A new study has two major implications for saving the lives of dogs in shelters.

Bully and Mom

Bully with foster mom: Bully came to the shelter when his person, who was homeless, could no longer keep him. According to Kristen Auerbach, the study author, Bully and his person cried in the lobby. After his person was gone, Bully would stay at the back of the kennel and wail. He would also growl at people and stare at them. In the past, dogs like Bully would have been killed. Thanks to a new policy, he is now in a loving home.

I was able to get my hands on a draft of a new study, to be released soon, that tracked dog adoptions at an open admission municipal shelter. It has two major implications for saving the lives of dogs. The first is that adopting a breed neutral adoption policy led to an over 800% increase in pit bull adoptions. The second is that sending dogs who failed an evaluation for aggression into foster care, instead of killing them, saved 90% of those dogs. These are dogs who would have all been killed in years past.

It is also worth noting that because the shelter fell under the jurisdiction of a police department, the program maintained public safety as a primary concern, debunking claims that “liability” and “public safety” require shelters to have stricter rules for dogs visually identified as pit bulls or for medium to large dogs who fail initial temperament evaluations.

Breed Neutral Adoption Policy

The study found that removing adoption restrictions for dogs identified as “pit bulls,” such as requiring mandatory training and home ownership or that the dogs had to be perfect (“ambassadors of the breed”), along with simply treating them like other dogs in the shelter increased the number of pit bulls adopted out. That, in and of itself, is not surprising. What is surprising is how much impact it had. The number of dogs visually identified as pit bulls who found homes after the shelter adopted a breed neutral adoption policy that treats all dogs the same increased by 852%, a nearly ten-fold increase.

Foster Care for “Aggressive” Dogs

Moreover, prior to implementing a foster care policy for dogs of any breed who failed their temperament evaluation, these dogs were also labeled “unadoptable” and killed. Starting in 2013, medium to large dogs who failed their temperament evaluation, but whose aggression was not severe, were instead sent to a foster home for further evaluation to assess whether the behavior was related to being housed in the shelter. This included dogs with, among other things, barrier reactivity, fear-based aggression, resource guarding, kennel stress, prey drive, and bite history. Some of the dogs also had secondary issues including extremely high energy, possible dog aggression, dog selectivity, fear of men, undersocialization, separation anxiety, and reactivity.

Foster homes received training in handling challenging dogs, understood that the dogs they fostered could be killed if the aggression did not resolve, agreed to fully disclose any behavioral issues witnessed and to complete an evaluation at the end of the foster period, and agreed not to use dominance-based behavior modification with foster dogs.

40% of the dogs were in foster care for up to one week, 48% were in foster care between 8 days and one month, and the remainder were in foster between one and eight months. The end result: 90.4% of the dogs were successfully adopted.

The study was conducted at the Fairfax Animal Shelter in Fairfax, VA, under the direction of Kristen Auerbach. Auerbach is now the operations director at the Austin Animal Care Center, which last month reported a 95% save rate.

Bully in foster2

Bully in foster care.

Bully and sister

Bully in his new home, with his new sibling.

When the final study is published, I’ll post it.

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