Bonnie, a case study of the Austin Animal Center behavior protocol.

Directors of killing shelters have long resisted lifesaving innovation by avoiding accountability for their own failures and claiming that saving more lives requires putting people in mortal danger. “We don’t want to adopt out animals that will turn on people,” said one director in response to complaints about high rates of killing. “We can’t send out any animal that will bite someone, especially a child.” This response is nothing new. In 1974, Rutherford Hayes, the then-President of the American Humane Association argued that most dogs should be “put down.” To do otherwise would lead to dogs “attacking children in schoolyards.”

But is it true? Does No Kill put public safety at risk?

Studies of shelter dogs, combined with the experiences of the most successful shelter directors in the country, prove it is not and it does not. A peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that “Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter… are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general.” And since bite rates that involve enough force to cause an injury and require hospitalization occur with only 0.01% of all dogs (or roughly 1 in 10,000), the conclusion appears inescapable: shelter dogs are not a threat. Indeed, one shelter director with experience at municipal agencies taking in as many as 30,000 animals a year says that “the percentage of truly aggressive dogs I have seen in small to very large shelters is well under one quarter of 1%.”

In a second study conducted at a municipal shelter, roughly 90% of dogs who failed a temperament test that suggested they were aggressive and were subsequently sent to a trained and qualified foster home for further evaluation and behavior modification were rehabilitated and safely adopted.

In Austin, Texas, the killing of dogs deemed “aggressive” has declined significantly over the years: from 2009, the year before the City mandated a minimum 90% live release rate at the shelter, to 2015 the rate dropped from 7% to 1%. At the same time, the live release rate for dogs climbed from 69% to 98%. That means that roughly 2% are killed, including those killed for medical, rather than behavioral reasons. In 2016 it was even lower. In the first half of 2017, it was still lower.

The significant increase in the live release rate, and corresponding decrease in the death rate for behavior dogs was made possible, in part, thanks to better processes at the city shelter, partnerships with groups like Austin Pets Alive, other rescuers, and the hard work of a lot of staff, volunteers, rescuers, and others making a lifesaving difference in the City. It was also done safely thanks to a groundbreaking behavior protocol, initially implemented on a pilot-project basis, which was co-written by Kristen Auerbach, then-Deputy Director of Austin Animal Center, and myself. That protocol, expanded and released in the No Kill Advocacy Center’s Animal Evaluation Matrix, was designed to do several things.

First, it was designed to overcome the lack of predictive ability in traditional temperament testing regimes which have been found to be “no better than a coin toss,” leading to a loss of life with no corresponding benefit to public safety. Second, it was designed to save more dogs. Third, it was designed to save more dogs without putting public safety at undue risk. In fact, the protocol specifically noted that “dogs who pose a threat to public safety are not candidates for adoption” (while simultaneously acknowledging our movement’s need to further embrace long term rehabilitation efforts or permanent sanctuary care for such animals). We were seeking to put rigor in the determination of whether dogs were dangerous in an industry that historically, and in most cities, frequently lacked it as necessary to adequately protect animal life. 

From the baseline year prior to the City Council mandate to achieve a live release rate of at least 90% (it hit 98% for dogs in 2016 and 99% for the first half of 2017 before Auerbach’s departure to take over sheltering operations in another city), the number of dog adoptions at Austin Animal Center increased by roughly 67%.

At the same time, the number of Austin residents increased by 21%. This corresponds with an increase in the number of overall dogs in the community as well. Because of the the increased number of residents and dogs in the community, the number of moderate and severe dog bites should have also increased regardless of live release rates at the shelter. But they didn’t.

The percentage of dog bites deemed moderate or severe declined by 13% with the greatest decline in the number of bites classified as “severe,” which declined by 89%. That trend holds over longer periods going back nearly 20 years in Austin. To the extent dog bites increase, they increase proportional to the growing population of humans and dogs. But accounting for increases in the live release rates does not yield significance in the area of moderate to severe bites.

Combined with increased dog adoptions (a 67% increase), decreased overall killing (a 94% decline), and decreased killing for “aggression”-related claims (an 86% decline), the only way severe dog bites could have also declined, rather than increased, was if the protocol was working as it was designed to. In other words, the protocol was accurately determining when a dog could be safely placed.

What does this mean for sheltering?

It means traditional temperament testing does not accurately predict aggression and therefore does not protect public safety. It means killing more than 1% of dogs in shelters for “aggression” likewise does not protect public safety. It means that No Kill is consistent with the mandate to protect public safety. It means that a 98% live release rate for dogs is consistent with public safety (as is a 99% rate which Austin held in 2017 until Auerbach’s departure). In short, if a shelter is killing more than 1-2% of dogs for aggression, it has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with archaic notions of adoptability and regressive shelter practices.

Relevant Sources:

Auerbach, K., Placing Medium and Large Breed Shelter Dogs with Behavioral Challenges in Foster Homes: Results and Outcomes, https://goo.gl/XnDxXU. It is worth noting that because the shelter fell under the jurisdiction of the police department, the program emphasized public safety as a primary concern.

Patronek, G., et al, No Better Than Flipping a Coin: Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evaluations in Animal Shelters, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.08.001.

Rae, Doug, Personal Communication, Humane Society of Fremont County, CO, Sep. 27, 2016. For the first eight months of 2017, the municipally-contracted, open admission shelter has a live release rate of 100% for dogs.

No Kill Advocacy Center, Animal Evaluation Matrix, nokilladvocacycenter.org/matrix.html (Sep. 2017).

In addition to the above, sources include CDC data on dog bites requiring hospitalization, as well as intake, disposition, and bite records from Austin Animal Center. 

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