Using research to help shelter dogs


I'm in Minneapolis for a few days, at the annual convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis International. I am having a great time so far and have gotten a chance to catch up with lots of friends, as well as had time to meet plenty of new ones. My advisor, Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, and I, along with several colleagues, presented a six hour workshop about shaping yesterday. The workshop includes lots of hands-on games and activities and everyone had a great time and learned lots.

This afternoon, I attended two symposiums about behavioral research that is currently being conducted in animal shelters. (During a symposium, 3-4 people present about their recent or current research projects.) Behavior analysts from Minnesota, Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas presented on a range of different research projects that focused on analyzing factors that help get shelter dogs adopted and also implementing programs to both improve the welfare of animals while they are in shelters, as well as increase the number of successful adoptions. The research covered a wide range of solutions, including providing training for dogs, staff, and/or volunteers.

Decreasing the number of people who stick their fingers through kennel doors

One study looked at how to decrease the number of shelter visitors who stuck their hands or fingers through kennel doors to pet dogs. This might seem harmless enough, but it can occasionally lead to a visitor or potential adopter getting bit, nipped, or scratched by a dog. In most states, if a dog bites or scratches someone, the dog has to be quarantined for 10 days. This can have serious consequences for the dog, because it can lead to an increase in behavior problems and a decrease in the chance the dog will be adopted. If a puppy nips someone and must be quarantined, the puppy misses out on socialization and training during a critical age period.

During the study, the research team looked at four different strategies to educate shelter visitors and potential adopters and to decrease the number of fingers in kennels. This included black and white signs hung on kennel doors, color signs hung on kennel doors, verbal instructions to every visitor when they arrived, and teaching visitors an alternative behavior (tossing a treat to the dog).

All four strategies led to a decrease in the number of people who stuck their fingers inside the kennels. However, the verbal instructions were significantly more effective than the other strategies tried. Interestingly, though, while implementing these strategies, the researchers noticed that some people would scan the room to see if a volunteer or staff person was watching, before sticking their fingers in the kennel to pet a dog. They plan to continue this research so that they can discover the most effective way to protect both dogs and visitors.

Correlations between dog behavior and length of stay in a shelter

Another study that I saw presented looked at the correlation between different behaviors dogs do while in their kennel and the length of time the dog spent at the shelter before being adopted. For the study, the researcher took data on over 300 dogs while observing for 41 different behaviors. She also divided dogs into one of two categories based on whether the dog had physical characteristics that adopters found desirable or physical characteristics that adopters tended to not prefer. This included factors related to the dog's size, breed, and age.

Interestingly, she found that the dogs with preferred physical characteristics (let's call them the cute dogs) got adopted regardless of what behaviors they exhibited in their kennel. Their was no correlation between the amount of time the dog spent at the shelter and whether the dog exhibited friendly and social types of behaviors, calm behavior, or even aggressive or unhappy behaviors.

However, for the dogs with less preferred physical characteristics, their behavior definitely mattered. Dogs who exhibited calm or social behaviors or who spent more time at the front of the kennel got adopted faster. Dogs who showed aggressive behaviors or other unwanted behaviors spent more time at the shelter.

This researcher had lots of future directions in which she would like to expand this research. She would like to also look at behaviors dogs exhibit when outside of their kennels and how this correlates with adoption. As well, future research will look at designing specific training programs for this shelter to teach dogs behaviors that adopters find preferable. Finally, she also wants to expand her research to include shelter cats. I'm interested to hear what she ends up doing next with this line of research.

A comprehensive shelter program to improve training and welfare

Another presentation was by several of my colleagues from the University of North Texas. They have been working with one of our local shelters to design a comprehensive program to improve the quality of care that dogs receive while at the shelter. The program includes concrete measures to assess whether the shelter is meeting each dog's physical needs, medical needs, and behavioral needs. As well, each dog receives a temperament assessment and an individualized training plan.

Each dog receives training that helps increase the likelihood that the dog will be adopted and, at the same time, makes it easier for shelter staff and volunteers to care for the dogs. Many shelter dogs jump up on people and/or try to bolt out of their kennel when someone enters. So, (for dogs without fear or aggression issues) the first step of the training program is to teach the dog to sit or lie down to receive petting and affection. The program then has a very elegant progression of steps that uses this as a foundation behavior to teach the dogs a variety of other skills, including going and lying in their bed when someone approaches the kennel or comes through the kennel door.

There were four more presentations that I saw this afternoon in these two symposiums about current research in animal shelters. Too much to report here! Two of the presentations dealt specifically with comprehensive programs for training shelter volunteers. This was interesting to see because it is such an important area for a shelter to be successful. The best shelter dog training program in the world will be completely ineffective if staff and volunteers are not correctly trained and supervised.

To leave you with something fun, check out this cute video clip. One of the presenters I heard today was Terri Bright, from Simmons college who works with the MSPCA in Boston. She showed this short video clip from one of her classes where volunteers provide training for pit bulls to help make the dogs more adoptable. Check it out, you'll see a bunch of happy volunteers and happy dogs.


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