Volunteering at a shelter

If you’re reading this, you’re interested in being a volunteer for an animal rescue or shelter.  Which, I can tell you, is a wonderful experience – whether you are helping to care for dogs, cats, birds, farm animals or any other of our fellow creatures.  And, as in all things we do, you will find volunteering rewarding in proportion to the thought and effort that you put into it.  I’ve been volunteering for years at a shelter here in Rhode Island and would like to share some of the things I’ve learned.

First, think about what you want to do and carefully pick the shelter that matches your interests.  Take some time and think about what you’d like to do as a volunteer and then look at the websites for the various shelters and rescue organizations that are near to you.  Research their rules and requirements, and their various volunteer programs.  You may find that some are looking for help in areas that do not match your goals.  You may also find that some have hours set aside for volunteer work that do not line up with your available time.  For example, I know of a wonderful avian shelter that has very specific in-house training requirements for volunteers that may be more than you want to take on.  Or you might find that a shelter has specific time slots for volunteers so that they can maintain a certain number of personnel on site during the day, which may be unworkable for you.  Take your time and look at every shelter that interests you and is within a reasonable distance for you before plunging in.

Second, I suggest that you stay local.  If you want to be active with a shelter organization, you should pick one that is within a relatively easy commute.  Your time is important, and you don’t want to spend your day in your car.  If you’ve decided that you can spend “x” number of hours helping at a shelter each week, you don’t want to add a lot more time to that just driving back and forth.

Third, be flexible.   You might sign up to walk and socialize dogs, care for cats, feed the animals, assist with adoptions or do groundskeeping (a very important and often overlooked function), but you might be asked to do other tasks as well.  Many shelters are dependent upon volunteers for their basic functions; you might have opportunities to help with a fundraising activity, transporting animals, or doing other tasks that help the shelter function.  Remember, you’re there to help.

Fourth, check your ego at the door.  Shelter staffs are underpaid and overworked.  They are busy with essential functions every moment they are at work.  Believe me, they appreciate what you’re doing to help them and the animals, even if they don’t always have the time or energy to say so.  Seeing the animals go home with adopters is your reward.

Fifth, watch and learn.   The more you know about the operations of the shelter, the better you can help the staff to run it and the more assistance you can provide.  If you don’t understand why something it being done, ask.  Keep in mind that a reputable shelter must function within strict state and local regulations regarding almost all of its activities, from animal care to fundraising.  Take all the training that the shelter can offer you, from orientation to advanced care.

Sixth, stay positive.  Shelter staffs are stressed and fatigued, and if you can be a positive presence, it makes their jobs a little easier.  And every day won’t be a good day.  You’re inevitably going to find that the animals’ stories don’t always have a have a happy ending.  And if you find that a particular case is heartbreaking, keep in mind that its even harder on the shelter staff.

Seventh, be good at what you do.  If you are there to clean dog runs or cat cages, to do administrative work or to feed the animals, do it well.  If you are there to do maintenance or groundskeeping, do an excellent job.  Each of these functions is essential to the health and welfare of the animals – which is why you’re there in the first place.

Again, these are just my observations.  You might find that there are aspects of shelter volunteering that I’ve missed, or that I haven’t made a point well enough.  Feel free to comment or add your observations.

Winston, a story of desensitization

Last month I was asked to take on another “project dog”.  That’s how I met Winston.

        Affection or insecurity?

He had been returned to the shelter after his adoptive owner experienced problems with him.  Winston had gradually become emotionally dependent on her to the point that he guarded her as a resource and was being aggressive with any visitors to the house.  He was also displaying high levels of anxiety about noises outside the house and was becoming extremely reactive to them.  The owner eventually decided that she couldn’t handle his issues and brought him back.

When I first met him through the glass door to his run, he was extremely reactive.  He was baring his teeth, giving low growls and short, staccato “warning” barks.  I followed my usual initial practice of sitting down on the floor outside his run, facing away at an angle and reading my messages and Facebook feed, while occasionally putting a treat in the run (There are “treat holes” in the glass fronts to the dog runs.  These encourage the dogs to approach visitors and potential adopters.)  I repeated this three times on the first day.

