Training Your Dog to use a Ramp

As our dogs get older, they can begin to lose some of their mobility and have trouble with stairs or jumping up into cars.  In my own case, my nearly twelve-year-old collie has developed severe arthritis in her lower back and hips and is no longer able to hop into my SUV and climb up on the back seat.  We’re addressing her age-related health issues with medication and physical therapy, but we still need a pain-free way to transport her to the places that she needs to go.

The solution for short trips around town was to place her in the SUV’s rear cargo area rather than the rear seat.   For her comfort, and to spare us the need to vacuum her fur out of the car every week, I put down a canvas sheet with an old wool blanket on top of it.  With the back seat folded down, this gives her a comfortable place to lie down with familiar scents and protects our vehicle.  Which left the issue of how to get her into the vehicle.  I’m a large individual myself and have no difficulty in lifting and carrying a 65-pound dog, but the same isn’t true for my spouse.   Therefore, we decided that it was time for our old girl to start using a ramp.

Some dogs are very accepting of new experiences and will take to using a ramp very easily.  They’ll see the ramp, say “Challenge accepted!” and will scamper right up it.  However, there are a lot of others who will be apprehensive about using it.  So, when planning to implement the use of a ramp for a geriatric dog, keep in mind that she is already uncomfortable and is losing strength and mobility; she is becoming unsure of her footing and will be nervous about walking up a narrow surface that is suspended in the air.  There are things you can do to make it easier for your dog.

Selecting the right ramp is very important.  They come in different sizes and lengths and a made of a variety of materials.  I have some suggestions for picking the right one:  First, it must be of a size and weight that can be managed by anyone who handles the dog and drives the vehicle that will be used to transport her.  Second, the walking surface should be composed of a non-slip surface that won’t be torn by a dog’s claws.  Avoid any fabric coverings that can become loosened or ripped.  Third, the ramp should be wide enough for your dog to walk on it with a fairly normal gait and posture.  Lastly, when fully extended, it must be long enough that it securely overlaps the bed of your vehicle and has a gentle slope to the ground – I recommend that it be less than the 35-degree angle commonly used for residential stairs.

The next issue is helping your dog to use the ramp.  As I indicated earlier, older dogs are likely to be reluctant to start using one.  They can experience a certain amount of discomfort when they’re walking or using stares and are losing some of the mobility they had in their younger days.  They’re also likely to be apprehensive about walking up a ramp with empty air on either side of them.  So, start slowly and let your dog become accustomed to using a ramp.

Begin with laying the ramp flat on level ground, folded or collapsed to its smallest dimensions, with the walking surface on top.  In the illustrations, I used a telescoping ramp that I had slid closed.  Put your dog on leash and walk him on it, with encouragement and treats, so that he becomes used to walking on the ramp’s surface.  Do this several times a day with only a few repetitions in each session.  Once he’s comfortable walking on it, repeat this process with the ramp opened to its full extension but still lying flat in the same location.  Again, take it slow.  Have several sessions each day with only a few repetitions each time.  Keep in mind that your goal is to have your dog comfortable with walking on the ramp, there’s no reason to rush him.

Once he is comfortable walking on the ramp when it is laid on a flat surface, you begin to get him familiar with walking on the ramp when it is suspended in the air on a small incline.  The objective is to help him learn to trust the ramp when he is walking above ground level.  Find an outdoor location where you can put the ramp on a small incline, such as the front stoop of a house or a small set of steps.  Just make sure that this spot is stable and the ramp won’t shift under the dog while he’s using it.  Then put on his leash and walk him to the bottom of the ramp.  Shorten your grip on the leash so that he can walk easily but you can prevent him from falling off either side.  Give him a verbal cue, such as “Up!” and walk him up the ramp, staying close to him and using treats and praise as incentives.  Once he’s at the top, turn him around and give him another verbal cue, and repeat the process as he goes down.  Repeat this only a couple of times.  You want the duration of these sessions short in case he has any anxiety about using the ramp, so that his nervousness doesn’t build while you’re training him.  Repeat these short sessions a couple of times a day until he willingly goes up and down the ramp.

At this point, you’re ready to use the ramp to get him in the car.  Repeat the same familiar process of using the ramp when you take him into the car:  Shorten your hold on the leash, stay beside him and use the same incentives and verbal cues.  And continue with short sessions several times a day.  He may balk at first, and you may find that he is nervous or hurries up and down the ramp.  But with repetition and positive reinforcement, he’ll get accustomed to using it.

Breed Specific Legislation – Banning Dogs on Sight

In a previous post I discussed the increase in dog bite incidents in recent years Increases in Dog Bites – What to Make of it? | The Animal Nerd.  Today, I’m delving into a related and highly controversial topic, that of Breed Specific Legislation.

Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) has been defined as “laws that regulate or ban dog breeds that are believed to be dangerous to humans or other animals”.[i] The regulation of dog ownership by breed and the prohibition of certain dog breeds has been a hotly debated issue for several decades in the United States and a considerable number of other countries; primarily in Europe but also in other regions as well.[ii]  In most cases, breeds are restricted based on the belief that certain of them, such as bull terriers, German shepherds and rottweilers, are  prone to violent attacks; while other breeds are restricted for other reasons.  For example, certain regions in China have prohibited dogs that are taller than 35 centimeters, and have specifically banned a wide range of breeds, to include, dalmatians, bearded collies and keeshonds.[iii]

The practice of restricting certain dog breeds began in the 1980s in response to media reporting of people being mauled and based on a growing popular belief that certain dog breeds had been selectively bred for aggressive behavior and were inherently dangerous.[iv]  Over the next two decades, laws and regulations were enacted in countries, states and municipalities, placing varying levels of restriction on certain breeds that were believed to have those characteristics.[v]  These restrictions have ranged from setting requirements for registration and a mandate for liability insurance, to authorizing local authorities to confiscate and euthanize and dogs believed to be from banned breeds.[vi] On the other hand, twenty-two states have prohibited the enactment of BSL to varying extents.[vii] Some insurance companies have gone so far as to deny coverage to households that have certain dog breeds, while others increase the premiums charged to those homeowners and renters.[viii]

The rationale used by governments in imposing restrictions on dog breeds is generally based on a public concern over dog attacks that are reported in the media and on certain beliefs held regarding specific dog breeds.  The problem with media reporting on these cases is that these reports are often rushed and sensationalized, based on low-quality information.  The collection of data related to dog bites is haphazard, without any consistent reporting of the severity and circumstances of bite incidents.[ix] The use of reporting by emergency rooms and police investigations is generally based on third-party information without verification of the dog breed involved in bite incidents.[x]  Further, as found by Arluke et al (2017), articles written by human healthcare professionals tend to use poor quality information, bordering on histrionics, when reporting non-clinical aspects relating to dog bites.  This includes speculation on the behavioral characteristics of dog breeds, “pack mentality”, and breed stereotyping.  Unfortunately, such articles are often cited by civil authorities when drafting BSL.[xi]

The stereotyping of certain dog breeds is a major component of BSL.  For example, the popular myths that “pitbulls” have “locking jaws”, can bite with far more force than other breeds, and will not stop attacking until they have killed their prey are often cited in popular literature.  These myths have also been used as the basis for legal decisions in the United States,[xii]  with court rulings venturing into lurid imaginings of the inherent viciousness, aggressiveness and other dangerous characteristics of pitbull terriers.[xiii]

Beware Of This Dog Pit Bull Terrier Sports Illustrated Cover Photograph ...

Sports Illustrated, July 27, 1987

The biggest single influence on the development of BSL has been the news media treatment of dog breeds.  Beginning in the 1980s, media outlets began reporting lurid accounts of dog attacks.  Magazines and newspapers began publishing articles describing pit bull terriers as “time bombs on legs” and circulating accounts of inner-city drug dealing gangs “brandishing their fierce pit bulls just as they would a switchblade or a gun”, going on to describe pitbull terriers as a breed that “revels in a ‘frenzy of bloodletting,’ and described as ‘lethal weapons’ with ‘steel trap jaws’ and as ‘killer dogs,’ and the new ‘hound of the Baskervilles.’. [xiv]  Sports Illustrated Published an issue with a picture of a snarling pitbull on its cover with the caption “Beware of this Dog”, and an article titled “The Pitbull Friend and Killer”.[xv]  One Denver reporter went so far as to stage dog fights for the purpose of producing a 1990 report titled “Blood Sport”.[xvi]  This media frenzy continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s; in 1987, the phrase “Pit Bull” appeared in more than 850 American newspaper headlines.[xvii]  This media attention, led to a public outcry to ban or regulate pitbulls and other breeds considered dangerous.  And, as indicated above, the exaggerated media accounts of the danger presented by these dogs influenced the language and wording of court decisions and state or municipal legislation.  This is borne out by court findings, such as Toledo v Tellings, in which the appellate court stated “Breed-specific laws were enacted because, in the past, courts and legislatures considered it to be a ‘well-known fact’ that pit bulls are ‘unpredictable,’ ‘vicious’ creatures owned only by ‘drug dealers, dog fighters, gang members,’ or other undesirable members of society.”[xviii]  This has led to accusations that BSL includes elements of racial discrimination and racial profiling of minorities.[xix]

Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, BSL is based in flawed and inaccurate information.   In spite of media reporting of dangerous dog breeds, numerous studies in Europe, Australia and the United States have found that dogs from restricted breeds are no more likely to inflict bites on humans than those of unrestricted breeds.[xx],[xxi], [xxii], [xxiii], [xxiv] In fact, there is a strong indication that the data regarding bite incidents or aggressive behavior is skewed, as police and medical authorities are more likely to report incidents involving restricted breeds than non-restricted ones.[xxv]

