JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
As I mentioned, attachment can happen quickly in shelters. Of course, when dogs are unhappy, they need to be appropriately cared for, but we find that it’s important to rotate their caregivers so they don’t form an attachment to any one person.
It is also important to assess dogs for separation anxiety, predict the behavior, and advise [shelter staff and prospective adopters] on how to train them to be left alone. That is one of the most important things you can do to ensure the welfare of the dog [in terms of his or her eventual placement] in a new home.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.