The second day, he was quieter when I approached his run, but still visibly nervous.  This changed when he saw that I was unlocking the run, at which he visibly relaxed. He had come to associate this motion on my part with food and potty breaks, and he was visibly happier and more relaxed.  I was able to leash him up very easily and took him outside.  That’s when I was able to get a good look at him and his behavior.

The shelter has a large, very pleasant, outdoor area that includes a large field, a large, enclosed play area and the grounds have shaded areas with benches.  I took Winston on a walk around the entire grounds so that he could have a few good sniffs and relieve himself, then just sat with him on a bench that had a view of the building entrance, to see what he did while people came and went.  I saw that he became alert whenever anyone came into view, but that he didn’t engage in any self-soothing behavior during quiet times.  I also saw that his level of tension was ramping up, and that he was beginning to seek physical contact with me.  I took him around the building to a quiet area in the back of the building, near a wooded area, and he was still unable to relax.  He began to increase his contact-seeking behavior, putting his head and paw on my knee and pressing himself against my leg.

All this inside of 30 -45 minutes (which is the maximum time that I spend with a dog during behavior modification treatment).   In two short sessions, he had gone from giving me teeth-baring distancing signs to extreme contact-seeking behavior.  At this point, I had a pretty good idea of his issues:  He was an extremely anxious dog who had trouble shedding stress and sought contact with a human handler as a means of feeling secure.  It’s very understandable how an owner could mistake this contact-seeking behavior for displays of attachment and affection and encourage it.   Its adorable, but its also the exact opposite of a healthy, relaxed behavior.

So, the job was to increase his confidence regarding people, help him to relax and engage in self-soothing, and help him to tolerate strangers in his space.

To be continued.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 3

Our shelter staff found a very experienced foster family to take in Penny and help her acclimate to living in a house.  Two Fridays ago, they picked her up from the shelter and brought her to their home.

The following afternoon, I arrived at the shelter and found Penny back in her run, very happy to see me.  It turns out that Penny had two additional issues that we had not known about:  She was afraid of cars and she refused to use stairs.  The first issue came up as the shelter staff helped her get into the foster family’s car.  The second issue came up when they got to their home, which happens to be a second-floor walkup apartment.  I should note that, for all her anxiety and self-harming tendencies, Penny is a remarkably gentle dog.  When she objects to doing something, she simply freezes in place.

So.  Two steps forward and one step back.  Now we have to add cars and stairs to the list of things that Penny needs to become habituated to using.   I tried the usual methods of getting her to use the shelter staircase, first by luring her with high value treats and later asking her to follow another friendly dog up them.  I was able to get her to go up four steps and she finally put her hind feet on the bottom step, but that was as far as I could get; she would become overly anxious and shut down.  And using this particular staircase became a non-starter when she caught on to the fact that the cats and small animals were housed near the stairs.  There’s no way that treats were going to distract her from those.

Once she began to associate cars with pleasant experiences, she decided that they weren’t so bad.

So I decided to use a different approach to conquering her fear of stairs by getting her to use outdoor stairs in open areas.  Unfortunately, large as our shelter grounds are, there are no stairs outside the building.  We figured that a nearby middle school, which had wide outside steps, would be perfect for this effort; but that would mean getting her in a car.  And we knew that Penny would have to become habituated to using multiple cars and generalize being in them.  So, several of us began an effort to make cars fun and desirable by a combination of high value treats and pleasant experiences in them.  We got her to follow us into cars and then took her on field trips to fun and interesting places, with lots of things to sniff.  Within a few days, she was jumping into cars with minimal encouragement.

Then I started taking her to the middle school and using the stairs.  On the first visit, a couple of days ago, she went up and down a low set of outside steps (four steps) but balked at using a larger one.   We’re continuing to work on that.

We have more work to do with Penny, but she’s come along far enough that the shelter staff believe that she can be adopted out to a family that’s willing to work with her post-adoption.   In the meantime, I’ll keep working with her on her few remaining issues.

Lessons learned: 

First, do not rush.  Get the dog to accept and trust you before attempting to modify her behavior.  If, as far as she is concerned, you’re just a treat bag with an arm, you won’t get results that will transfer to an adoptive family and home.