The danger in relying on published statistics related to dog bites is that the information from which the statistics are drawn is largely unreliable.  Early studies conducted by the AVMA used data that was “collected entirely from media reports and those media reports were relied upon as complete and entirely accurate.”[xxvi]  Thus, authorities who rely on published reports to gauge the relative danger of specific dog breeds were reliant on the reporting of people who have no direct knowledge of incidents related to the dogs in question.  And that has not changed significantly since then:  For all intents and purposes, if anyone who reports an incident says that it involved a dog from a restricted breed, that is accepted as gospel by government authorities.  The Centers for Disease Control

Which leads us to the issue of how restricted dogs are identified.  Veterinarians, police, animal shelter workers and private citizens are expected to reliably identify the dogs that are subject to state and/or local restrictions; but are consistently unable to make these visual assessments.  This is particularly so when they are called upon to apply restrictions to mixed-breed dogs.  A 2013 study found that people working in dog-related fields were able to identify the primary breeds of dogs only fifty percent of the time, with very little agreement among respondents.[xxvii]  A 2015 study of animal shelter staff found that they could not reliably identify “pit bulls” and tended to label dogs as pit bulls who were found to be primarily other breeds through DNA analysis.[xxviii]  And a 2014 study of shelter workers in the United States and the United Kingdom found very little consensus in identifying dogs that would be subject to breed restrictions.[xxix] A comprehensive review by the National Canine Research Council concluded that visual identification of dog breeds is “inconsistent and unreliable.”[xxx]  This difficulty in identifying dog breed is compounded by the fact that mixed-breed dogs rarely have much physical resemblance to either of their parents.[xxxi]

The difficulty in identifying restricted dogs in further complicated by the poor definition of these animals.  In the case of “pit bulls”, this is an umbrella term that is used to cover a “type” of dog, which has been defined in various jurisdictions as including Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, the pit bull terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, American bull terriers, American bulldogs, English bull terriers or any mixed breed parented by one or more of those breeds.  Essentially, a “pit bull” is a dog that someone believes resembles a “pit bull.”  Based only on outward appearance, these dogs are considered dangerous in a number of jurisdictions.

The United Kingdom’s recently enacted “XL Bully Ban” is an example of banning dogs according to their physical “type”.  In response to a public outcry over highly publicized reports of maulings and deaths attributed to dogs that had been marketed and sold as “XL Bullys” or “American XL Bullys”, these dogs have been banned.  However, unlike pitbull bans which specify dogs that belong to specific breeds, the XL Bully ban is imposed on dogs that meet a very subjective physical description, which includes a general description as a “large dog with a muscular body and a blocky head”[xxxii], followed by criteria for height, head shape, body, hindquarters, tail, etc.  and a statement that “A suspected XL Bully breed type does not need to fit the physical description perfectly. If your dog meets the minimum height measurements and a substantial number of these characteristics, it could be considered an XL Bully breed type” and that this definition includes “cross breeds that look more like XL Bully dogs than any other type of dog”.    Based on this law, it is now “illegal to breed, sell, advertise, exchange, gift, abandon or allow these dogs to stray.”[xxxiii] Any people who own a dog that is considered to be an XL Bully are required to have the dog leashed and muzzled when out in public and must obtain a certificate of exemption in order to keep the dog.  This certificate requires that every dog must be neutered, microchipped, and the owners must pay a fee of £92.40 and obtain third-party liability insurance for each dog.  The owner must present the certificate of Exemption whenever asked by a police officer.   Further, all animal shelters or rescue organizations are prohibited from adopting or fostering these dogs, meaning that any of them in shelters at the time of the ban must be euthanized.

As I mentioned earlier, these bans on breeds or “types” of dogs are rationalized by the belief that certain of them are inherently predisposed to aggressiveness and to violent attacks on humans and other dogs.  However, this belief has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false.  Recent studies of aggressive behavior in dogs has shown there is a wide variation of behavior among individuals of each breed and that a dog’s breed is not a predictor of its behavior characteristics.[xxxiv]  The differences between dog breeds are primarily physical characteristics, with little or no inheritable behavior traits;  a dog’s breed is found to be a poor predictor of disposition or behavior.[xxxv]  A study compared the aggressive behaviors of restricted dog breeds with those of golden retrievers, considered to be among the best-natured and gentlest of dog.  This study found no differences between the breeds tested, concluding that “a scientific basis for breed specific lists does not exist.”[xxxvi]

As discussed earlier, the data concerning dog bites and the effect of BSL is weak and generally drawn from questionable sources.  However, the information we have from regions with dog breed restrictions has shown there is little or no difference in the bite cases or dog-related hospitalizations.[xxxvii] The 2018 Denmark study found that restricting breeds and the required use of leashes and muzzles had very little effect on the number and severity of bite injuries.[xxxviii] The implementation of BSL in Missouri was found to have no effect on bite-related cases requiring visits to emergency rooms.[xxxix]  The overall ineffectiveness of BSL is demonstrated in a 2010 analysis of dog bite data, which concluded that it would be necessary to ban 100,000 dogs in order to prevent a single hospitalization due to dog biting.[xl]

si.cover.dec29.2008.jpg

Sports Illustrated, December 28, 2008

The XL Bully Ban aside, BSL is slowly losing popularity.  This is due to a recognition that the laws are ineffectual and unfairly target dogs that are not actually dangerous, and to changing perceptions about the dogs that are targeted.  For example, in 2008, twenty-one years after Sports Illustrated’s famous “Beware of This Dog” cover story,[xli] that same magazine published a highly sympathetic cover story about the plight and recovery of the dogs from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring.[xlii]  As of April, 2023, seventy-three municipalities in the United States had repealed their BSL bans,[xliii] and twenty-two states have enacted laws to ban the implementation of BSL, with some of them going to far as to prohibit insurance companies from restricting dog breeds of policy holders.[xliv]

 

Among the many organizations that oppose BSL are the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the National Animal Control Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Bar Association, the American Kennel Club, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association, and other professional organizations with expertise in canine behavior and welfare.  Hopefully, this trend will continue and more dog breed restrictions will be repealed in favor of laws that target irresponsible or criminal dog owners and in public education regarding dogs and animals in general.

[i] NAIC (April 13, 2023).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation (naic.org)

[ii] Petolog, retrieved from Full banned dog breeds by countries updated 2023 XL Bully UK (petolog.com)

[iii] PBS Pet Travel, retrieved from https://www.pbspettravel.co.uk/blog/uk-favourite-dog-breeds-which-are-banned-in-other-countries/

[iv] Weiss (2001).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)

[v] Alain, J. (2023).  Retrieved from Restricted or Banned Dog Breeds in Each State (thepetzealot.com)

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Wisch, R. (2022).  Retrieved from Overview of States that Prohibit BSL | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)

[viii] Leefeldt, E. and Danise, A. (October 3, 2023).  Forbes Advisor.  Dogs Breeds Banned by Home Insurance Companies.  Retrieved from Dog Breeds Banned By Home Insurance Companies – Forbes Advisor

[ix] Patronek, G. J., Slater, M. and Marder, A., (2010).  Use of a Number-Needed-to-Ban Calculation to Illustrate Limitations of Breed-Specific Legislation in Decreasing the Risk of Dog Bite-Related Injury.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 237 (7).

[x] AVMA.  Why Breed-Specific Legislation is Not the Answer.  Retrieved from Why breed-specific legislation is not the answer | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)

[xi] Arluke, A., Cleary, D., Patronek, G. and Bradley, J. (2017).  Defaming Rover:  Error-Based Latent Rhetoric in the Medical Literature on Dog Bites.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 21 (3).  doi: 10.1080/10888705.2017.1387550

[xii] DogsBite.org.  Legislating Dogs.  Retrieved from Appellate Court Decisions Affirming Pit Bulls are Dangerous (dogsbite.org)

[xiii] Barnett, K.  (2017).  Post-Conviction Remedy for Pit Bulls:  What Today’s Science Tells Us About Breed-Specific Legislation.  Syracuse Law Review 67 (24).

[xiv] Brand, D. (July 27, 1987).  Time Bombs on Legs:  Violence-Prone Owners are Turing Pitbulls into Killers.  Time.

[xv] Swift E. M. (1987).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/1987/07/27/the-pit-bull-friend-and-killer-is-the-pit-bull-a-fine-animal-as-its-admirers-claim-or-is-it-a-vicious-dog-unfit-for-society

[xvi] UPI (July 23, 1991).  TV Reporter on Trial for Staging Dog Fights.  Retrieved from TV reporter on trial for staging dog fights – UPI Archives

[xvii] Delise, K.  (2007) The Pit Bull Placebo:  The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression. Anubis

[xviii] Barnett (2017)

[xix] Linder, A. (2018).  The Black Man’s Dog:  The Social Context of Breed Specific Legislation.  Animal Law (25) 51. 51-74

[xx] Cecchi, F., De Toni, G. and Macchioni, F. (2022) A Survey on the Number of Dog-Induced Injuries Inflicted by Pure-Breed and Mixed-Breed Dogs in Italy.  Dog Behavior 7 (3). doi: 10.4454/db.v7i3.143

[xxi] Creedon, N. and O’Suilleabhain, P. S. (2017). Dog Bite Injuries to Humans and the Use of Breed-Specific Legislation:  A comparison of Bites from legislated and non-legislated dog Breeds.  Irish Veterinary Journal 70 (1).  doi:  10.1186/s13620-017-0101-1

[xxii] Wyker, B. and Gupta, M. (2023).  Emergency Department Visits for Dog Bite Injuries in Missouri Municipalities With and Without Breed-Specific Legislation:  A Propensity Score-Matched Analysis.  Research Square 1 (2023).  doi:  10.21203/rs.3.rs-3411634/v1

[xxiii] Nilson, F., Damsager, J., Lauritson, J. and Bonander, C. (2018).  The Effect of Breed-Specific Dog Legislation on Hospital Treated Dog Bites in Odense, Denmark -A Time Series Intervention Study.  PLOS One.  doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0208393

[xxiv] Slater, E.(2017)  Deed or Breed?  Evaluating Bite Reports and Breed Specific Legislation in South Australia.  Flinders University.

