Unmasking the Shelter Dog
The suggestions that black dogs are frequently overlooked for adoption, or that animals given as gifts are more likely to be given up, are just a couple of many theories becoming increasingly entrenched in our language, and these are having a serious effect on the operation of many animal shelters. This article from the Journal for the American Veterinary Medical Association, notes that scientists are working hard to verify whether these ideas have any substance in fact or if they are simply myths. The central theme of the piece is that there are no “shelter dogs” or “shelter cats,” but instead each animal in a shelter is an individual being that needs to be considered as a separate case.
Theories such as “Black Dog Syndrome” can have a serious impact on the rehomeability of dogs in shelters, who need all the chances they can get to be seen as adoptable. In addition to re-evaluating what makes dogs and cats adoptable, researchers have also been working on “refuting certain assumptions about prospective and current owners that could be hampering adoption and retention.” “Behavioral scientists and shelter professionals are disproving many such myths,” states this article in the Journal for the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA). The idea is to have a clearer picture of animals in shelters, so that they are no longer viewed as “damaged goods.” Instead each animal should be seen as an individual with specific needs and challenges facing them. While most shelters have very limited resources, “there is more need today to identify and manage behaviors in shelters and an increasing number of dogs being handled by grassroots networks.” To aid the process, a textbook is being released in 2015, entitled “Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff.”
The JAVMA article notes that there are important surveys being carried out by animal behaviorists such as Dr. Amy Marder, who works for the ASPCA in New York City. Her past study found that “even though 99 percent [of clients] said the problem [with their companion animals] was severe, most had never entertained the idea of giving up the pet, and none had considered euthanasia. Those findings underscored the strength of the owners’ attachment and advocacy, something that animals in shelters were lacking.” Dr. Marder now works with the ASPCA to re-evaluate polices that may lead to the euthanasia of adoptable shelter animals. There is said to be “a lack of science to back [shelter policies].” She found that many shelters have been “euthanizing animals that were food guarders or showed whale eye, for fear they’d maul toddlers.” Indeed, some of the statistics are staggering. In a study of 77 shelters, Dr. Marder found that “the 71 [shelters] that assessed for food aggression reported that 14 percent of their dogs showed food guarding behavior during an assessment. Only 34 percent of the shelters tried behavior modification, and 51 percent made no attempt to adopt out these dogs.” Instead of these kinds of blanket policies, the article notes that animal behavior in shelters can be approached in a more nuanced and individual way.
The piece notes that, when looking at ways to make companion animals more adoptable, it is important to know what the public wants from their animals. “People are keeping dogs with significant behavioral issues,” says Dr. Marder. “It’s time for us to take off the veil in terms of us deciding what they want.” Understanding why people adopt and continue to keep companion animals, is a huge part of the equation. Giving all animals in shelters a chance at being adopted through more nuanced policies or by providing in-shelter training, can lead to far fewer euthanasias and much better adoption rates. These types of questions are of vital importance for companion animal advocates who wish to see both of these outcomes. Tailoring advocacy based on evidence rather than emotion will likely lead to more effective results.
Black dogs don’t get adopted. Animals adopted to be given as gifts are usually returned. And dogs that engage in warning behaviors such as whale eye and food guarding should never be offered for adoption. Behavioral scientists and shelter professionals are disproving many such myths while working toward a future where more animals are regarded as adoptable and fewer are euthanized. Researchers are also refuting certain assumptions about prospective and current owners that could be hampering adoption and retention. According to these experts, the idea that there are “shelter dogs” and “shelter cats” is itself a distortion, implying that homeless animals are different from their counterparts with homes and feeding the notion that these animals are damaged goods.