Second, get the dog familiarized and comfortable in environment in which the behavior modification treatment is taking place.  If she is stressed by being in a new location, you’re not going to get anywhere.  Depending on the dog, this may take several visits.

Third, do not forget the basics.  Penny’s treatment was complicated by the fact that the only skill in her repertoire was “sit”.  This is a great help in leashing her up, but not good for much else.  When you’re trying to get a dog to overcome a fear of performing a certain action, there is no substitute for having a good, solid recall.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 2

Continued from Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd

So, with progress made on her overly active greetings, which were affecting the number of shelter volunteers who were allowed to, or willing to, work with her; and with her anxiety at being outdoors reduced to the point that it was no longer apparent, it was time to start work on getting her to tolerate indoor spaces.

I continued taking her to explore outdoor areas and relaxing with her in shady shots where she could watch the comings and goings at the shelter.  And I started experimenting with her behavior indoors.  It soon became apparent that she:  A. Refused to go through any doors except those that were in a direct path the outdoors; B.  Refused to go through any interior corridors; and C. Wouldn’t walk on shiny floors.  She didn’t panic when asked to go to any of these places.  She simply froze in place and refused to move.

All of which would seriously get in the way of getting her adopted.  On the plus side, she was very food motivated, and loves people and other dogs.  So, this gave me something to work with.

In order to get her to tolerate shiny surfaces and being inside a building, I first had to get her to accept going through doors.  I picked an entrance to the shelter that was in a fairly quiet spot and didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, but was near a section of occupied kennels (providing a scent-rich environment).  After she had a nice walk and some down time, I walked her up to the entrance whereupon she balked and froze as soon as the door opened.

Fortunately, I was prepared.  I kept her on leash, propped open the door, sat down and broke out my weapons:  small pieces of sliced of hot dogs, string cheese and the stinkiest training treats that I could buy in my local warehouse store.  I tossed an assortment of them on the ground immediately outside the door and, after some hesitation, she vacuumed them up and got praised.  I repeated this several times, each time tossing the treats closer to the door threshold and praising her every time she stepped closer.  Each time she advanced; I took up some of the slack in the leash without pulling her.  This prevented her from retreating to square one, but also allowed her to establish a new comfort zone.  It also precluded any oppositional pulling.

After several iterations during the following week, I was able to toss the treats inside the door while she stretched inside to get them; then, as I put the treats further inside, she began putting her front paws across the threshold.  And she eventually stepped all the way inside.  Once she was far enough in, I gently closed the door and kept praising her while giving her a good scratch.  That was enough for the first day.  She had earned a good cool down in her run.

The shelter lobby became her favorite place to hang out with her human friends

On the next session, she balked at the door again, but overcame her fear more quickly and with fewer treats.  By the third session, it took half as much time and reinforcement to get her inside.  After that, I was able to get her to stay in the interior corridor without asking to leave, while getting scratches, pets and treats.   I then enlisted some volunteers to join us in the corridor, and she relaxed enough to walk up to each of them and ask for pets.  During the next session we moved further down the corridor and, she willingly entered the main lobby on the following day.

This was the big breakthrough.  After getting her used to being in the lobby of the shelter, I was very quickly able to get her to visit all the public areas in the shelter, and she began to enjoy being around her human friends (e.g., everybody she met).   She willingly used all the building entrances and the shelter lobby became her favorite place.  She was getting very popular with the staff and volunteers, and had lots of positive interaction.

She was still occasionally snapping at the stump of her tail occasionally.  Often when food was provided or she became excited.  I began responding to this by giving her scratches on her butt and  hips whenever she did this.  She initially reacted to my doing this, but after a few repetitions, she began to accept this as a pleasant stimulus and relaxed and leaned into me while I was doing it.  I enlisted other handlers and volunteers to do the same thing, and her self-harming reduced over the next several days as she accepted that activity along  her flanks hindquarters was a good thing.

At this point, we had reduced her fear of being outside her run, had reduced her tendency to self-harm, she was greeting her handlers in a calm and friendly manner and her tendency to self-harm was greatly reduced.  Our staff decided to place her in a foster home to continue her treatment and acclimate her to a home environment outside the shelter, and I felt that she was well on the way.

