Like prisoners of war, dogs rescued from hoarding environments often carry the effects of their trauma with them for years. Until recently, we have lacked knowledge about how best to help these dogs recover, or even to understand how trauma affects their behavior. A new study provides some of the first data available about these dogs’ unique needs, and in doing so, suggests how to address them.
Frank McMillan, DVM, director of Well-Being Studies at Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, is committed to helping traumatized dogs recover from their experiences, including dogs rescued from animal hoarders. To assist in this quest, he recruited James Serpell, PhD, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Together, they are trying to learn more about the effects of trauma on dogs.
McMillan had questions: What’s different in the behavior of dogs who have been abused? What about dogs who lived as breeding animals in puppy mills, or in a hoarding environment? Serpell provided the means for finding answers: a validated questionnaire that the two researchers use to measure dogs’ behavior, and a massive database populated with information gleaned from 16,000 questionnaires filled out by dog owners from all over the world. This database allowed the researchers to compare the behaviors of the average dog to the behaviors of dogs from hoarding environments.
Best Friends Animal Society contacted owners and foster owners of previously hoarded dogs and asked them to fill out questionnaires about their dogs’ behavior. A comparison of their answers to the answers of the “average” dog owner in Serpell’s database provided the first scientific insights into how these dogs behave.
Assembling the Data
Measuring a dog’s personality is a difficult task: Will behavior on the day we measure it have any relationship to behavior on another day? In other words, is a dog’s behavior at any given point in time actually a window into his personality? Serpell’s questionnaire, the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), addresses this by asking the dog’s owner— the person who knows the dog best—to supply the information. The 100-item survey includes questions about the dog’s responses to specific situations, such as meeting unfamiliar dogs or visiting the veterinarian. Serpell’s team grouped the questions into related categories so that conclusions could be drawn about a dog’s general personality (for example, excitability and train-ability) and behavior issues (for example, stranger-directed aggression and dog-directed aggression).
In order for McMillan to be able to help potential adopters of hoarded dogs know what to expect, he needed to make comparisons. This proved to be somewhat trickier: Determining the ways in which these dogs’ behavior differed from the behavior of normal dogs first required a definition of “normal.” What is a normal dog? How likely is it that any dog will have aggression problems toward other dogs, and how much more likely is it that a dog from a hoarding situation will display aggression? To find out, Serpell queried the C-BARQ database, which—when compared to AVMA surveys—appears to provide a good representation of the variety of dogs living in homes in the U.S.
Some of the results of the comparison between the two groups of dogs were what the two researchers expected. Dogs from hoarding environments were dramatically more likely to be fearful of people, of other dogs or just of the world in general. (A terror of new things—and to them, everything is new—is one of the hallmarks of a dog from a hoarding situation.) Additionally, hoarded dogs have no opportunity to learn good house manners, and are more likely to eliminate in the house when left alone than the comparison dogs. Many of these dogs also dislike being touched or restrained, but simultaneously show a deep neediness and desire to be near people.