‘Outside of the shelter, she’s just a dog’

To anyone outside of the world of shelter behaviour, the words ‘Outside of the shelter, they are just a normal dog’ probably cause a moment’s thought and not much more.

For those of us in sheltering though, that simple phrase sums up one of our biggest challenges – how do we tell the difference between a good dog with a current lifestyle problem, and a problematic or dangerous dog who is also struggling in the shelter?

Much like the phrases ‘I could never do that job because I love animals too much’, and ‘Go with your gut when assessing a dog’, the words ‘Outside of the shelter, she’s just a dog’ are emotional triggers for me. I hear them and stop, take a few breaths and pay deliberate attention to the context in which they were said, because often they are spoken by caring people who are genuinely unaware of the power of their words.

Yet, the most recent time I heard those words, I took a deep breath and let myself relax. This time, the words were confirmation that the literal months of hard work our team had put into finding the person for that particular ‘grey dog’, the one in the featured photos, was the right call.

That the hours I spent teaching her new owner how to listen to her and how to reconnect with her when she thought we weren’t listening, were worth it, because she falls on the ‘tricky but not particularly dangerous’ end of the grey dog spectrum.

She’s intimidatingly big, both physically and in her opinions, and incredibly effective at communicating her ‘get away from me’ message, but is not out to hurt anyone and simply needed a human who listens. And rather than the weeks I was expecting her to take to re-settle back into life as a pet after half a year in the welfare system, she was making new friends with 24 hours of going home.

The truth is though, that despite her story being an exemplary representation of many core challenges for shelter dogs – the impacts of poor handling and welfare-unfriendly housing on behaviour, poorly designed ‘temperament tests’, the widespread lack of welfare literacy in our sector, and the differences possible when a skilled team of professionals works together to improve her welfare, unpack who she was as a dog, and transition her out of a kennel safely – she just got lucky.

Millionaire lottery jackpot lucky, and because of that, half a year on from her heading home and getting on with her life with a kind person who perhaps needed her as much as she needed him, her success is not an example I use of where we should be headed in animal welfare.

More importantly, I would not for a moment think negatively of anyone who did not have access to, or chose not to, devote the sheer mountain of time and resources required to create a positive outcome for a dog like her. In fact, for many organisations, my professional advice would be that they use their limited resources differently and focus on creating successful outcomes for a greater number of easier dogs.

She got lucky and I’m grateful for that, because I have a huge soft spot for her and outside of the shelter she is just a dog.

As so often happens in the push for progress, the pendulum on in-shelter animal behaviour assessments is currently swinging hard between the extremes – do we adopt out all the dogs who growl and flash their teeth at us and hope that they become normal once in a home, or do we only send the so-called ‘easy dogs’ back out into society?

Like a Newton’s Cradle, the momentum created when an end ball swings back, reverberates through the balls in the middle creating an equal and opposite reaction at the other end. All the while, the apparently stationary spheres in the middle cop a repeated whack with each successive swing.

In the realm of dog behaviour assessments within shelters and pounds, this push and pull of extremes is fought most passionately over the ‘grey dogs’. Those dogs who aren’t clearly easy, nor demonstrably dangerously or anxious beyond help. The ones who, in the event of a management failure, aren’t killing, mauling, or otherwise severely injuring themselves or anyone else, but for one reason or another are pretty good at scaring humans.

For some dogs, the stress of shelter life shows up in behaviour symptoms of poor welfare – grumpiness from poor quality sleep, increased reactivity towards people and other animals, increased protectiveness over valued resources, and like many of us when we are ‘running on empty’ and being constantly triggered, just being more intolerant of life’s challenges no matter how small they seem to others.

So often, these are dogs with ‘big opinions’, who are experiencing intense emotions and doing everything they can to clearly communicate what they need in the only language they know – canine. They look away, they physically avoid, they lift their lips and show their teeth, they growl and they snap, and if they happen to be physically large or particularly scary looking, they sometimes get far ‘bigger’ reactions from the humans involved than they were intending… and it snowballs from there.

Other dogs ‘stress down’ rather than ‘stressing up’, so barely show any of their true selves in the shelter. These dogs are often difficult to identify amongst the ‘easy dog’ crowd in a shelter environment – they are the reason I started on my journey so long ago!

Some dogs are really robust and just don’t seem to notice the angst surrounding them much – the easy dog crowd.

And some dogs come from challenging situations so life in the shelter is comparatively good. They look around, settle in, and enjoy a regular meal, a warm safe bed, and some new human friends. At least until chronic confinement stress and lack of autonomy kicks in.

The various ways that individual shelter dogs (and cats) cope are a great example of mammalian coping strategies – the basic personality traits that underlie how we respond to stressful situations (Note: For a more in-depth discussion of how coping behaviours affect behaviour assessments, see this review paper).

And that’s the rub when assessing shelter animals, because when we are asking ‘Who are you?’, the answer is often ‘I’m stressed and can’t tell you right now’.

Historically, this has meant that many animals who are perfectly normal pets outside of the shelter have died for failing provocative ‘temperament tests’. More recently though, ‘shelter stress’ has become a bit of a catch-all reasoning and defence for any and all undesirable behaviour displayed by an animal – because outside of the shelter they might be ‘just a dog’.

And that matters because pounds, shelters, and rescue groups across Australia house hundreds of dogs across the spectrum of ‘stressed and opinionated but harmless’ to ‘one management failure away from tragedy’, and collectively, we are doing a really poor job of working out who is who.

The problem with ‘dogs with opinions’ in shelters is that most humans, including experienced trainers unfamiliar with shelter work, can’t reliably tell the difference between a tricky but decidedly non-dangerous dog and a dog who has every intention of harming others, with only shelter behaviour to go off.

Shelter behaviour professionals need to be able to ‘take the welfare temperature’ of a dog on the spot. To be fluent in asking ‘How are you coping with life right now?’ then changing their interpretation of what they are seeing and their plan of action, according to the answer. It’s not simply training and behaviour modification, it’s a constant cycle of asking, assessing, adjusting, acting, then repeating until we’re pretty sure we know who we are dealing with – all under time pressure because the cumulative effects of shelter stress are present in even the best facilities in the world.

Welfare considerations aside, the longer the animal’s welfare is compromised, the harder it is unravel the puzzle.

Assessing behaviour in shelters is complex and the best of best in our field can’t do it perfectly. So, while most Australian brick and mortar shelters have animal housing that does not meet evidenced-based guidelines for humane short term care, while professional education across our entire sector is woefully undervalued by government and organisational decision makers, while the brand new and only shelter-specific formal education we have is taught by organisations outside of our sector, and while we are not actively fixing the core issues that create an unhealthy environment for our people and lead to constant ‘talent churn’, we must temper our expectations and balance accountability with support.

Every ‘grey dog’ who goes home and after a few days of solid sleep and some time to find their bearings, then turns out to be a loving and very much average pet dog, feeds the niggling ‘What If’ fairy sitting on the shoulder of anyone involved in or directly affected by behavioural euthanasia of shelter dogs.

So naturally, the push for taking more risks and placing more ‘grey dogs’ intensifies.

For every ‘grey dog’ placed in a home who turns out, at the expense of the adopters, the dog, and whoever else was involved, to be decidedly not grey at all with traumatic and tragic results, the push for more accountability and empathy for adopters and our communities intensifies.

And so, the ‘Newton’s Cradle’ of shelter dog behaviour assessments swings on.



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