[xxv] Creedon and O’Suilleabhain (2017)

[xxvi] Delise (2007)

[xxvii] Voith, V. L., Trevejo, R., Dowling-Guyer, S., Chadik, C., Marder, A., Johnson, V. & Irizarry, K. (2013).  Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability.  American Journal of Sociological Research 3 (2).  17-29.  doi:  10.5923/j.sociology.20130302.02

[xxviii] Olson, K. R., Levy, J. K., Norby, B., Crandall, M. M., Broadhurst, J. E., Jacks, S., Barton, R. C. & Zimmerman, M. S. (2015).  Inconsistent Identification of Pit Bull-Type Dogs by Shelter Staff.  The Veterinary Journal 206 (2).  197-202, doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.07.019

[xxix][xxix] Hoffman, C. L., Harrison, N., Wolff, L. and Westgarth, C. (2014).  Is That Dog a Pit Bull?  A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 17 (4). 322-339 doi:  10.1080/10888705.2014.895904

[xxx] NCRC (2021) Visual Breed Identification.  Retrieved from Visual Breed Identification – National Canine Research Council

[xxxi] Scott, J.P., & Fuller J.L. (1965). Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

[xxxii] DEFRA (November 22, 2023).  Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/official-definition-of-an-xl-bully-dog/official-definition-of-an-xl-bully-dog

[xxxiii] Blue Cross.  Retrieved from https://www.bluecross.org.uk/advice/dog/wellbeing-and-care/xl-bully-ban-explained

[xxxiv] Hammond, A., Rowland, T., Mills, D. S. and Pilot, M. (2022). Comparison of Behaviorl Tendencies Between “Dangerous Dogs” and Other Domestic Dog Breeds – Evolutionary Context and Practical Implications.  Evolutionary Applications 15 (11). 1806 – 1819.  doi: 10.1111/eva.13479

[xxxv] Morrill, K. et al (2022). Ancestry-Inclusive Dog Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes.  Science 376 (6592). doi:  10.1126/science.abk0639

[xxxvi] Ott, S. A., Schelka, E., von Gaertner, A. M. and Hackbarth, H. (2008).  Is There a Difference?  Comparison of Golden Retrievers and Dogs Affected by Breed-Specific Legislation Regarding Aggressive Behavior.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 3 (3).  134-140.  doi:  10..1016/j.jveb.2007.09.009

[xxxvii] O’Suilleabhain, P. (2015). Human Hospitalizations Due to Dog Bites in Ireland, 1998-2013:  Implications for Current Breed Specific Legislation.  The Veterinary Journal 204 (3). doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.04.021

[xxxviii] Nilson. F. et al

[xxxix] Wyker & Gupta

[xl] Patronek et al.

[xli] Swift, E. M.

[xlii] Gorant, J.  (December 29, 2008).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/2008/12/29/happy-new-year

[xliii] NAIC

[xliv] Wisch

Dog Fight Prevention and Preparedness

If you have more than one dog, sooner or later they’ll probably have a falling-out.  This can take the form of a minor confrontation during which one of them will give ground without any actual fighting, or it might involve one of them snarling and snapping.  In some cases, their conflict can escalate into a full-blown fight.  There is plenty of good information available on how to break up a dog fight, So I’m going to focus on prevention and preparedness.  Hopefully, I can help you to recognize when your dogs are building up to a fight and head it off beforehand; and to be ready if one does occur.

You should keep in mind is that if your dogs do have a fight, that is not a reflection on you as an owner.  Dogs are complex animals with full emotional lives and communication skills.  They can easily get on each other’s nerves.  The good news is that they generally communicate their tension in advance of any real confrontations.  You can often tell if your dogs are heading for a confrontation by being aware of their body language.

Watch your dogs interact with each other.  If one of them is stiff and tense, giving the other dog a hard stare, holding his tail stiffly, possibly holding his head lower than his shoulders, those are aggressive signs.  His face may also be tense with a wrinkled forehead.[1] He may also be wagging his tail in a short, stiff motion instead of his usual relaxed wag.[2]  These are signs of a confrontation that you need to head off before it escalates.  The question is how to do this without endangering yourself or unintentionally triggering a fight.

If you think your dogs are getting aggressive to the point that a fight may erupt, the first thing to do is interrupt them.  Do this by putting yourself off to one side and calling them in a relaxed, happy way.  Don’t yell at them or make noises that would increase their excitement, just call them as if you want to take them for a walk or play with them.  Above all, don’t just grab at one of them and try to pull him away.  Depending on their arousal and stress level, physical contact could be the last straw that puts them over their behavioral threshold.  The key is to present yourself as relaxed and happy, which will help to reduce stress and antagonism on their part.  Once you’ve interrupted them, follow up with some play or petting for a few minutes, or even leash them up and take them for a walk.  You want to completely change their mood. And walking a pair of dogs together is one of the best ways to reinforce socialization between them.  Don’t offer them any food or toys until they calm down and relax.

There are things you can do to reduce the risk of conflict between your dogs.  First off, forget any advice regarding “alpha dog” behavior or “pack mentality”.  Do not try to identify a hierarchy among your dogs and do not try to reinforce one.  They don’t exist.  Dog’s aren’t pack animals and don’t have an alpha.  If you try to create that kind of relationship with your dogs, you’ll only create conflict between you and them, and among them.[3]

Second, set them up for success.  Arrange things to avoid potential sources of conflict among them.  For example, establish feeding times and place their bowls so that they aren’t eating in each other’s line of sight. One way to do this would be to feed each dog in his own crate, or by putting their bowls around different sides of a kitchen counter.  Free-feeding can work very nicely in a single-dog household, but it is a potential source of conflict when more than one dog is sharing the space where food is present.  Also, pick up their bowls when the meal is over.  This reduces the possibility of guarding behavior between them.

Third, watch for signs of resource guarding.  This occurs when a dog “claims” something and acts aggressively towards dogs or humans who approach it.  This can happen with a favorite toy, a bed, or even a person; and when it happens it should be addressed early.  With the right resources, a dog owner can address this problem and prevent it from becoming serious.  Jean Donaldson wrote an excellent short book on the subject, titled Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs.  However, if the problem persists, or if the dog exhibits actual aggressive behavior as part of resource guarding, a qualified canine behavior professional should be consulted.

Lastly, watch your dogs when they play.  If one of them begins to get over-excited, his play biting and wrestling can escalate into something more serious.  Alternatively, if one of them gets tired and stops playing, the other dog may start getting on his nerves.  So look for signs of either over-excitement or of one dog wanting to stop playing for a while.

The fact is that even a very good dog can have a bad day and forget his manners, or he could be a little bit grumpy with his housemate, so a fight can break out.  This is no different than having human children in a house – the difference being that dogs will use their teeth.  Again, there are plenty of good sources of advice on breaking up a fight once it starts and I suggest that all dog owners be familiar with them.[4] [5]  However, dog owners need to be prepared to implement that advice.

Knowing that fights can break out in a multi-dog household, there are certain materials that owners of multiple dogs should keep on hand:

First, if your dogs regularly play in your yard, keep a hose with a spray nozzle connected to your outside tap.  Experts advise owners to spray fighting dogs with a strong jet of water, but that advice is wasted if you don’t have a ready source of water on hand.

Second, a loud sound maker ready at hand.  This can be a whistle, or an air horn, anything that can startle and interrupt them.

Third, have a can of citronella spray on hand.  This can be sprayed on the face and mouth of a dog that is grabbing and biting another one.

Fourth, have a barrier ready to put between the dogs and keep them separated.  This can be a board or baby gate, or anything that gets in their way.

You can also keep a blanket handy to throw over a pair of fighting dogs.  However, while this can work, it can also prevent you from trying any other method of stopping the fight.

And, lastly, keep a canine first-aid kit on hand.[6]  Have the your vets’ contact information ready, as well as the phone number and location of the nearest emergency veterinary clinic for any bite punctures or serious injuries to one of your dogs.  Puncture wounds and lacerations resulting from a fight can be worse than they initially appear, are prone to infection, and should be treated by a vet.

An isolated fight among your dogs generally isn’t any cause for concern.  They rarely result in actual injuries.  However, if your dogs repeatedly fight or if a fight results in injuries to one or both dogs, then they should be kept separated from each other until you have consulted a canine behavior professional.   Your veterinarian may be able to recommend a behaviorist, and qualified professionals in your area can be found on the websites of bother the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, www.iaabc.org , or the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. www.apdt.com .

