The Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs, Part One

There is an ever growing amount of scientific evidence demonstrating that animals experience rich emotional lives. Those from ethologists, to behaviorists, to training and behavior consultants, to renowned authors are coming to increasing agreement on the subject. Historically, this has not always been something humans have wanted to acknowledge, to the point of asserting that not only do animals not feel emotion, they also lack the capacity to feel physical pain. A quote from the introduction of a recent study suggests the reaction many of us may be having to that idea…

Sometimes I read about someone saying with great authority that animals have no intentions and no feelings, and I wonder, ‘Doesn’t this guy have a dog?’– Frans De Waal, quoted in The New York Times June 26, 2001

You will be hard pressed to find a dog lover who’d agree with those erroneous, disproven assertions. We have known always, what science has been a bit slower to conclusively show; of course animals feel. They feel pain and they feel an obvious variety of emotion ranging from the positive to the negative. It’s clear in the joy of a dog chasing a tennis ball, the contentment of that sweet face cuddled next to you on the couch, and the myriad everyday experiences we have with our companion animals.

What is discussed somewhat less often are the emotional lives of shelter dogs. Dogs in shelters spend far too much of their time alone, with little to do. Their lives are more stressful and frustrating than is natural or acceptable. Even some of the best shelters can still be loud, chaotic, and frightening places for the animals who live there. To ignore the effects life in a shelter have on the well-being, health, and behavior of these dogs is to do them a great injustice. These effects have been documented for years but they are yet to be a catalyst for the type of widespread in-shelter behavior programming that is needed to address them.

In this wonderful presentation by Maddie’s Institute, Kelley Bollen stresses that, “Keeping them behaviorally healthy is just as important as keeping them medically healthy.” We could not agree with her more strongly. A shelter is never going to mirror the individual attention and support of a home, but it doesn’t have to be a scary or lonely place either. Innovative programs and proactive support can prevent dogs from deteriorating, help them find their homes faster, and make time spent at the shelter more positive both for the animals and for those caring for them. In short, quality of life matters and it matters a lot.

In this two-part series, we examine strategies to positively impact the shelter experience for our sentient friends on four legs.

Enrichment Saves Lives

Enrichment means mental and physical stimulation, an outlet for stress and energy, a chance to use natural instincts, and time for fun. Providing adequate enrichment is one of the single best things a shelter can do to prevent dogs’ behavior from deteriorating due to boredom, stress, and frustration. Done properly, it can create an easier to manage and market shelter population, happier employees, and more engaged volunteers.

*Create a positive kennel space!

Sparse concrete kennels look & feel like doggie jail. Make sure dogs have appropriate beds/comfy bedding, access to fresh and clean water, access to varied enrichment and chew toys, and visual barriers as needed.

*Make feeding time count!

Feed dogs from interactive toys like traditional Kongs, Kong Wobblers, or Buster Cubes. Or, make use of hand feeding where dogs can work for their kibble through training exercises or nervous dogs can have a special way to bond with people.

*Make dog walking (or jogging) a priority!

Dogs in homes go for walks. All the time. It’s a favorite past time for pups and their people. But it is often not made a priority at shelters, either due to liability fears or perceived lack of resources. That is a mistake. Get the dogs out & about! A variety of successful programs, like Austin’s own RuffTail Runners program, are built on the principle that people and dogs like to hit the trails or sidewalks together. Hold a drive for martingale collars, easy walk harnesses, and sturdy leashes (make sure they’re on your shelter wish list too), create a simple training for walkers (include a liability waiver), and get those people and pups moving!

*Create opportunities through partnerships and programs!

During our time managing the behavior program at a local shelter, one of our directors brought in professional TTouch and Doga instructors, while others ran weekly group classes on topics ranging from nose work to clicker training to enrichment games to specific training and behavior goals. Volunteers had bi-weekly classes to bring dogs to where both dog and human could have fun and learn a new skill. Each skill was something volunteers could implement on their own shifts with the dogs.

*Let them socialize with other dogs!

