a stray dog a few days previously had been unable to locate the owner. She requested an animal control officer to pick it up. When we reached the basement she opened the door. I looked inside and stopped in surprise. It’s pretty rare that I’m speechless. In my job I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. The dog wagged his tail eagerly but it took me just a moment to get my wits about me. He was extremely tiny at only three pounds but his slightly graying muzzle showed him to be long past puppyhood. He was unusually small but what caught me off guard was the fact that he had no front feet.
The little guy stood up on his rear legs and wiggled and wagged at me in delight. I scooped him up, impressed by his happy attitude, while still being shocked at his lack of front feet. One limb ended abruptly just past the elbow, while the other was slightly longer with a floppy bit of flesh at the end. One tiny nail spiraled bizarrely out of the tip to a great length. He was a little thin and his coat was black with fleas that swarmed over his skin in tremendous numbers. Even as I held him, he was attempting to scratch the pests that plagued him. Closer inspection showed him to have rotten teeth and a penis that would not retract into the sheath and he kind of stumped along on that too. Even his back feet, while appearing fairly normal, only had two toenails apiece.
I placed the dog in a well padded carrier in the front seat of my animal control truck and he curled up, seeming content other than the constant scratching at his fleas. I kept glancing at the dog as I drove. It was likely that his feet had been missing since birth. Whether it was a congenital issue or the result of an overeager new mom chewing more than the umbilical cord, I couldn’t say. He looked back at me, big brown eyes trusting and accepting of whatever I chose for him. Someone must have cared about him somewhat or he never would have made it to adulthood. I pictured a poor but caring family with few resources to deal with a dog like him. The must have fed him, sheltered him and cuddled him for he was friendly and trusting. I wondered how he had ended up on his own after all this time. Back at the shelter, I placed him in a warm sudsy bath and scrubbed and rinsed the fleas off of him until the water ran black. I dried him in a big fluffy towel and he was photographed, vaccinated, wormed and treated for his fleas.
Due to his numerous medical issues, I took him home to foster. I decided to call him Joey as he reminded me of a baby kangaroo the way he stood up on his hind legs. Joey’s attitude and good nature is a constant source of delight and a reminder that life is less about what happens to us and more about how we respond. A veterinary check up and bloodwork showed him to be relatively healthy other than the obvious. The vet guessed him at around 7 or 8 years of age and also found that his jaw is fractured, maybe from his rotten teeth, and he’s a bit anemic, likely from all the fleas that had been feasting on his blood for who knows how long. He will need at least another month or so in foster care to try and resolve his anemia before he’s neutered and has his dental needs addressed.
Joey is thriving in foster care in my home and has numerous adoption options, including a woman who previously had a Chihuahua with no front feet. He is friendly and happy and loves people, especially children. In every way, he is a well adjusted little guy who doesn’t let his issues define him. As much as I would love to keep him, he would be happier in a home that where the adopter doesn’t work full time as I do. He is such a reminder that in spite of the challenges that many of us have, there is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it. There is a lesson to be learned from every dog I meet and Joey certainly has much to teach.
I would love to hear about readers experiences with dogs with unusual challenges.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Just how accurate are behavioral assessments?
It’s an almost impossible situation. Shelters need to avoid putting an aggressive dog up for adoption, but how can they discover that dog’s true behavior? Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, they have no information about the dog’s behavior in a home environment, or in any other environment, for that matter. Too often, overworked and undertrained staff members are left to make a decision after interacting with a dog for less than an hour. A mistake in one direction can mean that a new adopter is bitten, perhaps badly. A mistake in the other can mean that a good dog doesn’t get a home or, even worse, is needlessly euthanized.
In an effort to improve the odds, many shelters use behavioral assessment protocols, tests that place a dog in a series of situations that are meant to simulate challenges he might encounter in a home: pinching his flank to mimic harassment by a child, introducing a person in a funny hat to test his tolerance for a wide range of human appearances, exposing him to another dog to see if he is aggressive to his own species.
These tests are, of course, a series of approximations of actual situations. We don’t know if these approximations— no matter how carefully designed— successfully trigger aggressive behavior in truly aggressive dogs, or if they successfully avoid triggering aggressive behavior in safe dogs. But that’s what science is for, right? Testing the world to see if our predictions are correct? And in fact, interest in shelter research has taken off over the past decade. As a consequence, shelter behavior researchers are coming to grips with a pressing question: can these tests be relied upon?
