Preventing Shelter Dog Deterioration 

Long term, inappropriate kenneling creates neuroses in shelter dogs, resulting in repetitive or severely inhibited responses; multiple signs of extreme stress, self-preoccupied behaviors; increased care soliciting or care rejecting behavioral patterns; resistance to being returned to the kennel; snapping at the leash or while being leashed; food bowl guarding; suspiciousness, restlessness, and excessive vocalizations; trembling; digestive, skin and other health problems; engaging in behaviors such as upsetting food or water bowls; appearing overly active or inhibited; and sometimes becoming hyper-aggressive. Neurotic dogs are more likely to remain too long in shelters and risk being killed. The main contributing factors which cause the development of this disorder in shelter dogs are intense restraint and confinement; inability to express normal behavior; monotony; frustration; inappropriate feeding protocols; shelter crowding; inescapable aversive stimuli; hunger; unresolvable motivational conflicts; irregular schedules; no safe person; lack of basic affection; repeated encounters with unfamiliar people and animals which do not engage in successful greetings. All of this upsets their metabolic and psychological homeostasis and blocks their return to normal behavioral expression. Here are preliminary steps to take:

Prevent Visitor Access To Kennels. It is abnormal and threatening for a social species like a dog to have strangers pass by their kennels. Dogs are driven to greet strangers, and to be deprived of normal greeting behaviors is disturbing. Imagine how you would feel if strangers entered your home without knocking and without you having a say as to whether they were welcome. You’d be quite upset. Only regular staff and volunteers should have access to the kennels. Visitors can be interviewed in a greeting area and Buddies (see below) can bring out potential dog matches to greet potential adopters.

Train And Supervise All Staff And Volunteers. I have seen, and heard, of too many dumb things people do with animals in shelters. Not only have I heard of staff purposely threatening dogs to see if they will react aggressively (as if this is an appropriate way to evaluate dogs), it isn’t unusual for dogs to be treated roughly. Kennels need 24/7 web cams to record what is going on to hold people accountable for the shelter rules and training guidelines. Rough treatment makes dogs aggressive. There is no excuse for shelters not knowing how to prevent and treat shelter dog deterioration. In many jurisdictions, while rarely enforced, neglect is forbidden in the local and state laws.

Enrichment. Most of the time the enrichment we hear about is a dog getting a bone stuffed with peanut butter. That isn’t enrichment. Enrichment, properly used and defined, is giving a dog opportunities to display normal, friendly, interesting, fun behaviors. The opposite of restraint / confinement is Enrichment. Dogs that are trapped psychologically and physically will eventually “crack” (my term). Dogs that are prevented from doing dog things break down medically and psychologically.

Reduce Frustration. Dogs have biological needs. If you block a dog from satisfying those needs, you put a dog in emotional conflict, and frustration builds up. That frustrated emotional energy must go somewhere, and if there is no normal outlet, the dog breaks down. For example, assume that every kennel environment is extremely stressful for every dog. That stress often comes because of fearful stimuli: surprises, strangers; other alarmed dogs and their reactions; sterile holding cells; etc. Stressed dogs don’t eat well, so they start losing weight. Now, they are not only highly stressed, but they are also fasting. Is it any wonder why shelter dogs start guarding their food bowls? They are hungry, and the only source of comfort is that bowl. The peak of hunger is the third day the dog engages in fasting, and the dog is now put in a conflict between fear and hunger, setting the stage for a future breakdown. Or imagine the frustration of a house trained dog that is now forced to potty where it lives and sleeps. The combination of these triggers extremely stress the dogs and contributes greatly to why dogs “crack”.

Increase Space. Most kennels are too small. The smaller the space, the more the crowding around the dog, the greater the probability that the dog will “crack”. A similar concern is the noise level and pitch. Obnoxious, shocking, distressing, startling sounds surround all the dogs in a shelter kennel and there is no way for the dogs to avoid or escape. You may have heard of experiments on shelter animals and the use of soft classical music vs. hard rock vs. no music. The soft classical music seems to result in fewer distressed vocalizations. Similar results have been indicated in farming operations. Shelter dogs need to be able to control their needs for privacy. Imagine being threatened on all sides and no way to sleep in peace without being stared at, threatened, or disturbed.

Create A Buddy System. Every dog should have a couple of human Buddies. These are the daily caretakers of that dog, either staff or volunteers. The dog needs to know, like and be friends with these people. Their presence will help inoculate the dogs against the stresses and make the dogs more adoptable. Buddies should take the dogs out of the kennels at least twice a day. The Buddies should do a daily weight test; be there alongside each dog to encourage them to sufficiently feed outside the kennel; introduce the dogs to a companion dog that will live with them in the kennel (also another way of inoculating the dogs against stress); give any daily medications; keep kennel records for that dog; be the ones to do the introductions to potential new owners; advocate for those dogs and ensure their stay is humanely managed; immediately begin to clicker train the dogs to do a few basic responses such as Sit, Come, Down, and Heel; be with them when the dogs are doing enrichment activities; read and act proactively regarding the daily medical reports on their assigned dogs; ensure the dogs get adequate daily exercise; provide daily handling, petting, grooming and massage; and follow up on adoption inquires.

There are numerous other steps that can, and should be implemented, but this list is a good starting point. It is important to consider that Pavlov’s dogs tended to break down after castration: they had a harder time learning, being calm, or remembering past learning. I think we should reconsider fixing dogs until after they are out of the shelters and settled in their new homes. There are new methods for fixing dogs without removal of the sexual glands; I think that option should be tested as an alternative. Next, we should discuss how to introduce a dog into a new home if the dog is coming with signs of kennel deterioration. The first steps are rest from stressful environments, gentle and predictable handling, and getting the dog back up to normal body weight. Stay tuned for more…

Intro Video