[1] Coren, S. (2014).  How to Speak Dog.  New York, NY:  Atria

[2] Kane, G. (January 19, 2019) AKC.  Watch for Warning Signs of an Aggressive Dog.  Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/warning-signs-aggressive-dog-fight-bite-barking/

[3] Tufts.  September 17, 2021.  Your Dog.  The Myth of the “Alpha Dog”.  Retrieved from https://www.tuftsyourdog.com/dogtrainingandbehavior/the-myth-of-the-alpha-dog/

[4] Gibeault, S.  (November 9, 2023).  AKC.  How to Break up a Dog Fight.  Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/stopping-dog-fight-confrontation-fighting-dogs/

[5] Madson, C.  (August 6, 2023).  Preventive Vet.  How to BreakUp a Dog Fight Safely.  Retrieved from https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/how-to-break-up-a-dog-fight

[6] ASPCA Pro.  (nd). How to Make a Pet First Aid Kit.  Retrieved from https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/how-make-pet-first-aid-kit

Your Dogs and Halloween: Let’s keep them safe.

Halloween is a major event and beloved tradition throughout the United States.  Both kids and adults enjoy dressing in costumes; ranging from simple (sometimes last-minute) disguises to elaborate affairs and celebrating the occasion.  However, we must keep in mind what that evening can be like for our dogs.  This can be a dangerous day and evening for them, on many fronts.

Candy can be highly toxic to your dog. (Source: Photos Public Domain)

First off:  The candy.  If you are giving candy to kids who come trick-or-treating, or if you have trick-or-treaters who bring home bags and buckets full of candy, please take care to keep it away from your dogs and store it in a place the they can’t reach.  Don’t depend on them being well-trained or well-behaved:  Dogs love sweet-tasting treats and candy presents a huge temptation for them.  The fact is, candy is a serious danger to dogs:  Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which are highly toxic to dogs.[1]  Even “healthy” sugar-free candy presents a danger to them as xylitol, a common sweetener used in them, is highly toxic to dogs.[2]

If you take your dog trick-or-treating with you, be very mindful of what he is sniffing or picking up and eating.  The kids going from house-to-house are going to be very excited, and eager to hurry to the next place to get some candy.  They’ll be dropping candy bars and other treats throughout the night.  You need to make sure that your pup isn’t street-snacking on this dropped and forgotten loot.  Also, make sure that your kids understand that candy is very bad for dogs and that they shouldn’t share their candy with your pups.

How would your dog react to this?

And, if you have your dog out with you, be aware of the houses and decorations that you encounter.  Some places will have elaborate, moving decorations, often with light and sound effects.  These are fun, and will add to the pleasure and excitement of the night for you and your kids, but can be terrifying to your dog.  Keep an eye on him throughout the night, and make sure that you keep him well away from anything that is frightening him or causing stress.[3]  If he doesn’t want to approach a house with you and your kids, stay back with him at the street and keep an eye on your kids from a safe distance.

You also have to keep in mind how your dog will react to encountering people in costumes.  If you are out in public, your pup will be encountering very excited children who won’t look and act anything like the people that your dog is used to seeing.   And, given that this is a holiday, the adults may have been partying and the kids are on sugar highs, you can’t depend on them to act responsibly around your dog.  This can cause your dog to act out in fear, resulting in him bolting or biting, depending on the circumstances.   And, if you insist on dressing your dog in a costume, find one that fits him comfortably and doesn’t impede his movements.  Also, select one that doesn’t obstruct his vision – you don’t need him being startled by people approaching him from the side.

Even if you stay home, costumed children may be ringing your doorbell for hours, shouting “Trick or Treat!”.   This is in no way what your dog is accustomed to this happening in his home, and it can very likely freak him out.  Be prepared to keep him in a controlled area, away from the front door.

Putting it simply:  As fun that Halloween is for us, it can be the opposite for your dog.  He doesn’t understand what’s happening and can be either stressed, afraid or over-stimulated.  Be considerate of him and make that night as easy for him as you can.

[1] Dog Chocolate Toxicity Meter (nd).  petMD.  Retrieved from https://www.petmd.com/dog/chocolate-toxicity

[2] Paws Off Xylitol; It’s Dangerous for Dogs.  (07/07/2021)  FDA.  Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/paws-xylitol-its-dangerous-dogs

[3] What are the Signs of Fear in Dogs? (04/09/2022).  the Spruce Pets.  Retrieved from https://www.thesprucepets.com/symptoms-of-fear-in-dogs-1117890

Renting with a dog? What are your rights?

The rental housing market is extremely tight throughout the country. (Image from Freepik)

I recently encountered a very sad and difficult situation involving a dog that had been adopted from our shelter, and returned by its devastated owners.  It turned out that the house they had been renting was sold to a new owner, who decided that their mixed-breed dog resembled a “pitbull” and gave them the choice of giving up the dog or being evicted.  Although the family was heartbroken, they had no choice but to surrender their handsome, happy, well-socialized, 35-pound dog only three weeks after adopting him.

Since the adopters’ lease did not specifically address the issue of their dog, the new owner was well within his rights to discriminate against him.[i]  The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against human tenants, but their pets are not covered under this law.  The only exception to this is a requirement for landlords to make “reasonable accommodation” for service animals, to include Emotional Support Animals.[ii]

In the U.S., both landlords and tenants are presently under serious pressure, a number of factors are combining into a perfect storm that is creating a shortage of rental homes:  During the pandemic, there was a decrease in new construction and in people relocating to new homes; but as we emerged from the COVID-19 lockdowns there was a surge in the formation of new households.[iii]   Also, the increase in short-term rentals, such as AirBnB, has cut into the availability of family housing units and driven up the cost.[iv]   This has placed renters in a very unfavorable position with regard to finding properties that meet their needs and allow dogs to be kept, and landlords have little incentive to be flexible with prospective tenants.  Indications are that the trend in reduced availability and higher costs may be easing, but there won’t be relief in the short term.[v]

In addition, The insurance industry is putting pressure on landlords to limit their tenants’ dog ownership.  Landlords are required to carry liability insurance on any properties they own, which is intended to cover any injuries to tenants or guests – including dog bites.  Many insurance companies have determined that certain breeds are “dangerous”, meaning that they are more liable to inflict bites that involve insurance claims, and have placed them on a “banned list”.[vi]  If these companies find that a banned dog is being kept on an insured premises, they are able to limit coverage for dog bites or refuse to cover bites altogether, raise the landlord’s premiums, or cancel the insurance policy altogether.[vii][viii]   As a result, many landlords have established breed restrictive policies that match those of their insurance carriers.

So, what can a renter do?

Pitbulls, Akitas, Rottweilers, and other breeds are often banned by munipalities, insurance companies and landlords. (Image from Pixabay)

First off, be knowledgeable about the laws in your state.  Certain states, such as Michigan, Illinois, New York, Nevada and Pennsylvania, prohibit the dog breed restrictions in insurance coverage.[ix]  Other states, such as Florida, have adopted laws that prohibit dog breed or size restrictions in public housing.  But, also be conscious of the fact that, even if your state or municipality places no restrictions on breed ownership, there is nothing to prevent your landlord from doing so.

Second, if your landlord has no restrictions on a dog breed, have that included in the text of your lease.  This way, even if your landlord sells the property, the new owner must honor the terms of the lease until it expires. And be aware that, in a month to month rental, you have no such protections.

Third, be willing to negotiate with your landlord.  If he has reservations about your dog living on his property, offer to have renter’s insurance coverage for both damage to the property and liability coverage for any bites or injuries caused by the dog.  There are several national insurance companies that offer these policies for renters.[x]  It is very possible that the landlord may be amenable to allowing your dog to reside with you if you take on the insurance burden.

Unfortunately, as a renter you have very few rights and little power in this situation.  But these steps can help to overcome a landlord’s reluctance to allow your choice of dog at his property.

[i] American Tenant Screen (2023, January 29).  Landlords can Discriminate Against Dog Breeds.  Retrieved from https://americantenantscreen.com/landlords-you-can-discriminate-against-dog-breeds/

[ii] The Humane Society of the United States (nd).  The Fair Housing Act. Retrieved from https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/fair-housing-act-and-assistance-animals

[iii] Bahney, A. (2023, March 8).  The US Housing Market is Short 6.5 Million Homes.  CNN.  Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/08/homes/housing-shortage/index.html

[iv] Barron, K., Kung, E. and Proserpio, D., The Effect of Home-Sharing on House Prices and Rents: Evidence from Airbnb (March 4, 2020).  SSRN, doi 10.2130/ssrn.3006832

[v] Helhoski, A. (2023, July 21).  May Rent Report:  Inflated Rent is Poised for Decline.  Nerdwallet.  Retrieved from https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/finance/may-2023-rent-report

[vi] Maughan, J. (2016, November 17) Landlords, Insurance and Dog Breed Restrictions. [Web Log].  Retrieved from https://rentprep.com/blog/property-maintenance/landlords-insurance-banned-dog-breeds/

[vii] Hagen K. and Waterworth, K. (2023, August 1).  Understanding Dog Breed Restrictions in Homeowners Insurance.  The Motley Fool.  Retrieved from https://www.fool.com/the-ascent/insurance/homeowners/homeowners-insurance-dog-breed-restrictions/

[viii] Leefeldt, E. and Danise A. (2023, August 23).  Dog Breeds Banned by Home Insurance Companies.  Forbes Advisor.  Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/homeowners-insurance/banned-dog-breed-lists/

[ix] Sheppard, A. (2023, June 28).  Homeowners Insurance and Dog Breed Restrictions.  FindLaw.  Retrieved from https://www.findlaw.com/injury/torts-and-personal-injuries/homeowners-insurance-and-dog-breed-restrictions.html

[x] Hagen and Waterworth (2023)

Increases in Dog Bites – What to Make of it?