The two most widely used behavioral assessment tools in the United States today are SAFER (developed by Emily Weiss, PhD, of the ASPCA) and Assess-a-Pet (developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption). In 2012, Sara Bennett, DVM—at the time, a resident in a shelter behavior program—asked whether these two tests, applied to pet dogs with known behavioral problems, could successfully categorize safe and unsafe dogs. (Bennett et al. 2012) Her goal was to validate the two assessments, to prove that their results mean what we think they mean. In other words, if they say a dog is safe, the dog actually is safe. And, on the flip side, if they say a dog is not safe, then that dog is indeed not safe.
To do this, Bennett recruited dogs from the veterinary clinic where she worked, including dogs with known behavior problems. In order to compare SAFER and Assess-a-Pet to an assessment tool she could trust, she asked all the owners to complete a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). This questionnaire, a widely used method for determining a dog’s temperament, is based on information from the person who knows the dog best: the owner. C-BARQ’s ability to predict a dog’s temperament has previously been validated. (Hsu and Serpell 2003)
Bennett asked: are SAFER and Assess-a-Pet as good as this validated questionnaire at detecting unsafe dogs —are the associations between these tests’ scores and the C-BARQ scores better than chance? And if so, is the association strong enough that these tests can be trusted to consistently give accurate answers?
She found that the answer to all these questions was clearly “no.” On the one hand, Assess-a-Pet and C-BARQ agreed 73 percent of the time when they classified a dog as aggressive. Assuming that C-BARQ was correct and these were truly unsafe dogs, that’s not a bad success rate. However, the test didn’t do so well in the other direction: Assess-a-Pet incorrectly classified 41 percent of nonaggressive dogs as aggressive.
This high rate of finding aggression where it probably didn’t exist is concerning because, in a shelter environment, it could lead to euthanasia of animals who are, in reality, safe to place in a home. Technically, Assess-a-Pet was validated by this study because its agreement with the C-BARQ was better than random chance. But it didn’t do very much better than chance, so its utility in making life-or-death decisions is questionable. A test that gives you a 60/40 rather than 50/50 chance of making the right choice would seem to be of marginal value.
SAFER did even worse. Its agreement with the C-BARQ was so close to chance that this assessment was determined to be not valid. When the C-BARQ found a dog to be aggressive, SAFER agreed only 60 percent of the time. And when the C-BARQ found a dog to be not aggressive, SAFER agreed only 50 percent of the time; there was a 50/50 chance that a safe dog would be recognized as such.
These are pretty chilling results. They could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.
While this study gave us some compelling information, it isn’t the last word in whether these two tests actually work in shelters. Remember that while behavioral assessment tests are intended to be used on dogs who have been in a shelter environment for days, weeks or months, Bennett’s study tested owned animals. It may not be realistic to extrapolate these assessments’ performance when applied to shelter dogs, most of whom have been living in incredibly stressful environments for extended periods of time.
This may sound like a finicky point, but a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situation he’s in. I don’t think this study provides a final answer on whether these tests work or don’t work. I do think, however, that it gives us some very important information that should be taken seriously, and that it demands follow-up studies.
How Hard Is It to Test a Test?
Ideally, such a study would incorporate a large number of dogs as they come into a shelter. This group would then go to the adoption floor in its entirety; dogs whom the shelter suspected of being aggressive would not be removed from the group. Once the dogs were adopted, their new owners would participate in multiple interviews over a long period of time. Such a study would allow us to really get at the question of how many dogs the assessment correctly assigned to the categories of safe and unsafe, and how many it assigned incorrectly.
Of course, actually running a study like this presents a number of problems, the biggest being ethical. If you suspect that an animal is aggressive, can you ethically place it into a household? Of course you can’t. But without doing that, how can you know whether your suspicions of aggression will be borne out? This problem—the importance of not endangering adopters—represents the core difficulty in evaluating the accuracy of behavioral assessments.