And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.

To be continued.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning

Part One

So, in late May I was at the shelter, and the Behavior Services manager asked me if I would like to have a “project dog”.  That’s how I met Penny.

She is a 3-year-old, 50 lb mixed breed with a short brindle coat, natural ears and a docked tail.  It turns out that her tail had been docked at the shelter because she was habitually attacking it whenever she had certain stimuli – such as every single meal – and had seriously injured it.

Aside from the compulsive self-harming whenever she was eating or overly excited, Penny showed signs of extreme anxiety.  Her kennel was in a quiet area of the shelter that was closed off to visitors.  Whenever she was taken outside, she would immediately head for the door to relieve herself and then continually try to lead her handler back inside to the safety of her kennel.  She refused to use any door other than the one nearest to her kennel and she would refuse to use any part of the shelter interior beyond the minimum distance between her run and that door.  On the plus side, she was friendly to every person on staff and gave exuberant greetings to her human friends – sometimes so exuberant that it was difficult to handle her – leading to her harness being kept on her at all times.  In her current state, she was a sweet and friendly dog who was completely unadoptable.

She had been held by other shelters and fosters prior to arriving at ours.  And the somewhat sketchy history that came along with her indicated that these were long-standing behavior problems – particularly her tendency to attack and injure her tail.  At this point, she had been in the shelter for almost two months, between her initial quarantine, her surgery and recovery, there hadn’t been much work done on addressing her behavior problems.   After getting the initial run-down of her (many) issues, I worked out a set of priorities with our behavior staff.

  • First:  We needed to reduce the anxiety she had being outdoors.
  • Second:  We needed her to be able to use doors and interior spaces outside the “safe space” of her kennel.
  • Third:  We needed to reduce her tendency to attack her own body parts – even with her tail docked, she was still showing a tendency to snap at her own flank and hip when food was present or she was overly stimulated.
  • Fourth:  We needed to help her control her overly-excited greetings, particularly with new people.

So…I got to work.

First things first:  Getting her to at least tolerate being outdoors.

I took her out of her run as quietly and matter-of-factly as possible.  I found that the usual method of quieting a jumping dog (negative reinforcement – removing the response to jumping, turning my back and standing still) worked very well.  I then stayed to one side of her while attaching the leash to her martingale collar and easy-walk harness.

I then took her outside by her usual route.  She was in a hurry to “do her business” and then wanted to return to her indoors kennel.  By changing direction a few times, I was able to get her to walk at oblique angles to her initial route back to her safe place, and get her to spend some time outside.  I noticed that when she was actively sniffing a new scent, she relaxed.  Her ears went back, her tail went up, her back relaxed, and she forgot to be afraid.   I could work with that.  I found a bench in a shady spot and sat with her for a while, not interacting with her unless she solicited any touching or petting, and just let her experience the day.  She never really relaxed on that first day, but she didn’t try to escape or go back inside until I brought her back indoors.

For the next two weeks, I took her outside and made a point of walking her on the shelter grounds in areas that other dogs frequented and along the tree lines where rabbits and other local wildlife were common.  Basically, anywhere that was a scent-rich environment.  This was a positive experience for her; and within those two-weeks she completely lost her anxiety about being outdoors and enjoyed experiencing the entire area that our shelter encompasses, several acres of open land.

I then took her to our outdoor exercise area, which is a large open grassy area inside a six-foot fence.  The first time I unclipped her leash inside it, she immediately ran to the gate and started leaping at it, trying to escape.  I leashed her back up and walked her around the inside perimeter of the exercise pen, letting her stop and sniff whenever she wanted, before taking her back outside for some quiet time.  After that, I made a point of taking her to the exercise area immediately after some other dogs had been there, creating a scent-rich environment.  Over the next week, she became interested in investigating the scents and was able to enjoy being there and relaxing off-leash.

Step One done. After three weeks, she was no longer anxious about being outdoors, and was associating outdoor time with interesting nose work and relaxation.  And we had made progress made on Step Four.   This was going so easily, I was feeling pretty optimistic.

To be continued.

