More Space: Doing Right By Shelter Dogs
Dogs are social pack animals that often thrive on contact with humans and other dogs. Because of this, dogs that enter the shelter system have it hard, as they spend large amounts of time alone or in pairs within kennels, having limited contact with people. In addition, depending on the amount of resources and space that the shelter has, the kennels may also be small and barren. Many shelters do their best to give the animals additional enrichment and stimulation, but it is often a factor determined by manpower and economics.
For no-kill shelters, the problem of limited space and providing enrichment can be especially difficult. By the nature of the system, some dogs can spend more time housed in the shelter waiting to be adopted, and the effects of the restricted space and limited stimulation can have a negative impact on the behavior of the dogs which ends up affecting their potential to be adopted. Still, space costs money, and expanding infrastructure and enrichment is not cheap or easy.
A study published in the journal Behavioral Processes looks at the measurable impact additional space and enrichment can have on shelter dogs. Interestingly, the authors note that even though a number of past studies have considered the effect of cage size on the behavior of shelter dogs, most have reported inconclusive or neutral results. Occasional research has shown that dogs that have more space show less stereotypy, and that dogs given less space often spend more time manipulating cage barriers and compulsively grooming. In this study, researchers kept pairs of dogs in two different settings, one nine-meters-squared and the other eighteen-meters-squared. The enrichment conditions (a fabric bed and a plastic basket) were kept constant in both settings. Their aim was to see how the space allowance affected the shelter dogs’ behavior.
The researchers found that an increase in space resulted “in a higher level of general activity in dogs.” Though this increase in activity is sometimes considered to be “ambiguous” because it could be seen as agitation or an expression of stress, in this study, the increase in space was also accompanied by a marked increase in positive social interactions among the dogs, something the authors said was “less likely to be ambiguous.” They note that the beneficial potential of this increase in positive social activity cannot be understated, as it not only denotes that the quality of life for the dogs is improved, but it is also likely that the dogs may be more adoptable. The researchers state that “showing positive interactions towards toys, mates, and people is an important part of increasing a dog’s appeal to potential adopters.” They add that “people prefer dogs [that] are alert (i.e., moving, standing, sitting) rather than non-alert (i.e., resting or sleeping), quiet rather than barking, at the front, as opposed to the back of the cage, and hosted in stimulating and complex rather than empty environments.”
The findings of this study may seem obvious to many advocates who will be aware that dogs tend to fare better in a shelter if they are given more space. Though it may seem odd for research to look to produce data that backs up insights that we may intuitively already know, it is important to keep in mind the dynamic between scientific data and changes in policy. This kind of study allows us to provide solid evidence to educate and persuade those who are responsible for creating and supporting the infrastructure of kennel environments.