I have recently been involved in several discussions regarding the increase in dog bite incidents in both the United States and United Kingdom.  These incidents, often termed “attacks”, have been much in the news – particularly in the UK.  The increase in dog bite incidents in the UK has received a lot of media attention and has resulted in calls for the banning of “XL Bullies”, which is described as a new breed of huge pitbull terriers.  A casual search through social media will show that this subject is a highly emotional one; so much so that any scientific research is taking a backseat to clickbait articles about specific cases of dog “attacks”.  I have touched on the issue of biting behavior before Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd, but not in the context that we’re seeing today.

To my thinking, this issue involves several related questions requiring answers:  Are serious dog bite incidents actually on the rise?  Are specific dog breeds prone to violent attacks on humans?   If serious dog bites are happening more frequently, what is causing this?  Are specific dog breeds prone to violent attacks on humans?  And, lastly, what to do about either the rate of biting incidents or the dog breeds in question?

In answer to the first question:  The answer appears to be yes.  In both the US and the UK, the numbers of reported dog bites have been increasing in recent years.  The exact figures for the US in the years since 2019 are unclear – most of the available information on dog bites in the US is found on websites belonging law firms specializing in accidents and injuries – however the best available studies[i] indicates a definite upward trend, particularly in bites involving children.[ii]  Statistics in the UK are more definitive on the subject:  A BBC study of reports from 37 police agencies[iii] indicated that bite incidents increased by 34 per cent between 2018 and 2022.  The British Medical Journal reported a sharp increase in fatalities from dog bites, with a total of 10 reported in 2022[iv].

from: Pixabay

Regarding whether this increase can be attributed to a specific dog breed, there is no consensus.  After excluding articles and reports from websites and organizations with obvious agendas either for or against specific dog breeds, I found that there are peer-reviewed studies that indicate certain bulldog types are more prone to bite people than others[v] and are more likely to inflict serious injuries on humans.[vi]  There are also media reports of an increase in serious injuries and deaths resulting from bites or “attacks” from dogs described as “American Bullies” or “XL Bullies”.[vii]   However, there are also many studies which conclude that a dog breed, or perceived dog breed, is not an indicator of increased aggression or dangerous behavior[viii], many other environmental factors are involved in canine aggression[ix]and that breed stereotyping ignores the complex factors behind animal behavior.[x]  Frankly, the issue of

The issue of whether particular breeds of dogs are to blame for attacks on humans is a highly emotional one and governments have become involved.  Breed bans have been put in place in the UK and in many jurisdictions in the US, and some states have enacted legislation prohibiting restrictions on breed ownership.  The argument has become polarized, and the available literature is loaded with motivated thinking and mis-used statistics.  However, the fact remains that there is no clear indication that any specific breeds of dogs are more likely than others to attack humans.  It may simply be that large and powerful dogs are more capable of inflicting serious injuries when they do bite.

So, given that the is an increase in humans being injured or killed by dogs in recent years, and since it appears that a specific dog breed is not the primary cause, what is the reason for this?  One factor may be that more people own dogs.  During the pandemic, dog ownership surged in both the US[xi] and the UK;[xii] more dogs in homes may simply mean that more people are bitten.  However, this seems to be doubtful, as the number of bite incidents per capita increased disproportionately higher than the increase in dog ownership.

It would seem that the pandemic impacted pet ownership in many ways.  A survey of UK pet owners indicates that 25 percent of owners had acquired their dogs during the pandemic, and that 39 percent of these were first-time owners and that these new owners were more likely to live in urban locations.[xiii]  The increase in first-time dog ownership was also reflected in surveys of animal adopters in the US.[xiv]  There was a distinct boom in both the purchase of dogs and the adoption of dogs from shelters.  The pandemic-driven demand for pet dogs even created a wave of dog thefts and kidnappings.

This is widely considered to be a contributing factor to the increase in bite incidents.  More homes had dogs, often as single pets,[xv] at a time when the world was experiencing a pandemic.  The dogs were subject to lockdowns along with their human owners, meaning that they had fewer chances for training, exercise, enrichment and socialization.  They were not exposed to the usual number of people, either outside or visitors to their homes.   Then, when the pandemic restrictions were lifted and we all went back to work and school, the dogs were suddenly expected to cope with the outside world and unfamiliar people.   Even dogs who were part of households before the pandemic were affected:  Their world was turned completely disrupted and all of their rules were changed.[xvi]    Added to this is the general inexperience and lack of knowledge by dogs’ owners on canine emotions and communications.[xvii]  Uneducated and inexperienced dog owners often view their pets through and anthropomorphic lens, misinterpret their dogs’ communication of stress and anxiety.  The dogs are simply pushed to the point that a bite occurs, in spite of the dogs’ best efforts to avoid the situation.[xviii]

This would certainly make sense:  We shut down our society and our homes, disrupted our world repeatedly for over two years, and then opened it everything up again; leaving our dogs unequipped to cope with the stressors in their lives.[xix]  But that really doesn’t seem to be the whole story.  The simple truth is that our dogs don’t live in a vacuum and we can’t look at them as individuals.   We are their natural habitat and their natural companions, and the pandemic has changed us.  We have become more violent, fearful and reactive; and it completely to expected that our dogs become as reactive as their owners.

Since the pandemic, domestic violence has dramatically risen in both the US[xx] and the UK, with forcible sexual violence also sharply increased.[xxi]   The number of violent assaults in mass transit systems in both the US and the UK also sharply rose during the pandemic. [xxii] [xxiii]  Violence in schools has increased during the pandemic.[xxiv]  The FAA reports that incidents of “air rage” sharply increased during the pandemic.[xxv] Perhaps most disturbing, animal cruelty cases have seen a sharp increase during the pandemic years in both the US[xxvi] and the UK[xxvii] [xxviii].  As a whole, our society and our families have been severely stressed during the pandemic.  The COVID-19 virus, coupled with lockdowns, isolation, economic uncertainty and the restrictions on our daily lives have resulted in an overall increase in our own reactivity and our propensity to violence.[xxix]  Is it surprising that the dogs who live in our homes might also be similarly stressed?

Dogs look to their owners, and to human strangers, for social referencing; that is, they look to us to provide behavioral clues on how to behave towards unfamiliar objects or people.[xxx]  They will mirror their owners’ behaviors and attitudes in these encounters.[xxxi]  If we have become “fearfully aggressive”, it is only natural that our socially-isolated dogs would also adopt this behavior.  We became increasingly defensive and antisocial during the pandemic, and we took our dogs along with us.[xxxii]

It may very well be that the increase in dog bites in recent years is not a separate phenomenon, limited to dogs; but merely one aspect of a far greater societal problem.  Instead of a problem with dogs, or breeds of dogs, it seems to be an indicator that we are facing a looming social problem that is much worse and far more dangerous.

 

[i] Habarth-Morales, T. E., Rios-Diaz, A. J. and Caterson, E. J. (2022). Pandemic Puppies:  Man’s Best Friend or Public Health Problem?  A Multi-Database Study.  Journal of Surgical Research 276 (2022).  203 – 207.  doi:  10.1016/j.jss.2022.02.041

[ii] Dixon, C.A.  and Mistry, R. D. (2020).  Dog Bites in Children Surge During Corona Virus Disease – 2019:  A Case for Enhanced Protection.  The Journal of Pediatrics 225 (2020) 231 – 232.   doi:   10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.06.071

[iii] Dog Attacks:  34% Increase Recorded by Police in England and Wales. (2023) BBC.  Retrieved from Dog attacks: 34% increase recorded by police in England and Wales – BBC News

 [iv] Rising Fatalities, Injuries, and NHS Costs:  Dog Bites as a Public Health Concern (2023).  The BMJ.  Retrieved from Rising fatalities, injuries, and NHS costs: dog bites as a public health problem | The BMJ

 [v] Salonen, M., Mikkola, S., Niskanen, J. E., Hakanen, E., Sulkama, S., Purrunen, J. and Hannel, L. (2023). Breed, Age and Social Environment are Associated with Personality Traits in Dogs.  iScience 26 (106691).  doi:  10.1016/j.isci.2023.106691

 [vi] Essig, G. F. Jr., Sheehan, C., Rikhi, S., Elmaraghy, C. A. and Christophel, J. J. (2019).  Dog Bite Injuries to the Face:  Is There a Risk with Breed Ownership?  A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis.  International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology 117 (2019).  182-188.  doi:  10.1016/j.ijporl.2018.11.028.