There are plenty of practical problems, too. Shelters have their hands full dealing with normal day-to-day matters; supporting large-scale studies can be asking too much of an overburdened system. And owners are hard to pin down for follow-up interviews. They don’t really like to answer survey questions, which are annoying and boring and always seem to come at inconvenient times. Then there are those who adopt dogs but no longer have them; it’s an uncomfortable situation and they can be particularly difficult to get information from, yet they can potentially offer the most important insights.
Some researchers, hoping to do better, have designed new studies from scratch. Shortly after the SAFER/ Assess-a-Pet validation study was published, Kate Mornement, a practicing behaviorist studying behavioral testing as part of her PhD program, described the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K9’s, or B.A.R.K. (Mornement et al. 2014) Whereas SAFER and Assessa- Pet were created before the upsurge in shelter research studies, B.A.R.K. was developed with input from nine experts on canine behavior, people familiar with the problems encountered by other assessment designs.
To determine if B.A.R.K. was more successful than the older tools in assessing behavior, 102 shelter dogs were tested. Then, two to eight months after adoption, owners were asked general questions about their new dogs: how anxious, fearful, friendly, active and compliant were they? Unfortunately, there was little correlation between their responses and the dogs’ B.A.R.K. scores. The test just didn’t do a very good job of predicting how these animals would act in a home.
As Mornement recognized, this study was deeply hampered by the selection of dogs who were tested. Safety concerns excluded from the study dogs with known aggression issues. As a result, B.A.R.K. was applied to a group of dogs who were very likely to be non-aggressive. So, while it’s hard to tell how this test does at specifically predicting aggression, its difficulty predicting fear and anxiety is concerning, and provides reason to doubt that any assessment can do the job well.
Recent studies have started looking at these individual sub-tests. Researchers at the ASPCA (Mohan-Gibbons et al. 2012) specifically assessed one of the most controversial sub-tests, food guarding. In this test, a fake hand is used to touch the dog’s bowl while he is eating, and then to take the food bowl away. Problematic reactions range from freezing and a hard stare to growling or biting the fake hand. In this study, 96 dogs determined by the SAFER assessment to have food-guarding issues were adopted out. Adopters were given information on how to manage and modify the dogs’ behavior.
When adopters were contacted up to three months after adoption, only six reported any aggression over food, and that aggression was transient. Even more interesting, adopters reported that they had essentially ignored the management and modification techniques recommended by the shelter. They had felt free to touch their dogs while the dogs were eating, and to take the dogs’ food away. They had not been bitten.
This was a really stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?
A follow-up study performed at the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, Mass., dug deeper into the question. (Marder et al. 2013) It followed dogs who did and did not test as food aggressive in the shelter, and followed them longer than the ASPCA study. The analysis in this study is really fascinating. They asked the new owners if their dogs were food aggressive and, overwhelmingly, were told no. Then they asked more specific questions, such as, “Does your dog growl when you pick up his food?” Well, yes, the adopters said, but that wasn’t a big deal. This study, in other words, found that while the test may be successfully predicting foodguarding behavior, that behavior seems to very rarely escalate into true aggression, and isn’t considered a problem by the vast majority of adopters.
Asking Better Questions
In the meantime, how should we interpret existing behavioral assessments? Here are two cautionary tales about extreme ends of the spectrum; they come from time I spent in two different shelters during my shelter medicine veterinary internship. In one shelter, I was handling a young mixedbreed dog who ripped open the fake hand that was used to take her food bowl away. If that had been my hand, I would have been in the emergency room. Despite my reservations about the validity of behavioral assessments, I took that particular act of aggression very seriously.
In another shelter, I observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff. In both instances, the dogs were euthanized.
Not all cases are as clear as these two, but I think there’s something to be learned from them. Shelter behavioral assessments can give us useful insights into the behavior of our charges, but they are not the final word. Even those who design behavioral assessments caution against taking these tests as blackand- white answers to the question of whether or not to put a dog up for adoption, and we must be very careful to abide by that recommendation.
Even in the chaotic world of a shelter, time must be taken to consider all of the information available about a dog. We must do so generously, giving the dog every chance to succeed, and cautiously, providing prospective adopters with all the information we can.