Shelter Dog Welfare

This is a short paper that I did a couple of years ago.  Its still current today.

Shelter Dog Welfare Challenges

Dogs hold a unique place in American society.  They have been our companions and work partners for many thousands of years and are unique among non-human animals in their ability to form attachments with members of other species.  They are the most commonly found companion animal in the United States; a recent survey found that 48 percent of US households include at least one dog, and the majority of dog owners are described as considering their dogs to be family members (Humane Society of the United States, n.d.).  Despite the affinity between dogs and humans, approximately 5.5 million are put in shelters every year (Woodruff and Smith, 2017).

Dogs enter shelters or rescue organizations from three primary sources:  They may have been confiscated by local animal control or police as abused or endangered,  or because their owners were taken into custody.  They may have been picked up as strays, having been lost or abandoned by their owners; or simply as “street dogs”.  Lastly, the dogs may have been surrendered by their owners for any of a variety of reasons, such as loss of income, the family having to move, medical issues or behavioral problems.  In some cases, dogs are moved from one shelter to another either for space and funding restrictions, or to provide a better chance for placement.

In any case, the dog entering shelters face multiple challenges to their emotional and physical welfare; some of these issues stem from limitations of care available from the shelter organization, and some simply from the shelter’s environment.   This paper will attempt to identify these issues and their impact on the dogs, and will discuss possible ways to mitigate these challenges to improve the dogs’ welfare while they are kept in shelters.  This will conclude with possible ways of influencing the outcomes of their stays in these organizations.

Welfare Challenges

Methodology.  This review of welfare concerns will deal with dogs in shelters that meet the following criteria:  First, the shelters must be “intake facilities”, meaning that they accept dogs from various sources including owner surrenders and confiscation by authorities.  Second, they must adopt dogs to the public.  Third, the shelters must be “brick and mortar” facilities, meaning that they have a physical location for housing and caring for the dogs.  No distinction will be made between shelters operated by local governments and those run by private organizations.   The various challenges addressed in this paper are drawn from peer-reviewed studies and from data collected and published by animal welfare organizations.

Welfare Issues

Euthanasia.

When a dog is placed in a shelter the possible outcomes are limited.  Strays can be returned to their owners.  Dogs can be adopted or transferred to other organizations such as breed-specific rescue organizations or shelters and rescues with higher adoption rates.  Lastly, the dogs can be euthanized due to space and funding concerns, medical reasons or behavior issues that are judged to make the dog unadoptable.   In many cases, owners surrender dogs to shelters for the purpose of euthanizing them, often for reasons of age, health issues or behavioral concerns (Patronek, Glickman & Moyer 2015).

Estimates of euthanasia rates vary widely, as there are no real metrics maintained by state or local agencies.  Recent survey data shows that approximately 777,000 dogs are euthanized annually; however, there is no information available on how many were “put to sleep” for medical or behavioral concerns or based on owners’ instructions.  Further, the likelihood of a dog being euthanized by a shelter varies by geographic area; shelters in the southeast and southwest united states are more likely to euthanize unadopted dogs than shelters in other regions of the US (Woodruff & Smith, 2017).  In any case, approximately 14 percent of all dogs in placed in shelters every year will be euthanized.

Medical Welfare Issues.

Dogs housed in shelters are particularly at risk for exposure to infectious diseases.  The population of dogs in any shelter is fluid, as new dogs arrive frequently from multiple sources in varying degrees of health.  In many cases, dogs are surrendered or seized by authorities with no, or unreliable, information on their immunizations, medical  history or current state of health.  Dogs seized by authorities as a result of criminal activity, such as dog fighting operations, have been found to have had a very low degree of preventative care and are at high risk for spreading disease and disease-bearing parasites (Cannon et al, 2016).

A 2014 study found that dogs entering shelters from the local community with infectious respiratory illness, such as Canine Influenza, had a very high incidence of affecting other dogs held by the shelter (Pecoraro, Bennett, Nuyvaert, Spindel & Landolt, 2014).  Further, the majority of shelters do not have on-site veterinary staff and use local veterinary clinics on a periodic or ad hoc basis (Laderman-Jones, Hurley & Kass, 2016).  The training and disease awareness of shelter staff and volunteers is also a subject of concern, creating higher risk of disease transmission within shelters (Steneroden, Hill & Salman, 2010).