 [vii] Hussian, D. (2023, June 8).  EXCLUSIVE – Why more people will die unless the XL Bully is BANNED: Experts warn the American cross breed can kill in 60 seconds and UK deaths will soar as breeders ‘create monsters’ by changing DNA of the animals to give them ‘enhanced muscles’.  Daily Mail.  Retrieved from American Bully XL: The killer breed behind record number of fatal dog attacks | Daily Mail Online

[viii] Hammond, A., Rowland, T., Mills, D. S. and Pilot, M. (2022) Comparison of Behavioural Tendencies Between “Dangerous Dogs” and Other Domestic Dog Breeds – Evolutionary Context and Practical Implications.  Evolutionary Applications 15 (2022). 1806 – 1819.  doi:  10.1111/eva.13479

 [ix] Casey, R. A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G. A. and Blackwell, E. J. (2013). Human Directed Aggression in Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris):  Occurrence in Different Contexts and Risk Factors.  Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science 152 (2014). 52 – 63.  doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.03

 [x] Dowd, S. E. (2006). Assessment of Canine Temperament in Relation to Breed Groups.  Retrieved from Matrix Canine Research Institution (PDF) Assessment of Canine Temperament in Relation to Breed Groups (researchgate.net)

 [xi] Megna, M. (2023, June 21).  Pet Ownership Statistics 2023.  Forbes Advisor.  Retrieved from Pet Ownership Statistics and Facts in 2023 – Forbes Advisor

 [xii] Mills, G. (2022).  Assessing the Impact of Covid-19 on Pets.  VetRecord 191 (1).  Retrieved from Assessing the impact of Covid‐19 on pets – Mills – 2022 – Veterinary Record – Wiley Online Library

 [xiii] Hooker, R. (2023).  PAW 2022 Animal Wellbeing Report.  Retrieved from The PAW Report 2022 – PDSA

 [xiv] Rover.com (2022).  The Year of the Pandemic Pet.  Retrieved from https://www.rover.com/blog/pandemic-pet-adoption-boom/

 [xv] Megna (2023)

xvi] De Vise, D. (2023, August 14).  Blame the Pandemic:  Dog Bites are on the Rise.  The Hill.  Retrieved from Dog bites are on the rise, with pandemic partially to blame (thehill.com)

 [xvii] Parkinson, C., Herring, L. and Gould, D. (2023) Public Perceptions of Dangerous Dogs and Dog Risk.  Edge Hill University.  Retrieved from Dangerous_Dogs_Report.pdf (edgehill.ac.uk)

 [xviii] Owczarczak-Garstecka, S. C., Christley, R. and Westgarth, C. (2018).  Online Videos Indicate Human and Dog Behavior Preceding Dog Bites and the Context in which Bites Occur.  Scientific Reports 8 (7147).  doi:  10.1038/s41598-018-25671-7

 [xix] DVM 360.  (2022, May 31).  New Study Shows Increased Levels of Anxiety in Pets Since the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Retrieved from New study shows increased levels of anxiety in pets since the COVID-19 pandemic (dvm360.com)

 [xx] Statistica (2022).  Total Violent Crime Reported in the United States from 1990 to 2021.  Retrieved from U.S.: reported violent crime 2021 | Statista

 [xxi] Office for National Statistics (2023).  Crime in England and Wales:  Year Ending March 2023.  Retrieved from Crime in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)

 [xxii] Statistica (2022).  Number of Crime Events in the Public Transportation Systems in the United States in 2021, by Type.  Retrieved from U.S.: number of public transit crime events, by type | Statista

 [xxiii] Transport for London (2022).  Crime and Anti-Social Behavior Summary.  Retrieved from Quarterly Customer Services and Operational Performance Report – Quarter 2 2022/23 – Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour (tfl.gov.uk)

 [xxiv] Stanford, L. (2022, July 08).  School Crime and Safety:  What a Decade of Federal Data Show.  Education Week.  Retrieved from School Crime and Safety: What a Decade of Federal Data Show (edweek.org)

 [xxv] Street, F. (2021, 6 September).  Dread at 30,000 Feet:  Inside the Increasingly Violent World of US Flight Attendants.  CNN Travel.  Retrieved from US flight attendants endure increasing violence 30,000 feet in the air | CNN

 [xxvi] Roesser, B. (2023, 25 July).  Severe Animal Cruelty Cases Rising Post-Pandemic, Say N. Y. SPCA Leaders.  Spectrum News 1.  Retrieved from Animal cruelty cases rising post-pandemic, say SPCA leaders (spectrumlocalnews.com)

 [xxvii] RSPCA (2022, Feb 08).  New Figures Reveal an Increase in Dog Cruelty Since Start of the Pandemic.  Retrieved from Details | rspca.org.uk

 [xxviii] Kingsley, T. (2022, 03 August).  Dog Cruelty on the Rise Since Covid Pandemic as RSPCA Gets 10 Reports of Abuse an Hour.  The Independent.  Retrieved from:  Dog cruelty on the rise since Covid pandemic as RSPCA gets 10 calls of abuse per hour | The Independent

 [xxix] Khazan, O.  (2022, 30 March).  Why People are Acting so Weird.  The Atlantic.  Retrieved from Why People Are Acting So Weird – The Atlantic

 [xxx] Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E. and Marshall-Pescini, S. (2012)  Dog’s Social Referencing Towards Owners and Strangers.  PLos ONE 7 (10). E47653  doi:  10.1371/Journal.pone 0047653

 [xxxi] Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E. and Marshall-Pescini, S. (2011).  Social Referencing in Dog-Owner Dyads?  Animal Cognition 15 (2).  175-185.  doi:  10.1007/s.10071-011-0443-0

 [xxxii] Cox, D. (2023, 17 July).  What the Rise in Dog Attacks Signals About the State of America’s Social Capital.  American Enterprise Institute.  Retrieved from What the Rise in Dog Attacks Signals About the State of America’s Social Capital | American Enterprise Institute – AEI

Temperament Testing in Animal Shelters

I have been doing a lot of research lately about animal shelters’ use of behavioral evaluations for dogs in their care.   These tools are frequently employed to help the shelter staff handle the dogs, from both a personal safety and animal welfare standpoint, as to aid in the placement of these dogs in suitable homes.  However, although these “personality tests” have been used extensively for multiple purposes, their validity and reliability in shelter environments has never been established and is widely debated – if not disparaged.  Although I have posted on methods that I have implemented in modifying shelter dogs’ behaviors (September, 2022 | The Animal Nerd), the process of evaluating dogs as adoptable or as part of their welfare and handling is much complicated.

There is a fundamental problem with testing dogs in a shelter.  The majority of tests were developed for the purpose of determining if certain dogs were suitable for work, such as assistance, police work or hunting.[i]  This not only limited the environment in which the dogs were tested to one in which they were familiar and comfortable, with people they knew, it limited the testing to certain breeds and ages.  However, shelters are a completely foreign and highly stressful environment, full of strange humans and dogs.    Some research has concluded that in-shelter tests only determine how the dog is reacting to its current unfamiliar and possibly frightening situation,[ii] and cannot predict how they will act under normal conditions in a home.[iii] Although, additional research has indicated that testing may predict how dogs will react to conditions in the shelter – which may be useful for shelter staff.[iv]  However, the high rate of inaccurate results found in in-shelter testing is leading to dogs being incorrectly assessed as aggressive, which is an impediment to their adoption and can lead to unnecessary euthanasia; or it can lead to highly reactive dogs being placed in adoptive homes.[v]

In addition, there is very little scientific rigor associated with the work that has been done on temperament testing.  The majority of tests have very little follow-up, and the few that do have a high level of disagreement between the in-shelter testing and the reporting from adoptive owners. Also, there is no standardization among the tests being performed,[vi] to the point that there is often no correlation or agreement as to what traits are being tested.[vii]  It is extremely difficult to assess whether any of the temperament testing methods used by shelters are of any value, simply because there is no standardization of test conditions, terminology and, most of all, the meaning of the behaviors being observed.[viii]

The ASPCA has determined that there is no conclusive evidence that temperament testing is useful in assessing dogs’ behavioral traits or in helping to move dogs from a shelter into a compatible home and may erroneously identify aggressive tendencies in tested dogs.  Their position is that testing should be just one of many tools used to aid shelters in handling dogs and determine the dogs’ eligibility for adoption.[ix]  This position is borne out by the available research, which has generally recommended against reliance on in-shelter testing.

There is some consensus among researchers that the best indicator of post-adoption behavior is to obtain a detailed history from the persons surrendering their dog[x].  However, some researchers caution against taking this history in a face-to-face interview, as this places pressure on the surrendering owners to be less than candid, either due to perceived social pressure or to try and improve their dogs’ chances of adoption.  The recommended method of taking a history is through a detailed questionnaire, two of which have been assessed as having a high degree of reliability:  A modified version of the C-BARQ personality assessment[xi] and the Match-Up II test developed by the Animal Rescue League of Boston.[xii]

When the surrendering person is unwilling to provide a history; or if the dog is taken to the shelter by animal control or transferred from another shelter without much accompanying information, the most accurate means of determining the dogs’ in-shelter behavior is to have multiple persons perform an assessment at various stages of intake, to include the Animal Control Officer, the shelter veterinarian and qualified shelter staff.  These assessments should use a consistent process and criteria.[xiii]  Although this methodology does little to predict dogs’ behavior in adoptive homes, it does aid in their handling and welfare while housed in the shelter.

Testing a dog for food guarding, using a fake human hand. (The Science Dog (2013)

Although the research on behavioral testing is generally inconclusive, there are indications that shelters can eliminate or modify certain commonly-tested items.   Researchers have found that food-guarding in shelters does not indicate that it will occur in adoptive homes,[xiv] or that an absence of food-guarding in a shelter means that the dog will not develop that behavior after adoption.[xv]  One study determined that discontinuing testing for food-guarding had no impact on the safety of shelter personnel and did not increase the rate of dogs returned to the shelter.[xvi]

Observing a dog’s reaction to other dogs under controlled conditions, is a more effective method of assessing their sociability with other dogs than the use of a training dummy.