In the world of shelter research, we must continue to ask more, and more detailed, questions about these tests. Not just, do they succeed or fail at predicting aggression, but why they succeed or fail, how they work, what they test. We also need to determine what adopters actually want from their pets, not what we think they want.
There is a lot of work to do.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Just about every Monday morning finds me at the local off-leash dog beach with a group of dogs and a friend or two. It is such a welcome break from my demanding and stressful job as an animal control officer. The dogs I see at the beach are beautiful, happy and loved. Old and young, large and small, they are having a blast getting exercise, playtime and social interaction. It’s a delightful change from some of the heartbreak I see at work.
On a recent beach day I came across a scene which touched me deeply. A couple stood looking out at the ocean. Between them was a canvas stretcher with a handle that could be pulled across the sand. There was a thick dog bed on the stretcher and a very old dog lay flat on the bed. I paused for a moment, gazing at the gray muzzle and alert but cloudy eyes of the old dog. One of my dogs came up and before I could call her, the two dogs sniffed noses. The old dog was unable to even lift his head, but I could see that he was aware of what was happening around him and seemed to enjoy the interaction. I called my dog and apologized to the couple for the intrusion.
The dog and his people were calm and accepting and I continued on my way with a lump in my throat. I’m guessing that this was good-bye and that the people wanted the dog to have a last visit to a place he loved. To smell the salt air and feel the sweet ocean breeze. It was so obvious that this dog was adored, cherished, beloved. I teared up at the thought of what was coming and yet, in my world, I found it to be a beautiful scene. I’ve seen the old dogs, abandoned and alone in the shelter. I’ve held those unwanted dogs and tenderly stroked their gray muzzles. I’ve told them they were loved and kissed them as they drew their last breath.
This is what every dog deserves, I thought, as I took a final backward glance at the little family. All three were gazing out to sea.
I would love to hear how readers have made good-bye special for an adored companion.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I’m usually a pretty upbeat person but it was one of those rare days when I was in a sad funk. A series of tragic calls had really taken it out of me. I was in a fog and struggling at work when I got a call of another sighting of a stray dog that had been roaming the area for days. Fellow animal control officers had tried sweet talk and cookies without luck and had even managed to net her a few days previously but so great was her panic that she ripped through the net and escaped again. I knew my chances of catching her were slim but a long walk in the fields where she had been seen sounded appealing.
A neighbor pointed the dog out to me; a tan blur huddled in the high grass. I spoke softly to her and offered treats but she got up and hurried away. I sat down and waited but she would have none of it. I then tried to head her off, aware of the rapidly rising temperature of what was going to be a very hot day, but she bolted away from me. The neighbor followed and we tried to corner the dog but she growled and changed direction each time we got near. I noticed that she seemed weak and stumbled several times. I wondered if she was sick or just dehydrated from being on the run. At one point she fell and I sat in the grass hoping to reassure her but she soon staggered to her feet and took off again. As I got closer I could see the engorged ticks covering her body. Hundreds of them. In her ears, on her face and everywhere on her skin.
Finally I was able to get close enough to loop a leash over the dog’s head as she tried to dodge past me. She immediately collapsed to the ground and I carried her, ticks and all, to my truck. I could feel the fear and tension in her muscles as her body pressed against me. I settled her on a blanket in the vehicle and stroked her sweet face and told her it would be ok. I gave her water, flipped on the A/C and then we headed back to the shelter. The shelter techs and I spoke softly to her and began removing the ticks one by one as she slowly started to relax. There was something so rewarding about giving comfort to this lost creature that I forgot my sadness. By the time the ticks were all gone and she had a good meal, the dog was wagging her tail and we were both feeling much better.
The dog’s owners claimed her soon afterwards and my heart was full with the knowledge that she was finally safe at home after being lost for more than a week. Sometimes the best way to feel better is to help someone else feel better.
Here’s an innovative idea from The Lost Dogs’ Home shelter in Australia. In their “Human Walking Program” campaign they are putting a spin on who is adopting whom in the dog+human equation. So at this event it was the dog who is “walking” the human, in this case office workers, in Melbourne’s business district. The campaign was aimed at getting desk-bound people out at a park away from their computers, and out being walked by lovely, adoptable dogs. The shelter was hoping to change the public’s perception of shelter dogs! Very effective campaign, don’t you think?
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