Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Homeless Youth With Pets Are Less Depressed Than Those Without

A survey of homeless youth finds that pets bring benefits – and difficulties.

Homeless youth with pets report better mental health

23% of homeless youth have pets, according to research by Harmony Rhoades et al (University of Southern California). The team surveyed 398 homeless youth at two drop-in centres in Los Angeles. While previous studies have shown that pets can be very important to homeless young people, this is the first quantitative study to look at pet ownership, mental health, and the use of services amongst this group.

88% of the young people in the study had attended the drop-in for food during the previous month. Other services they had used included clothes (69%), job help (52%), housing (49%) and health services (47%). Of those with pets, dogs were most common (53%) followed by cats (22%). Other pets included a hamster, rat, chinchilla and iguana. 

“Companion animals provide emotional support and represent important, loving relationships in the lives of many homeless youth,” say the authors. 

Pet owners had lower scores for loneliness and depression, and reported many benefits to having a pet. 85% agreed that “my pet keeps me company,” 79% said the pet “makes me feel loved,” and 73% said the pet “makes me feel safe.” 

There was no difference in having been hurt or threatened on the street, but those with pets were more likely to report having carried a weapon. There were also no differences in being hit or seeing someone be hit at home. However, amongst those who were living with family, there was a trend for those with pets to be more likely to experience or witness violence in the home. This suggests some young people may be staying in a violent situation because it’s better for their pet.

The biggest difficulty for those with pets was that half of them (49%) said it was harder for them to stay at a shelter. Most shelters do not allow pets. Although those with and without pets were equally likely to be living on the street, only 4% of those with pets were staying in a shelter or housing program, compared to 17% of those without pets.

Other problems included it being tricky to find housing (16%) and hard to see a doctor (11%). Those with pets were less likely than those without to have accessed some services (housing and job help) but not others (including food, clothes and health services).

While 60% said they made sure their pets ate before them, a few reported difficulties getting enough food for their pet (11%) and almost a quarter (23%) agreed that “strangers give me a hard time for having a pet.” Most of them did not find it easy to see a vet. These findings show that programs that provide pet food and vet care are an important service for homeless youth.

Homelessness includes a range of circumstances. 49% of the participants in this study were living directly on the street and 14% were in a shelter or program for the homeless. Of the other housing situations, some were staying with family, friends, or a romantic partner. 

Many of them had experienced violence; 55% reported being hurt badly in a fight in the past year, and 46% had been hit at home.

Against this backdrop, the fact so many said their pets protected them and helped them feel safe and loved suggests pets are playing an important role. The authors say, “Housing and other services must be sensitive to the needs of homeless youth with pets.”

Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., & Rice, E. (2014). Pet Ownership Among Homeless Youth: Associations with Mental Health, Service Utilization and Housing Status Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 46 (2), 237-244 DOI: 10.1007/s10578-014-0463-5

Photo: Brad Steels /

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Shelter Dogs Live Up To Expectations (Mostly)

Testing behaviour in the shelter is tricky, but most people who adopt a dog would do so again. 

Friendliness and fear were assessed by the behavioural test

Animal shelters often assess the behaviour of dogs before rehoming them, but because the tests are not always scientifically validated, Mornement et al (2014) developed the B.A.R.K. protocol. Results of the B.A.R.K. on 74 shelter dogs successfully predicted in-home ratings for fear and friendliness after the dogs had been adopted, but not anxiety, activity level or compliance. A follow-up paper by Kate Mornement (Monash University; Pets Behaving Badly) et al takes a closer look at how the shelter assessment compares to new owners’ ratings about four months after adoption.

First, the good news. All the new owners said their dog was part of the family, 96% said their new dog adapted to their home well or very well, and 71% said the dog met their expectations. Most dogs were friendly to visitors, and the most common occurrence of most behaviour problems was “never”, including fear of strangers, escaping, food guarding and resource guarding.

But the dogs weren’t perfect, because 72% of owners said there was a behaviour they would like to change – most commonly destructive behaviour, fear, barking too much and pulling on leash.

The B.A.R.K. was tested to see how well it matched up to behaviours in the home. The list of potential behaviour issues was grouped into three using a statistical technique called principal component analysis. The B.A.R.K. predicted results on one of these - fearful behaviour and inappropriate toileting – but it did not predict problem behaviour or aggression. 

In fact, 24% said their new dog had shown aggression, defined as growling, snapping or trying to bite a person (16% “rarely”, 7% “sometimes” and 1% “often”). This is surprising because none of the dogs had been aggressive at the shelter (if they had, they wouldn’t have been deemed adoptable). 

One possibility, say the scientists, is that aggression is not as fixed as other behavioural traits (e.g. fear) and is difficult to assess because it does not occur very often. Another possibility is that dogs suppress aggressive behaviours in the shelter because of the stressful environment.

