When Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB, started working at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1988, his animal behavior colleagues were a bit confused.

“After I moved to the ASPCA,” explains Zawistowki, ASPCA Science Advisor Emeritus, “I continued to attend Animal Behavior Society conferences. Folks would say, ‘Didn't you study genetics and behavior in flies? What's up with the ASPCA stuff? Is there any science to do there?’”

Maybe you’re wondering the same thing. Animal shelters are typically not thought of as institutions of science; they are places where dogs, cats, bunnies, and a litany of other animals find themselves for any number of reasons (just earlier this month, Animal Care in Brooklyn took in a cow who got out of a slaughterhouse. Jon Stewart then brought the cow up to Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY). Many companion animals who enter the animal shelter system are adopted into new homes or transported to other rescue organizations that facilitate adoption. Where’s the science?

On closer inspection, scientific inquiry does have a role in the history and development of the animal sheltering field. “When academic colleagues asked me what is was like working in shelters,” says Zawistowski, “I told them it was like being Darwin going to Galápagos. Everywhere you looked there was something to measure or describe and questions to pose.”  

Animal shelters were not born out of science. As Zawistowski explains in his book Companion Animals in Society, when Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA in 1866 in NYC, he was concerned with the treatment of work horses as well as the treatment of dogs and cats caught by poundmasters. At the time, unwanted or stray animals were routinely killed “in the most convenient fashion…. Clubbing, strangling, and drowning were among the most common methods employed.” Around that time, in Philadelphia, Carolyn Early White was behind the first humane shelter which took in and cared for stray dogs and cats and worked to find them homes. The animal-sheltering system that grew in the USA in the 20th Century served two main roles: providing homeless animals with care and protection, and protecting the general public from dangers like bites and zoonotic diseases.

Scientific questions about animal relinquishment and animal care and management gradually became part of sheltering, with much work published in peer-reviewed journals like Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. Today, there is even a veterinary specialization in Animal Shelter Medicine. As Zawistowski explains, over time shelters tried to get a better sense of the animals coming in: “How many animals were coming in? What kinds of animals? What happened to them? And why were the animals coming into the shelters?”

Over time, shelter data and statistics began to shed light on—and even challenge—assumptions about relinquishment. Zawistowski highlights some of the findings: “puppies and kittens were not a primary source of relinquishment; behavior is an important reason for relinquishment—but not as significant as sometimes thought (i.e., some folks were claiming that 90% of relinquishments were a result of behavior problems); the role of owner-related personal questions (i.e., illness of the owner, financial issues, moving, and housing problems); and, of course, that pets given as gifts are not at increased risk for relinquishment.”

Heather Mohan-Gibbons and Emily Weiss of the ASPCA further discuss reasons for relinquishment in the book Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff: dogs coming into shelters tend to be between 5 months and 2 years and intact (Salman et al., 1998; New et al., 2000) and are more likely to be housed outside or untrained (New et al., 1999; Scarlett et al., 2002). Financial issues and lack of pet-friendly housing were also identified as drivers in pet relinquishment (Weng & Hart, 2012; Weiss et al 2014). Findings like this highlight the importance of projects like Ruff Riders (Facebook), a grassroots project supporting pet owners living in under-served neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Ruff Riders “delivers free pet food/supplies, facilitates basic veterinary care and spay/neuter, provides transportation, and shares pet-related information with individuals who have trouble accessing and/or affording these services.” Pets for Life, through the Humane Society of the United States, has a similar objective.

Studies find a link between relinquishment and normal dog behaviors that people can find frustrating, from hyperactivity and chewing to aggressiveness and separation anxiety. Companion dogs seem to do best in the home when they’re equipped with the skills that people expect out of, you guessed it, companion dogs. For example, while people prefer that dogs pee and poo outdoors, despite thousands of years of domestication, this, sadly, is not a skill dogs are born with; individual dogs have to learn where “to go.” Although house soiling is continually identified as a reason for relinquishment, it is a problem that can be resolved. In some cases, house soiling is a medical issue. In other cases, dogs can learn to go outside just as you learned to go inside.

