Avoiding Bites In Shelters

Working or volunteering in a shelter is a rewarding but sometimes challenging job. No matter how lovely a shelter might be in terms of design, the animals housed within its walls will still experience the stress that comes from abandonment and transition.  

 

Stress has a profound influence on behavior and a significant impact on even the calmest of dogs. While some dogs might shut down in a shelter environment, others will express their discomfort by showing fear based aggression, and while this is expected in a shelter setting, it can be very difficult for staff and volunteers to work with. 

 

Aggression is an effective way for a dog to increase the distance between itself and a stimulus it perceives as a threat, and the act of aggressing is often reinforced by positive consequences for the aggressor, because the stimulus frequently moves away and leaves the aggressor alone. 

Every dog’s emotional well-being should be taken into account in a shelter environment and every handler needs to be aware of each dog’s unique needs, especially if a dog is showing nervous or aggressive type behavior. Every staff member and volunteer should have a basic understanding of body language and should be able to answer the following questions. What are the signals that indicate a dog is nervous or uncomfortable? How do you approach a nervous dog correctly? How do you handle a nervous and/or aggressive dog and take it out for a walk?

 

Most bites on people occur when dogs are being removed from a kennel run, especially when space is tight and dogs are barking on both sides. Arousal levels are high in these situations and nervous dogs can be quickly overwhelmed. The vulnerability these dogs feel from others can cause them to display defensive and offensive behaviors, including frustrative or fear based redirected bites on people handling them.

 

Correct kennel placement is vital for nervy dogs. These dogs do best being placed in a run where there is less traffic and where they can be easily taken outside without walking past other dogs. When removing a sensitive dog from a kennel run, go as slowly as you can, using a slip lead that limits the need to handle the dog’s head and body, and where appropriate use food in the form of squeeze cheese from a plastic tube that puts distance between your hand and the dog’s mouth as you are walking him outside. Do not ‘wear’ your food unless you know each dog’s reaction to it, as hungry dogs might react negatively to the smell of food on your body.

 

If a certain dog makes you nervous, don’t be a hero and listen to what your body is trying to tell you. If you are scared of a particular dog, ask another member of staff or trained volunteer to handle the dog for you or ask someone else to help. Two handlers are much better than one in many situations. Your kennel approach should be slow but confident, and high value food can be used to refocus the dog’s attention unless he becomes too aroused or stressed to eat.  Gently slip the lead over the dog’s head and walk him slowly out of the kennel.  Most shelters require a double lead system on every dog to avoid incidents of dogs slipping out of ill-fitted collars. Harnesses are not recommended in shelter environments unless needed for medical purposes, or the dog is very friendly and used to being handled.

 

Keep a behavioral log and a card system which tells handlers to check the log before they handle a nervous dog, so that every handler has as much information on each dog before handling them. Avoid touching touch-sensitive areas including the top of the dog’s head, tail, stomach and paws, and watch for tension and body freezing. It is best to take pressure off the dog altogether by limiting physical contact.

 

Behaviour assessments can be used to gather information about a dog’s behavior but is not a predictor of future behavior. The aim of an assessment is to provide the assessor with an understanding of a dog’s likely response to a range of different stimuli pre and post adoption, by testing the dog in a number of contexts and situations within the shelter. An assessment is a snap shot of behavior at a particular time in a particular environment. To gain a clearer picture of behavior, a full history pre-shelter should be taken if known, and a behavioral log kept during the dog’s length of stay. Assessments should ideally take place over a few days and should never be done when the dog is too hungry, is feeling unwell or is too stressed.  

 

New dogs should have time to acclimatize to shelter life before any assessments are done. Every dog is different, but in general, assessments should be done about 3-5 days after the dog’s arrival. Longer stays can increase stress levels so assessors need to take this into account. A written report should be made and a video added if needed by the shelter.

An assessor’s job is to observe behavior in different circumstances, but they should avoid recommendations for what should happen to the dog post assessment. An assessor should comment on what they see during an assessment and advise staff on the likelihood of any negative behaviors being seen in the shelter or in the future in different contexts. It is up to shelter staff, veterinarians and other shelter employees to determine what happens to every dog post assessment, realizing that there are no guarantees for behavior. It is also advisable that all assessors/trainers should have the shelter director sign relevant paperwork to protect them from any liability that might occur during or after the assessment.

If a dog bites a person in the shelter or is relinquished because of a bite history, a special color coded card should be placed in the behavioral log and on the kennel door to limit handler interaction. A certified trainer should be called to do further assessments on the dog unless the bite is very severe and euthanasia is being considered.  If a dog is adopted with a bite history, transparency is very important. Staff and volunteers tend to have their favorite dogs, but should be honest about that dog’s behavior and take time to find an appropriate home, while taking the family’s well-being into consideration as well as the dog’s.

No one wants to euthanize a healthy animal but sometimes difficult decisions need to be made for everyone’s safety. Many dogs can be helped with careful teaching and a behavior modification plan, but you must be prepared for a bad prognosis if the dog has a long bite history and a very low threshold for aggressive response, or if bite incidents have become more severe and frequent. If the aggressive behavior cannot be successfully redirected or has become more unpredictable and is occurring in many different environments or situations, there is less likelihood of success.

If bite injuries have caused slight bruising or minimal wounds, the behavior has only recently begun and a dog has a higher threshold which makes an aggressive response more predictable, manageable and avoidable, the prognosis is much better for that dog. Make sure that all dogs are given a full medical check up to ensure that aggressive behavior is not linked to pain or some other medical problem.

Dog bites in shelters are unfortunately very common, but if preventative procedures are put into place and everyone follows a plan, bites can be limited and the dog’s chances of success greatly increased.


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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


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