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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Big Dogs

Big dogs are a challenge for many animal shelters. In my conversations with shelter directors, whether the shelter is large or small, urban or rural, public or private, No Kill or still striving for No Kill, one thing I hear a lot is that large dogs are the toughest group to get out the door alive.

Why is that? I hear several reasons. One is that people will more readily adopt what Rich Avanzino calls the “cutes and cuddlies.” A different way of saying this is that there is a disproportionate number of big dogs coming into shelters relative to the demand for them. Another issue with big dogs is that the stakes are a lot higher in temperament testing with a large dog than a tiny one. And finally, most pits and pit mixes (so called) are medium or large dogs, and there is still a lot of prejudice against blocky-headed, muscular, short-coated dogs.

Several shelters that I’ve followed on the blog as they transitioned to No Kill seemed to hit a wall, or at least a slowdown, when they reached an 80-85% live release rate for dogs. In some cases this slowdown has resulted in local advocates becoming frustrated with the shelter, and the relationship between advocates and the shelter has deteriorated. Even shelters that are saving over 90% of dogs may be sharply criticized by local advocates due to the shelter’s performance in placing large dogs.

Many times when a shelter makes a decision to euthanize a large dog, the deciding factor is temperament. The concern with large dogs is especially acute because of their ability to inflict more damage. In the old days 20 years ago or more, when shelters were saving only a small percentage of their animals, the temperament of shelter dogs was not a big issue because any dog with an even slightly questionable temperament was simply killed. As we have saved a higher and higher percentage of shelter dogs, the issue of temperament evaluation is looming ever larger. Any time you have a group of shelter directors together, one of the most popular topics of discussion will likely be how to decide if a dog is safe to adopt out.

Dr. Emily Weiss is a behavior expert who has written extensively about dog temperament evaluation in the shelter environment. Dr. Weiss is associated with the SAFER test, which is, to say the least, not popular among many No Kill advocates. SAFER as it was originally developed was just intended to be one tool in assessments. A few days ago the ASPCA announced that it would no longer certify people for SAFER use. My impression in reading the announcement is that ASPCA officials are frustrated with people not using the assessment consistently in the way it was intended.

Beyond the SAFER controversy, Dr. Weiss has written many thoughtful blog posts on issues of temperament testing for shelter dogs. She recently wrote a blog post that summed up the current state of behavior evaluations for shelter dogs. In the blog, titled “Taking Risks,” she notes that even among experts “there is little agreement as to where to draw the line” between a dog that is safe to adopt out and one that is not. As she says, the stakes in making these decisions are very high – err on one side and an adoptable dog loses its life. Err on the other side and a dog that is a danger to people or other animals is adopted out into the community.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma, because dog behavior will never be straightforward to predict and because the circumstances that dogs face are so variable. The situation is not hopeless, though, and people continue to press forward with new ways to get at the problem. In Dr. Weiss’s most recent blog post she mentioned an experiment done at the county shelter in Fairfax County, Virginia, which gathered some very interesting data.

The experiment was overseen by Kristen Auerbach, who is now at Austin. In this program, shelter dogs with issues including fear aggression, kennel stress, barrier reactivity, and resource guarding were placed in selected foster homes. The outcomes were great, with many of the dogs showing different behaviors outside of the shelter. Over 90% of these problem dogs were able to be adopted out successfully and safely. A similar program was in effect at the Austin city shelter when Auerbach arrived earlier this year, and she hopes to collect data from that program as well and to publicize it to a wider audience. Studies like this are important because they quantify what happens with dogs under standardized conditions.

The data collected by Auerbach also has implications for the importance of properly designed shelter buildings. How much of the temperament problems we see in dogs is simply due to the unnatural conditions of the typical shelter? If the fearful and stressed dogs could be given their own, homelike quiet space within the shelter and if the barrier-reactive dogs could be housed without the type of barrier that causes the reaction, perhaps those problems could be successfully dealt with inside the shelter. And of course a good shelter design facilitates activities for dogs who need to burn off energy and gain social skills, as with Aimee Sadler’s Playing for Life program.

No Kill is only a little more than 20 years old at this point, and we are still learning. The issue of safe placement of dogs who show problematic behavior in the shelter, particularly large dogs, is difficult, but a lot of talented people are working on the issue and progress is being made.


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