The gaps in veterinary staffing and availability mean that intake evaluations are conducted by shelter staff with varying levels of expertise, increasing the risk that medical conditions or infectious diseases will not be detected (Steneroden, Hill & Salman, 2011).  Further, shelters have a high concentration of animals, which creates a situation in which animals are more likely to be exposed to diseases than they would be in private residences (Newbury, et al., 2010).  Although guidelines have been published for the vaccination of shelter dogs (AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines, 2017), they are not implemented uniformly (Pecoraro, Bennett, Nuyvaert, Spindel & Landolt, 2014), increasing the likelihood of disease transmission within kennels and by transfer of dogs between shelters.

Stress-related welfare issues.

The experience of being housed in a shelter is stressful for dogs.  Upon entering a shelter, dogs find themselves separated from any personal attachments they may have, isolated in unfamiliar surroundings and being cared for by strangers.  This naturally creates a state of heightened fear and anxiety, which impact their health and behavior.  This fear reaction can result in dogs’ exhibiting defensive behavior and avoidance of humans and other dogs (McMillan, 2017).  Aside from the direct impact on a dog’s quality of life, the behavioral indications of stress, such as stereotypic behavior, increased arousal or displays of anxiety, negatively affects dogs’ chances of being adopted (Wright, Smith, Daniel & Adkins, 2007).

There are multiple stressors affecting shelter dogs’ quality of life:

Separation.

Dogs have lived with humans for tens of thousands of years and have adapted to be human companions.  They affiliate with humans and form attachment bonds with their owners and caregivers, and these bonds provide a measure of security for dogs when they are in unfamiliar situations (Bradshaw, 2012; Mariti, Ricci, Zilocchi & Gazzano, 2013).  Isolation from their human attachment figures and people in general, particularly in an unfamiliar environment, causes anxiety and stress.  This condition persists as long as the animal remains isolated (Marston & Bennett, 2003).

Further, dogs are social animals with a natural desire to interact and form attachments with other members of their species.  To reduce the transmission of disease and the possibility of aggression and fighting, shelters typically isolate them from each other. Thus, shelter dogs are aware that other dogs are nearby, but are unable to engage in normal social activity with them.  They can detect stress and excitement from the other dogs’ vocalizations, but are unable to communicate and interact with them as part of their natural behavior (Hedges,2017).  This serves to increase their frustration and anxiety while housed in shelters (Grigg, Nibblett, Robinson & Smits, 2017).

Confinement and reduced activity.

While kept in shelters, dogs are housed in confined spaces and have limited access to outdoor spaces.  The fact of being kept in a restricted space with no means of exit and no opportunity to engage in any play or physical stress-relieving behavior has been shown to increase the anxiety and stress reactions of dogs in shelters (Normando, Contiero, Marchesini & Ricci, 2014).  The confined space also requires dogs to engage in an unnatural behavior of eliminating and urinating in close proximity to the spaces in which they eat, drink and sleep, adding to their anxiety (Wagner, Newbury, Kass & Hurley, 2014).

Environmental stressors.

The lack of a familiar environment in a shelter can be exacerbated by sensory overstimulation.  The dogs are suddenly thrust into completely new surroundings and the sounds and smells within a kennel can be overwhelming.  Their senses are suddenly bombarded by intense new odors and sounds.  The noise level found in shelters is particularly concerning from a welfare standpoint.

Dog shelters are noisy environments.  The shelter interiors are generally hard, smooth walls and floors to facilitate cleaning and disinfecting.  While these hard surfaces are beneficial from the standpoint of hygiene, they contribute to the problem of excessive noise levels inside the buildings.  Although dog’s hearing is far more sensitive than that of humans and extends to frequency ranges that are not audible to humans, dogs housed in kennels are regularly exposed to continual noise levels that exceed ranges considered safe for a human work environment. The sound levels in shelters has been found to regularly exceed 100 decibels; by contrast, the mean sound level of human houses is 45 decibels (Coppola, Enns & Grandin, 2006).  Although the physical effects of this noise exposure in dogs has not been adequately explored, the noise levels commonly found in kennels have been found to cause damage and stress in animals with less sensitive hearing (Sales, Hubrecht, Payvandi, Milligan & Shield, 1997).