But it’s also possible the general public is less aware of canine behaviour and body language, and so behaves differently than shelter staff and volunteers. 39% of the new owners had done no research on dog ownership/behaviour before getting the dog. The scientists suggest shelters engage in educational activities and post-adoption support, including a “shelter dog manual” for adopters.

Companionship was the main reason for adopting a dog, either as a companion for themselves (51%), for another dog (16%) or for a child (10%). The death of a previous dog (11%) or exercise (4%) were other reasons given. 

61% chose to adopt from a shelter “to rescue a dog/save a life” (61%); 15% wanted an adult dog and 11% don’t like pet shops. The factors that went into a decision included the dog needing a home (88%), the dog’s behaviour (88%), personality (88%) and size (82%). The type of coat and appearance were important for some people but not others.  

Most people said they would adopt from a shelter again (76%) and found the process positive (70%). 
“If people are considering adopting a dog they need to research the type of dog that would best fit their lifestyle,” says Dr. Mornement. “For example, a couch potato shouldn’t adopt a working breed because they’re unlikely to meet the dog’s needs for exercise and mental stimulation.

“Other things potential adopters should consider are how much time they have for their dog (to provide companionship, exercise and training), whether they’re prepared to groom their dog, will they take their dog to training or sport dog activities. 

“Shelters can help adopters to make the right choice when choosing their dog by making a good match between adopter and dog and ensuring adopter’s expectations are realistic. Providing post adoption obedience classes and/or phone support to overcome any issues can help support successful adoptions.”

The authors suggest further research to investigate if dogs that are fostered, rather than kept in kennels, have fewer behaviour problems in new homes, and if assessments work better in this setting. 

This important study highlights the issues of assessing dog behaviour, and the difficulties of conducting research in shelters where time and money are in short supply. Mornement et al conclude by saying, “A holistic approach including assessment of behaviour pre-shelter, in-shelter and post-shelter, together with stress-reducing enrichment and rehabilitation training may assist to provide a more complete picture of canine behaviour and adoptability.”

How does your dog compare to your initial expectations?

Mornement, K., Coleman, G., Toukhsati, S., & Bennett, P. (2015). Evaluation of the predictive validity of the Behavioural Assessment for Re-homing K9's (B.A.R.K.) protocol and owner satisfaction with adopted dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 167, 35-42 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2015.03.013
Mornement, K., Coleman, G., Toukhsati, S., & Bennett, P. (2014). Development of the behavioural assessment for re-homing K9's (B.A.R.K.) protocol Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 151, 75-83 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.11.008
Photo: Julia Siomuha (

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Finding out if shelter dogs are friendly: testing the B.A.R.K. protocol

Research shows the challenges of assessing behaviour in shelter dogs.

A test of the B.A.R.K. protocol for assessing shelter dogs

We know our pets well. My dog Bodger is bouncy and friendly; he sits to be patted, then jumps up with a surreptitious kiss; he likes zucchini and hates thunder. We form these observations through time spent with our dogs. But at animal shelters it’s not so easy. How do you assess the temperament of a dog you’ve only just met?

Research by Kate Mornement (Monash University; Pets Behaving Badly) et al investigates this problem. Many shelters in Australia (and elsewhere) use assessments that are not scientifically validated, so the team set out to develop and assess a new test of canine behaviour. Such tests are often used to make decisions about whether or not dogs are adoptable, but the results show they may not be as useful as people think.

The scientists looked at tests already in use, convened a focus group of relevant experts, and developed the behavioural assessment for rehoming K9s (B.A.R.K.). It is a two-part test with 12 subtests that assess the dog for anxiety, friendliness, fear, compliance, and activity level. It is designed to see how dogs behave in situations equivalent to real life, and to be safe for shelter staff to carry out. 

Having designed the test, it was time to see how well it worked.  

“I think the results mean that we need to be really careful about how we interpret the results of behaviour assessments conducted in shelters,” says Dr. Mornement, “especially if these are only done once and the results are used to inform adoption/euthanasia decisions. Our study showed that results can vary over a 24 hour period. In addition, research tells us that the shelter environment is stressful for dogs. This means the results of in-shelter assessments may not be indicative of behaviour in the home environment.”

48 adult shelter dogs of 23 breeds or mixes were assessed using the B.A.R.K., including JRTs, Kelpie crosses, Labrador crosses, and Australian Cattle Dog crosses. They had had at least 3 days to adjust to the shelter first. All were considered safe for the researcher to work with (already assessed as adoptable (39 dogs) or deemed friendly).

One thing we want from a test is that different people should be able to do it and get the same results. This is called inter-rater reliability.  This is important because in a shelter environment, it won’t always be the same staff member assessing dogs. Here, the test did well; there was good agreement between the two testers on all five of the traits. The highest levels of agreement were on fear, anxiety, and compliance.