Additionally, it seems that the use of dummies and dolls to simulate human children and other dogs, is of very limited value in assessing a shelter dog’s propensity for aggression.  Dogs are generally not fooled into thinking that dolls are real dogs or children and may simply react to them as plush toys.  And dummy dogs do not provide the body language and feedback that is an essential component of in-species communication.[xvii]  However, even though the use of dolls and dummy dogs is not useful in detecting aggressive behavior, it may aid in assessing dogs for anxiety or fear of novel and unfamiliar objects.[xviii]

Lastly, a recent study of dogs’ behavioral characteristics vis-à-vis their genetic makeup indicates that a dogs’ breed, or perceived breed, is not a factor in whether a dog is prone to aggressive or fearful behaviors.[xix]  This would indicate that dogs should not be considered to be more prone to bite, or ineligible for adoption, based on their breed.[xx]

Summing it up:  Behavioral evaluations are one tool among many in determining whether a dog is a good candidate for adoption and in helping shelter personnel care for them.  However, the shelter environment is not a good environment for performing these tests, which leads to highly inaccurate results.  In many cases, the tests consist of trying to provoke a highly stressed dog into displaying some kind of aggressive behavior.  The best way to assess a dog’s propensity for fearful, guarding or otherwise aggressive behavior is to take a detailed history on intake.   If this information cannot be obtained, then shelters should implement a standard assessment form for use by multiple persons during intake, veterinary exam and subsequent handling by shelter staff.  Lastly, current research indicates that certain items that have been included in behavioral assessments (the use of dummies to simulate children and other dogs, and tests for food-guarding) have been highly inaccurate and should be discontinued.

[i] Taylor, K. T. & Mills, D. S. (2006). The Development and Assessment of Temperament Tests for Adult Companion Dogs.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 1 (3).  94-108.  doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2006.09.002

[ii] Kawczynska, C. (September 1, 2020). Should Shelter Dogs Be Subjected to Behavioral Tests?  The Wildest.  Retrieved from Just How Accurate Are Canine Behavioral Assessments? · The Wildest

[iii] Patronek, G. & Bradley, J. (2016).  No Better Than Flipping a Coin:  Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evalations  in Animal Shelters.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 15 (2016).  66-77. doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2016.08.001

[iv] Haverbeke, A., Pluijmakers, J. & Diederich, C. (2014). Behavioral Evaluations of Shelter Dogs:  Literature Review, Perspectives and Follow-up with European Member States’ Legislation with Emphasis on the Belgian Situation.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 10 (2015). 5-11.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2014.007.004

[v] Christensen, E., Scarlett, J., Campagna, M. & Houpt, K. A. (2006).  Aggressive Behavior in Adopted Dogs that Passed a Temperament Test.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 106 (2007), 85-95. doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2006.07.002

[vi] Diederich, C. and Giffroy, J. (2006). Behavioural Testing in Dogs:  A Review of Methodology in Search of Standardization,  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 (2006), 51-72.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2005.11.018

[vii] Patronek, G. J., Bradley, J. & Arps, E. (2019). What is the Evidence for Reliability and Validity of Behavior Evaluations for Shelter Dogs?  A Prequel to “No Better than Flipping a Coin”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 31 (2019).  43-58.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2019.003.001

[viii] Diederich, C. and Giffroy, J. (2006). Behavioural Testing in Dogs:  A Review of Methodology in Search of Standardization,  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 (2006), 51-72.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2005.11.018

[ix] ASPCA (nd). Position Statement on Shelter Dog Behavior Assessments.  Retrieved from https://www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-shelter-dog-behavior-assessments

[x] Segurson, S. A., Serpell, J. A., & Hart, B. L. (2005),  Evaluation of a behavioral assessment questionnaire for use in the characterization of behavioral problems of dogs relinquished to animal shelters.  Journal of the American Veterinary Association 227 (11).  doi:  10.2460.javma.2005.227.1755

[xi] Duffy, D. L., Kruger, K. A. & Serpell, J. A. (2014).  Evaluation of a Behavioral Assessment Tool for Dogs Relinquished to Shelters.  Preventive Veterinary Medicine 117 (2014).  601-609.  doi:  10.1016/j.prevetmed.2014.10.003

[xii] Dowling-Guyer, S., Marder, A. & D’Arpino, S. (2010).  Behavioral Traits Detected in Shelter Dogs by a Behavior Evaluation.   Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 130 (2011), 107-114.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2010.12.004

[xiii] Menchetti, L., Righi, C., Geulfi, G., Enas, C., Moscati, L., Mancini, S. & Diverio, S. (2019). Multi-Operator Qualitative Behavioural Assessment for Dogs Entering the Shelter.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 213 (2019).  107-116.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.02.008

[xiv] McGuire, B.  (2019).  Characteristics and Adoption Success of Shelter Dogs Assessed as Resource Guarders.  Animals 2019 9 (82). doi:10.3390/ani9110982

[xv] Marder, A. R., Shabelansku, A., Patronek, G. J., Dowling-Guyer, S. & D’Arpino S. S. (2013).  Food-Related Aggression in Shelter Dogs:  A Comparison of Behavior Identified by a Behavior Evaluation in the Shelter and Owner Reports After Adoption.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 148 (2103).  150-156.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2013.07.007

[xvi] Mohan-Gibbons, H., Dolan, E. D., Reid, P., Slater, M. R., Mulligan, H. & Weiss, E.  (2017).  The Impact of Excluding Food Guarding from a Standardized Behavioral Canine Assessment in Animal Shelters.  Animals 8 (27).  doi:  10.3390/ani8020027

[xvii] Shabelansky, A., Dowling-Guyer, S., Quist, H., D’Arpino, S. S. & McCobb, E. (2014).  Consistency of Shelter Dog’s Behavior Toward a Fake Versus Real Stimulus Dog During a Behavior Evaluation.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 63 (2015).  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2014.12.001

[xviii] Barnard, S., Siracusa, C., Reisner, I., Valsecchi, P. & Serpell, J. (2012).  Validity of Model Devices used to Access Canine Temperament in Behavioral Tests.  Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science 138 (2012).  79-87.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.017

[xix] Morrill, K. et al (2022).  Ancestry-Inclusive Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes.  Science 376 (6592).  doi:  10.1126/science/abk0639

[xx] Bollen, K. S. & Horowitz, J. (2007).  Behavioural Evaluation and Demographic Information in the Assessment of Aggressiveness in Shelter Dogs.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 112 (2008), 120-135.  doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.07.007

 

Shelter Dogs: Handling New Arrivals

The dog can be overwhelmed in a shelter and experienced “learned helplessness”, leading him to completely shut down

When a dog arrives in a shelter, he is going through an incredibly frightening and stress-filled experience.  Depending on what is known about them, these dogs can spend time isolated in quarantine, interacting with a minimum of shelter personnel until they are vaccinated and checked for communicable diseases or medical conditions.  Behavior evaluations are also done during these periods, generally for the benefit of shelter staff and to determine any safety issues in handling the dogs.  But these intake evaluations can be very misleading[i].

In any case, the dogs have been removed from their familiar surroundings; from their homes, from the street, or from another shelter, and are now in a new and highly stressful place.  They are surrounded by unfamiliar noises, other animals, unknown people, new smells, etc.  If they are considered to be quiet and friendly, in all likelihood its because they are overwhelmed and helpless, and have completely shut down[ii] .

Regardless of how dog-friendly and stress-free we try to make a shelter, it will be a terrible place to be a dog.  They are bombarded with stimuli in a foreign environment and often have great difficulty in coping.  The question becomes, how can the people who work in the shelters help them de-stress and adapt to their surroundings, thereby increasing their chances of being adopted by a suitable person or family?  A few months ago I wrote about dogs that arrive in the shelter with severe anxieties and a fear of new people and places[iii].  This trend has continued as we get dogs that were isolated and unsocialized during the pandemic.

I cannot overstate the need for slow and positive first meetings with new shelter dogs, and slow steps in increasing the interactions with shelter personnel.  The shelter staff and volunteers are the people who will set the tone for that dog’s interactions with all visitors and potential adopters.  It is absolutely vital for them to set the dog up for success by making all human interactions as fear-free as possible.

All too often we conflate positive interaction with providing excitement or stimulus, when those things can be counterproductive for a dog that is already coping with stress.  A dog that is new to a shelter does not need to be entertained, he needs to be calm and allowed to relax. A 2018 study documented the beneficial effect of shelter volunteers simply sitting with, and petting, a shelter dog for only 15 minutes[iv].   When I train new volunteers, I encourage them to incorporate this practice into their daily activities with our dogs.  Whenever they are outside of their runs, either to meet new adopters or for a routine walk, I ask them to incorporate some time just sitting outside with them in quiet location so the dogs can get used to the environment and learn to relax.

I am currently working with a dog that has an extreme fear of new people, particularly men. By implementing a slow and low-key approach in meeting and handling her, and was able to get her to trust and accept me.  I’ve attached a copy of the treatment plan that I developed for the shelter staff to use in handling this girl:

Treatment Plan:  Subject Dog

Problem:  (subject) is extremely stressed by being in the shelter and is fearful of strangers, particularly men.  She is reactive in her kennel and shows clear signs of fear and anxiety when people approach:  Warning barks, teeth bared, back arched, low and rapid tail wags.   (subject) is not food-motivated, but does want human contact.  The key to providing this is to get her to accept people on her own terms.

Treatment

Our objective is to help (subject) become accustomed to being in the shelter and to become more accepting of unfamiliar people.  She should meet new people in a low stress, positive manner.

First visit:  When approaching her kennel for the first time, do not enter it.  And do not stand facing her.  Sit down outside the kennel, facing sideways to her.  This is a good time to do some texting or read an article on your phone.  Gauge her reactions:  If she is showing any of the stress signs mentioned in the problem statement, then just ignore her and continue quietly sitting for about ten minutes.  You might try doing a couple of fake yawns or a full body shake (these are dog body language, telling the excited dog that you are not a threat and she can calm down).

If she stops reacting to your presence, you can put a hand near the treat hole in her kennel.  This may provoke another reaction from her.  Don’t worry about that, just let her calm herself down.  After a while, get up, leave and come back later. 

Second visit:  When you approach her kennel, you might find that she has less of a fearful reaction.  If not, repeat the steps you used on the first meeting.  But if her reaction is less fearful, you can enter.