Conclusion

Dogs in a kennel environment face unique challenges to their health and general welfare.  The causes for these challenges tend to overlap, requiring great care in identifying and addressing particular issues.

The most pressing concern is the possibility that shelter dogs will be euthanized for non-medical reasons.   Although there are no statistics available to determine the number of dogs that shelters euthanize for medical reasons, the raw numbers suggest that non-medical euthanasia occurs at a high rate.  Short of increasing space, funding and training for shelter staff and volunteers, the most obvious solutions would appear to provide outreach and assistance to owners in the process of surrendering their dogs and to increase the dogs’ chances of being adopted once they are in the shelter.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that interviews with owners who are surrendering dogs to shelters, coupled with assistance in resolving the issues leading to the surrender, would assist them in keeping their dogs at home (Protopopova & Gunter, 2017).  Increasing dogs’ chances of being adopted once in the shelter can be accomplished by human interaction and socialization, coupled with enrichment of their environment and training in basic behavior.  (Luescher & Medlock, 2008).

The next major concern is the risk to dogs’ health. Animals in shelters are at a heightened risk of exposure to contagious diseases due to the density of the shelter population and the varying states of preventative care that the animals received prior to intake.  Steps should be taken to increase the level of training among shelter staff and volunteers in disease awareness and transmission, and to encourage the administration of all recommended and optional immunizations for shelter dogs, regardless of their medical history (Steneroden, Hill & Salman, 2011; American Animal Hospital Association, 2017).

The above steps would also serve to remove causes of stress and anxiety in these dogs, enabling them to interact with visitors and becoming more adoptable.  When it is all said and done, the best way to improve a shelter animal’s welfare is to have a family take it home.

References

American Animal Hospital Association (2017). Vaccination Recommendations – Shelter-Housed Dogs. Retrieved from: www.aaha.org/guidelines/canine_vaccination_guidelines/shelter_vaccination.aspx

Bradshaw, J. (2012, November 19).  The bond between pet and owner. Psychology Today.  Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pets-and-their-people/201211/the-bond-between-pet-and-owner

Cannon, S. H., Levy, J. K., Kirk, S. K., Crawford, P. C., Leutenegger, C. M., Shuster, J. J.,…Chandrashekar, R. (2016). Infectious diseases in dogs rescued during dogfighting investigations.  The Veterinary Journal 211 (2016). 64-69.  doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2016.02.012

Coppola, C. L., Enns, R. M. and Grandin, T. (2006), Noise in the animal shelter environment:  Building design and the effects of daily noise exposure.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 9 (1). 1-7. doi: 10.1207/s15327604jaws0901_1

Grigg, E. K., Nibblett, B. M.. Robinson, J. Q. & Smits, J. E. (2017).  Evaluating pair versus solitary housing in kenneled domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) using behavior and hair cortisol: a pilot study.  Veterinary Record Open 4 (193) doi: 10.1136/vetreco-2016-000193

Hedges, S. (2017).  Social behaviour of the domestic dog.  Veterinary Nursing Journal 32 (9). 260-264. doi: 10.1080/17415349.2017.1333474

Humane Society of the United States (n.d.).Pets by the numbers.  Retrieved from: www.animalsheltering.org/page/pets-by-the-numbers

Laderman-Jones, B. E., Hurley, K. F. & Kass, P., H. (2016).  Survey of animal shelter managers regarding veterinary medical services.  The Veterinary Journal 210 (2016). doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2016.02.007

Luescher, A. U. & Medlock, R. T. (2008). The effects of training and environmental alterations on adoption success of shelter dogs.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 117 (1-2). 63-68.  doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.11.001

Mariti, C., Ricci, E., Zilocchi, M. & Gazzano, A.  (2013). Owners as a secure base for their dogs.  Behaviour 150 (2013). 1275-1294.  doi: 10.1163/1568539X-00003095