Socialization and learning opportunities seem to help dogs stay in the home. In 2003, Duxbury and colleagues published a study finding that dogs who participated in puppy socialization class were more likely to stay in the home than dogs who had not taken a similar class. Mohan-Gibbons and Weiss astutely point out that “this data can be interpreted in many ways; it could be that those that attend classes are more bonded to their puppy and that the class itself increases the bond between puppy and person. It is also possible that the behavior and life skills the puppy learns in class increase the behavioral tendencies that help improve the bond (comfort with other dogs and people).” Regardless, early life socialization and learning are seen as just as important as physical health; organizations like the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior state that “it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated” (AVSAB 2008).

Understanding and preventing behavior problems are high on the list of research questions. While studies find that professional advice can be associated with decreased behavior problems, many people do not seek professional assistance. Just this month, for example, Emily Blackwell and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research investigating the effect of providing dog adopters with written behavioral advice on separation anxiety (SA) and separation-related behavior (SRB) problems. Adopters were either given written advice designed to prevent separation-related behaviors in their new home (treatment group) or given advice about healthcare (control group). While the researchers highlight that compliance with the advice was generally poor, “dogs in the control group were more likely to show signs of SA/SRB than those in the treatment group, and hence the provision of written advice to adopters appears to be effective in reducing the development of SA/SRB after rehoming.”

Writing off dogs in shelters as “damaged” or “problematic” draws an incorrect conclusion. In addition to the many identified reasons why dogs wind up at shelters, what is a behavior problem for one person is not necessarily a problem for the next. Mohan-Gibbons and Weiss highlight that “relinquishment may have more to do with the person’s perspective of the behavior than the actual behavior itself.” Books like Love Has No Age Limits: Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home by Patricia McConnell and Karen London focus on providing adopters with realistic expectations and the tools to welcome an adolescent or adult dog into the family. But McConnell and London are also realistic, “We would love to tell you that every dog can flourish in every home, but the truth is that, no matter what you do, sometimes a dog and family are not a good fit.”

Many commonly cited behavior problems can often be modified. Even dogs with more serious fear- and undersocialization-related challenges can change their tune (a topic covered in the last post about work at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center). This next video features Muenster, a graduate of the Center who was rescued from a puppy mill. He learns to enjoy human handling with the help of cheese (which is hilariously wonderful)!

Next up in The Science of Animal Shelters series: What are shelters like for dogs? What is being done to enhance their shelter stay and help them on their way to new homes?

This is the third post in 'The Science of Animal Shelters’ series. Post 1: The Science of Animal Shelters: An Inspirational Series, Post 2: Second Chance Dogs: Part Love, Part Learning [Video]

Blackwell et al. (2016). Efficacy of written behavioral advice for separation-related behavior problems in dogs newly adopted from a rehoming center. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 12, 13—19.

Clark & Boyer (1993). The effects of dog obedience training and behavioral counseling upon the human-canine relationship. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 37, 147—159.

Duxbury et al. (2003). Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance of puppy socialization classes. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 223, 61—66.

Mohan-Gibbons & Weiss (2015). Behavior Risks for Relinquishment. In E. Weiss, H. Mohan-Gibbons, S. Zawistowski (Eds.), Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff. Iowa, Wiley Blackwell.

New et al. (1999). Moving: Characteristics of dogs and cats and those relinquishing them to 12 US animal shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2, 83—96.

New et al. (2000). Characteristics of shelter-relinquished animals and their owners compared with animals and their owners in US pet-owning households. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 3, 179—201.

Patronek et al. (1996). Risk factors for relinquishment of dogs to an animal shelter. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 209, 572—581.

Salman et al. (1998). Human and animal factors related to the relinquishment of dogs and cats in 12 selected animal shelters in the United States. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 1, 207—226.

Scarlett et al. (2002). The role of veterinary practitioners in reducing dog and cat relinquishment and euthanasia. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 220, 306—311.

Weiss et al. (2014). Large dog relinquishment at two municipal facilities in NY and DC: Identifying targets for intervention Animals 4, 409–433.

Weng & Hart (2012). Impact of the economic recession on companion animal relinquishment, adoption, and euthanasia: A Chicago animal shelter’s experience. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 15, 80–90.