When you enter the kennel, do not try to touch her right away.  Do not be overly friendly or use a high happy voice.  Look away from her and kneel or sit comfortably, making yourself smaller.  Let her approach you.  She might keep her distance at first.  If so, just relax and read your phone.  You can watch her, just do not lock eyes with her.

At some point, she will approach you and sniff your hands or clothes.  When she does that, you can touch and pet her under the chin or on her chest with your hand open and palm-up.  See what she does when you stop.  If she moves her nose towards you or towards your hand, that is a sign that she would like you to continue (a consent sign).  You can keep on petting her – she likes to be gently rubbed on her face – and talk to her quietly in a normal friendly voice.  Once she accepts you, she will increase the amount of contact that she wants with you.  When she does, you can try to put on her harness.  Do this from the side without leaning or reaching over her.  Keep in mind that she is just beginning to trust you.  If she tenses up, then stop and go back to what you were doing before.  You can try the harness for the next visit.

Walking:  Once you’ve got the harness on her, you can take her for a walk.  While doing so, watch her body language.  She may show signs of being frightened (ears back, tail low or tucked).  If so, keep the walk short and stop after she’s relieved herself.  You can try to sit down with her in a quiet spot and let her try to settle down.  This may not work the first couple of times.  You can increase the length of the walks as she continues to get used to the shelter and to the staff and volunteers.   When you get back to her kennel, spend some time inside with her.  Let her relax with you for a while, until her breathing and heartrate slow down a little.

Summing it up:  The goal is to help these dogs to be less anxious in the shelter, and to accept new people without undue fear.  We can best accomplish this by taking things slow and allowing them to become habituated to the shelter environment and in being handled by unfamiliar people.  Once that’s done, we can add in play and other forms of enrichment without overwhelming them.

 

[i] Patronek, G. J. and Bradley, J. (2016).  No Better Than Flipping a Coin:  Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evaluations in Animal Shelters.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 15 (Sep – Oct 2016).  66 – 77.  Doi 10.1016/j.veb 2016.08.001

[ii] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/learned-helplessness

[iii] February, 2022 | The Animal Nerd

[iv] McGowan, R. T. S., Bolte, C., Barnett, H. R., Perez-Camargo, G. and Martin, F. (2018).  Can You Spare 15 Min?  The Measurable Positive Impact of a 15-min Petting Session on Shelter Dog Wellbeing.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 203 (June 2018) 42 – 54.  Retrieved from Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being – ScienceDirect

Behavior Modification for Shelter Dogs

As a Canine Behavior Consultant, I encounter a lot of obstacles in developing and implementing behavior modification plans for dogs that are housed in shelters and rescues.  When I’m working with an individual in a home environment, I can develop a detailed plan with a schedule, incremental steps, instructions for consistently tracking the problem behavior(s), etc., all of which contribute to tracking the dog’s (and the owners’) progress.  However, a shelter is a completely different environment with a combination of busy staff and volunteers:  The dogs are under constant noise and stress, the staff generally works in shifts, the volunteers are dedicated, but are on sight inconsistently and have varying levels of expertise.  All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult to implement a consistent plan or track results.

In the past, I’ve posted articles about the shelter dogs that I’ve worked with on an individual basis[i], and how I have involved shelter personnel in these treatments[ii], but these single cases are far outnumbered by the dogs with mild-to-moderate behavioral problems that we routinely encounter.  I’ve been looking for a way to have more people involved in helping dogs by reducing their anxiety or reduce the issues that are getting in the way of adoption.

A few months ago, I found an article in the IAABC Journal describing a program that the Singapore SPCA had implemented to help volunteers train and rehabilitate shelter dogs.[iii]    This program is very impressive; it provides volunteers with training and forms them into teams to work with individual dogs by targeting specific behaviors with low level training and games.  Although my shelter lacks the resources to put together a program as comprehensive as the one described in the article (like every other shelter, we are emerging from the pandemic with a reduced volunteer cadre and are working hard to rebuild this vital component of shelter operations) it seemed to me that we could implement something on a smaller scale for our “problem” dogs.

Recognizing that there was no way I could implement a formal behavior modification program, I began experimenting with ways to draft plans that:

  • Identify dogs with specific behavior problems that interfere with successful adoption.
  • List specific games or training steps intended to address those behaviors.
  • Provide detailed instructions on how to implement those games or training elements.
  • Provide some form of feedback on the effectiveness of these steps.

Teaching a correct “heal” as a means to encourage the dog to stop pulling when on leash

My goal is to include relatively inexperienced people with a set of consistent steps towards resolving our dogs’ behavior issues, that can be easily implemented.  In the case of our shelter, this is aided by having a formal training program for volunteers and having the volunteers organized in grades according to their level of experience and training.  The dogs are also placed in corresponding groups, according to their assessed difficulty of handling (volunteers are not allowed to handle dogs with bite histories or indications of aggression).  This assessment is based on their behavior during quarantine and upon the histories that are provided during intake into the shelter.  The challenge is to identify helpful activities that an inexperienced person can implement during a walk or play session. 

 The program we’ve established follows these steps:

  • An individual dog’s behavior issues are identified, along with the events that trigger the behavior(s) (antecedents) and the events that typically follow it (cons
  • equences).  This is typically anecdotal reporting from shelter staff and volunteers.
  • The shelter behavior team performs an assessment of the dog’s behavior, verifying and baselining those reports. Once the behavior is baselined for severity and its triggering events are identified, the behavior team confers and develops a set of games or training activities for the staff and volunteers to use when handling the dog.
  • The behavior staff also drafts clear instructions on implementing these treatments, the use of reinforcers, etc., for staff and volunteers to follow during walks, play time or other opportunities to implement the treatment plans.
  • These activities and instructions are published in an online chat forum used by shelter personnel. Paper copies are posted in the cubby holes used to store the individual dogs’ leash and harness.
  • Staff and volunteers provide feedback via the chat forum.
  • The behavior team performs reassessments on a regular basis.

Formal metrics are not being kept at this time, due to the varied personnel who are implementing the behavior management activities and our current inability to regularly schedule treatment sessions.  Hopefully, as more volunteers go through the shelter’s onboarding and training process, we will be able to migrate to a more formal behavior modification program for dogs with serious issues.

I’d appreciate feedback from any other shelters that have implemented low-level behavior modification programs using volunteers.  It would be great to compare notes.

 

[i] Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties | The Animal Nerd

[ii] Toby | The Animal Nerd

[iii] One Dog at a Time: Enriching the Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs | The IAABC JOURNAL

Important Skills to Teach Your Dog – Stay

In an earlier post,Dog training – the most important things to teach them. | The Animal Nerd, I discussed the need for owners to teach their dogs certain critical skills needed for them to live safely in our homes.  One of these is to “stay”; meaning to remain in one spot when told to do so. This is a skill that can keep your dog form darting into traffic or other dangerous places, chasing animals or misbehaving around strangers.  It is one of the most important things you can teach your dog, if only as a safety measure.  “Stay” is also one of the easiest skills to teach.  Most of the dogs I work with get the concept in the first few minutes of training, after which it becomes a matter of practice and reinforcement.

First off, I always start training a new skill with a hand sign as opposed to a spoken command or prompt – once the dog understands the visual prompt, I then add the verbal one.  Dogs communicate non-verbally, and I have always found that they learn body or sign language much faster than verbal commands.  And I try to pick a hand signal that I would use more or less automatically.  In the case of “stay”, I use a raised hand, palm outward towards the stop (the universal command for “Halt”).[i]  Secondly, I find that a clicker is very useful in training this particular skill.  It not only signals that the dog has successfully done the behavior, it also signals when the he can stop “staying” in one place.

The best way to start is to pick a time when your dog is laying down or simply staying in one place, and show him the hand prompt.  Then, after a couple of seconds, click, praise a

Start with a hand signal, adding a verbal prompt once the dog learns the skill

nd give him a tasty treat.  Repeat this a few times.  This will start him associating the hand sign with remaining in one spot.

In the next session, stand in front of him and show him the hand sign.  If he remains in place, click, praise and treat.  If he moves, then break contact with him for a minute and try again.  Repeat a few times and reward his successes.

Next, give him the hand sign and, while he’s remaining in place, move one of your feet a half-step to the side then bring it back.  If he doesn’t move, click, praise and treat.  Once he masters staying in place while you move a little, you can begin increasing the distance that you move around.  Over time, you should be able to move several steps in any direction, and walk around him, while he’s holding a stay.  It doesn’t matter if he sits, lays down or stands up while you are doing this, as long as he remains in the same place.  If he moves from that place, don’t correct him.  Simply start over with a shorter time and less movement on your part.

At this point, you can add the verbal “stay” command when you give the hand prompt.  Say it only once each time that you give the hand sign.  You can also begin to give a verbal release command – I use “Okay” – along with the click. (After all, you won’t be carrying a clicker when you’re out walking with him).

When you begin to take steps away from him after giving him the “stay” prompt, you should always return to your starting point before giving the release prompt.  This encourages him to remain in one spot until you return to him.

Key points:

Start with a hand signal and add the verbal prompt once he knows the skill.

Use a clicker and high-value treats.

Start by prompting him to stay while he is already sitting or lying down.

Add a release prompt to the clicker signal.

Gradually increase the time that he is staying, and the amount of moving around that you are doing while he is staying in place.

Always use positive reinforcement.  If he doesn’t hold a stay, then just fall back to the distance and time in which he was successful, and start over.

[i] https://puppyintraining.com/dog-training-hand-signals/