While some dogs thrive in play groups, others do better on 1:1 playdates, while others still prefer group walks or walks with a familiar canine buddy. Dogs with varying levels of sociability to other dogs should be given interaction opportunities that work for them. Not only is this good enrichment, it’s important for their social skills and as a tool to combat barrier frustration and reactivity.

*Agility rocks!

An onsite agility course provides opportunities for enrichment, training, and confidence building. It is a super fun way to work on a variety of skills all in one session and the work you do can be adapted for dogs of different skill, energy, and ability levels. You can often get used regulation agility equipment donated and there are plenty of ways to build your own course on a budget!

*Don’t forget the little things!

Music, different scents, textures, and toys are incredibly easy ways to help enrich life for shelter dogs. Check out this excellent and simple program from Mackenzie’s Animal Sanctuary on how to make the little stuff count.

Training for More Secure Dogs and Higher Adoption Rates

In-shelter training programs, in addition to effective training of staff and volunteers, have been shown in several studies to increase adoption rates for shelter dogs.

*Training of staff and volunteers does several very good things. One of the factors that contributes to making shelters so stressful is the lack of consistency. When volunteers and staff all set the same expectations, use the same handling techniques and cue words, and follow the same protocols and procedures, it helps the dogs feel more secure and enables them to learn and carry out desired behaviors more quickly by virtue of having them reinforced by all of their handlers.

It also gives volunteers and staff a knowledge base that enables them to relate to and handle dogs more effectively (and often, more compassionately) because they better understand their behaviors and how to respond to them. That knowledge can also help them communicate to adopters about a dog’s needs and personality in order to help make successful adoption matches.

*Providing training support and behavior intervention for shelter dogs can boost adoptions and help save lives. Training programs for shelter dogs provide enrichment by their very existence. They can also give the dogs the basic social skills they need to help them show well in the shelter and get adopted: loose leash walking, simple cues like sit/down/come/stay/etc., making eye contact and engaging with adopters, nicely dropping a ball or stick during a game of fetch or tug, waiting nicely at the kennel door, giving an appropriate greeting, accepting petting and handling, and showing off tricks like shake/high five/roll over/etc.

In addition to the fun basics to help dogs market themselves to adopters, training can be the intervention that means the difference between escalating behavior and a long-stay (or worse) dog and a dog who turns their behavior around and makes it out of the shelter and into a loving home. Common behaviors like jumping, mouthing, pulling, reactivity, etc. are all things that a good in-shelter behavior program can successfully address. The key is a robust in-shelter behavior program that works proactively to address these behaviors, rather than waiting until they begin to escalate.

Opportunities for Downtime within the Shelter

This means getting creative. We are big advocates of the concept of “life rooms” built within the shelter. This means rooms built to simulate real rooms in a home. It not only provides an amazing opportunity for downtime for the dogs living in the shelter, it is an excellent way to integrate house-training and socialization for dogs who may never have lived in a real home before or those who just need to brush up on their house manners.

Many shelters also make use of office dogs and even kitchen or laundry room dogs. This allows dogs to spend time away from their kennels with consistent human interaction, and in a space that is much quieter than the shelter at large. We have also had canine massage therapists come do sessions with shelter dogs, as well as trainings for volunteers. Giving a dog a massage may sound silly, but we’ve seen it reduce big chunks of canine energy to drooling, sleeping marshmallows.

Lighting, strategic housing and visual barriers (including removable barriers), and soft music are also simple ways to soften the chaos of shelter life.

Feeling overwhelmed at the idea of making this stuff happen at your shelter? Just take it one step at a time. Pick the idea you like best and start there. Once it’s established, move on to another. Remember that building an engaged volunteer base and creating a flourishing program takes time. Set goals you can reach and keep in mind that doggie kisses go a long way as motivation.

Continue to the second half of this series, where we delve into how off-site field trips, strategic use of foster homes, and effective engagement of volunteers and staff can positively impact the emotional lives of shelter dogs. 

 

*All photos by the wonderful ScarlettBlue Photography.

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