New Study: Scared Dogs Are Not “Aggressive”

Dog pounds are killing scared dogs by claiming they are “aggressive” because those dogs are failing their temperament evaluations. In one pound, as many as 82% of scared dogs failed their test and were therefore tagged for killing.* They shouldn’t fail and they shouldn’t be killed, according to a new study.

The study found that just a small amount of enrichment — being spoken to softly, given treats, petted, and played with — can result in dogs passing those tests. After just five days of being treated kindly “nearly all” fearful dogs passed the test. This is true even for dogs deemed “potentially quite dangerous” at the beginning of the study. Without enrichment, eight out of 10 failed and were killed.

Why? Animal “shelters” are very stressful places for dogs: “Even in well-managed and funded facilities, dogs are likely to encounter an array of stressors including noise, unpredictability, loss of control: disruption of routines:” and unfamiliar people and surroundings.

For dogs picked up on the street, the stress includes the added trauma “of capture and transportation to the shelter”; whereas for dogs released by their families, there is also the impact of “the sudden absence of a human attachment figure.”

Since these dogs “are unable to escape from the source of their fear,” they respond in the only way biology allows: barking, displaying, guarding, and when cornered, defending.

After five days of enrichment, the scared dogs not only nearly all passed their evaluations, they did better on cognitive testing, too, by responding to commands because they were more confident and more attuned to what people wanted and expected of them.

Shelters, therefore, should not allow new dogs to sit in their kennels alone. From the moment they get admitted, they should be given human contact (slowly, if need be, at the outset) with (at least) 30 minutes of enrichment per day.

When I ran shelters, all dogs were required to get out of their kennels a minimum of four times per day, including walks, off-leash fun, dog-dog play, and splashing around (we built a pond for the dogs and had kiddie pools).

Without enrichment, pounds are setting dogs up for failure. And death.

Of particular note, the authors warned, consistent with other studies, that using temperament tests alone to make life and death decisions was unreliable and should not be done. This is too conservative a conclusion, as a literature review of 25 years of such studies, the most comprehensive ever undertaken, called for a moratorium on their use because they are fatally flawed. In other words, it’s well past time to throw out the fake hand, the doll, the food bowl takeaway, and the loud knock on the door.

The study, “Enrichment centered on human interaction moderates fear-induced aggression and increases positive expectancy in fearful shelter dogs,” is here.

* Failing 82% of dogs, even those deemed fearful at the start, is pernicious. The particularly pound where this study was conducted is regressive, with a long, ignoble history of neglect. The result, however, strengthens the conclusions of the study since nearly all of the dogs subsequently passed when they were treated kindly. At shelters not looking for reasons to kill dogs, less than ¼ of 1% of dogs have been deemed “aggressive,” which itself might be too high. Even then, virtually all can be rehabilitated, the vast majority fairly quickly, and those who need further attention can be placed in long-term care facilities like sanctuaries to receive that attention.


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