I previously reported that in Austin, TX, 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%. As the number of Austin residents increased by 21%, the number of overall dogs in the community increased 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%, even as dog adoptions increased by 67%, dog killing decreased by 94%, and killing for “aggression”-related claims declined by 86%.

Is Austin unique? It is not.

As the number of dogs killed by the Pima County, AZ, animal shelter has also dropped, and the number of dogs killed for “aggression” has plummeted to its lowest levels ever, if shelter dogs were dangerous or more aggressive, the number of dogs who bite in the community, the number of dogs who bite in the shelter, and the number of dogs who were adopted from Pima County’s municipal shelter who bite should have correspondingly gone up. They did not.

In 2018, the facility is on track to have the lowest number of annual bites despite the highest live release rate in its history (roughly 90%+). It is also on track to have the lowest number of bites involving dogs adopted out from its facility. Total reported bites in the community have also remained fairly consistent despite declines in killing and increases in adoption and, in fact, they declined in 2017 from 2016.

The analysis of dog bites from Pima County, like the analysis from Austin, shows that saving lives is consistent with public safety.

What are the other takeaways from these two analyses and other studies on shelter dogs and aggression?

1. Not all “bites” indicate aggression. Puppies use their mouths to play and if they break skin, it is legally reportable as a bite. Bites can be accidental. Moreover, “Barking and growling are not isomorphic [synonymous] with ‘aggression,’” writes the editor in chief of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Application and Research. Nor are mouthiness and other behaviors typically labeled as “resource guarding” behavior, “jealousy,” or “aggression.” Often, the dog is just seeking information: “When dogs ask questions of and gain information… in active interactions, tactile exchanges are frequent and complex, often involving mouthing, an activity that humans both misunderstand and actively discourage…” In other words, dogs are asking questions to understand their environment in the only way their biology allows—through a complex series of barking, growling, tail wagging, posturing, and sometimes mouthing—and because we don’t understand those complex interactions, we often falsely conclude they are or acted aggressively.

2. Traditional temperament testing does not accurately predict aggression and therefore does not protect public safety. Shelters should use a more thoughtful, and now proven, protocol, similar to the one developed by myself and others.

3. Killing more than 1% of dogs in shelters for “aggression” likewise does not protect public safety as a 98% live release rate for dogs is consistent with public safety (as is a 99% rate which Austin held in 2017). In other words, the percentage of dogs who are truly a threat to public safety is incredibly low (less than ½ of 1% of all shelter intakes).

4. Even if some “aggression” is involved, it can almost always be rehabilitated.

The Austin analysis is available by clicking here.

The Pima County analysis is available by clicking here.

The larger discussion is available by clicking here.

The recommended protocol is available by clicking here.

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