Marston, L.C. and Bennett, P., C.  (2003) Reforging the bond – toward successful canine adoption. Applied Animal Behavior Science 83 (3).  Doi:  10.1016/S0168-1591(03)00135-7

McMillan, F. D. (2013). Quality of life, stress, and emotional pain in shelter animals.  In L. Miller and S. Zawistowski (Eds.), Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff (pp 83-92). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell

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The Pandemic’s Impact on Pet Adoption

The pandemic has been affecting our lives for over a year.  With vaccines starting to become available, albeit slowly, there is hope that we may be able to get back to normal – or stabilize at a new normal – some time this summer.  Most US states and major cities implemented restrictions on public gatherings, social occasions, recreation and dining establishments, and other forms of reducing peoples’ exposure to the unique coronavirus, with the effect that we all felt isolated and closed off from our friends and loved ones.

This isolation, with all of us spending unaccustomed amounts of time at home, resulted in a rapid increase in the numbers of people seeking pets for companionship.  Shelters reported a boom in the adoption of all dogs, cats and smaller pets.  The shelters were quite literally emptied of adoptable animals as homebound people adopted pets and rescues were unable to have dogs transported from states with high-kill shelters1.  Shelters also reported that they had to establish waiting lists for potential adopters as their supply was, for once, outpaced by demand2.

In many localities, the increase in animal adoptions was somewhat off-site by an increase in pet surrenders, and families faced the impact that the pandemic had on their finances.   Unfortunately, this often occurred in areas where municipal shelters were under particular strain by the COVID-related loss of revenue in their cities and towns, along with the safety restrictions they were required to put in place.  Shelters helped to mitigate this by increasing the number of dogs and cats that were fostered out to homes that could care for them during the pandemic.3   With more people working from home, there are more opportunities for fostering dogs than more normal times.  However, the rate of pet surrenders is likely to increase as people face eviction or foreclosure as the pandemic continues into 2021.4

So, our shelters are heading into 2021 with a lot of uncertainty regarding their ability to serve their communities.

  • Without a relief bill passed by congress, we may be seeing an increase in evictions and loss of housing among pet owners.4
  • As the pandemic eventually eases, there’s a possibility that the fairly good probability that pets being fostered will be returned to shelters as our society opens up.5
  • As we return to work and our social lives become more normal, we might see an increase in pet surrenders and returns to shelters, as people realize that they do not have time for the dogs they adopted or bought during lockdowns. They may find that they simply no longer have the time required to care for and socialize a dog, or that behaviors such as separation anxiety come to the fore when their pandemic pets are left alone while the owners are working away from home.6

The big take-away from all this is that our animal shelters and rescues are heading into a very risky situation.  There are numerous factors in play that could result in a glut of animals being turned in to shelters, either a result of increased financial and housing hardships or as a result of people returning to normal work environments and having less time for adopted and fostered pets.

 

  1. Pet Adoptions are Outpacing Available Animals During Pandemic, CBS Boston. Retrieved from Pet Adoptions Are Outpacing Available Animals During Pandemic – CBS Boston (cbslocal.com)
  2. Looking to adopt a pet? The wait lists are growing as more people look for quarantine companions, The Denver Post, retrieved from Pet adoptions surge during pandemic with waiting lists surpassing supply (denverpost.com)
  3. A. animal shelters brace for influx of pets as people face financial hardships from coronavirus. Los Angeles Times, retrieved from Coronavirus economic woes could overwhelm animal shelters – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)
  4. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (2020, December 9) ASPCA Estimates 19.2 Million Pets Living in Households at Risk of Eviction or Foreclosure Due to COVID-19 Crisis. Retrieved from ASPCA Estimates 19.2 Million Pets Living in Households at Risk of Eviction or Foreclosure Due to COVID-19 Crisis | ASPCA
  5. Pandemic Leads to Surge in Animal Adoptions, Fostering. Associated Press.  Retrieved from Pandemic leads to surge in animal adoptions, fostering (apnews.com)
  6. As People Return to Work, Those Who Adopted a Dog During the Pandemic Could be in for a Rude Surprise.   Retrieved from As people return to work, those who adopted a dog during the pandemic could be in for a rude surprise (aaha.org)