Another thing we want is that if the same person applies the test to a dog on two different occasions, the results should be the same. This is called test-retest reliability. So the dogs were tested once, and then again 24 hours later. Here, the results were not as good. The best results were for fear, anxiety and activity level. The results were weaker for friendliness and compliance.

Finally, we also really want to know if the test tells us how dogs will behave in a home environment after adoption. This is called predictive validity. 74 dogs were assessed after being at the shelter for 3 days, and their new owners completed a survey several months after adoption. The telephone interview asked them to rate the dogs on each of the 5 behavioural traits. 

There was agreement between the B.A.R.K. scores and owner ratings for fear and friendliness. However, it did not predict activity level, anxiety or compliance. So the predictive validity is “quite weak.”

These results are surprising given the care taken to develop the B.A.R.K., and show the challenges of assessing canine behaviour in a shelter environment. The scientists say the stress of arriving at the shelter may affect dogs’ behaviour on the test, and recommend strategies to help promote successful adoptions, including obedience classes for new owners and the use of foster carers by shelters. 

Dr. Mornement says, “I’d encourage shelters to seek help from behavioural experts in developing and/or reviewing their assessment protocols. Recent research has progressed our knowledge and understanding of shelter dog assessments and it’s important that shelters continue to refine their methods to determining adoption suitability. This will help to ensure best practice and safeguard the welfare of the dogs in the shelter system.”

This research is especially important because of the weight placed on shelter assessments, and it shows we need a better understanding of what makes a successful canine adoption. 

Come back next week to learn more about how new owners rate their adopted dog.

Mornement, K., Coleman, G., Toukhsati, S., & Bennett, P. (2014). Development of the behavioural assessment for re-homing K9's (B.A.R.K.) protocol Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 151, 75-83 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.11.008
Photo: Kellymmiller73 (
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Wednesday, 13 January 2016

How Audiobooks Can Help Shelter Dogs

New research shows listening to audiobooks can help dogs waiting for adoption.

Audiobooks help shelter dogs be calm and get more sleep

Imagine how it must feel to be a dog at a shelter, taken from your normal environment for reasons you don’t understand, with unfamiliar smells and noises, including other dogs barking. Could the sounds of music or a person reading help? A new study by Clarissa Brayley and Tamara Montrose (Hartpury Animal Behaviour College) tests audiobooks and music to see if they calm the dogs, and finds beneficial results from audiobooks.

The study compared an audiobook – specifically Michael York reading C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – to classical music (The Best of Beethoven), pop music (Now 88), specially-designed dog music (Through a Dog’s Ear), and a control condition of no added sound.

“Shelters frequently are stressful environments for dogs,” says Dr. Tamara Montrose, “and any reduction of this stress is beneficial for their welfare. In our study we found that audio-books enhanced resting behaviours in dogs which is suggestive of reduced stress. Dogs are highly social animals who value human contact. We believe that audio-books approximate human interaction for these kennelled dogs and that they benefit from the illusion of company and comfort provided by the audio-books.” 

“Besides these beneficial direct effects on dog welfare, audio-books could also indirectly help dogs in shelters. By reducing the dogs’ stress this may help reduce behaviours such as excessive barking or activity which can impact upon rehoming and so audio-books may potentially help encourage adoption of these dogs.”

31 dogs took part at the Blue Cross Burford rehoming center in Oxfordshire, UK. They were aged from 9 months to 13 years, and had been at the shelter for 51 days on average. All the dogs took part in all of the conditions. 

Regular kennel life continued during the experiment: the dogs spent time outside in the morning (while their kennel was cleaned) and for an hour in the afternoon, had a walk each day, and were fed two or three times a day (depending on the dog). 

Kenelled dogs were less stressed when listening to the audiobook
The music or audiobook was played for two hours during a quiet time in the morning. Video cameras were set up to monitor the dogs’ behaviour, which was sampled every 5 minutes.

The dogs rested or slept more when the audiobook was playing compared to the other conditions, and spent less time sitting or standing. In fact they were resting or sleeping 15 times (out of 24) during the audiobook, compared to an average of 7.7 during the pop music.

Dogs barked less during the audiobook compared to music. Howling, growling and whining were less during the audiobook compared to pop music and the control. The dogs also walked about less during the audiobook compared to pop music, special dog music and the control.

During the classical music, dogs walked about less and vocalized less, but it was not as good for welfare as the audiobook. Earlier studies have found some benefits from classical music being played in kennels (e.g. Kogan et al 2012) so it’s interesting the audiobook did much better here. 

Some shelters have programs in which volunteers read books to dogs. Playing an audiobook could be a good alternative when volunteers aren’t available. The dogs have probably not heard audiobooks before, and the researchers say the narrative delivery is likely to be more interesting than regular conversation. So although dogs don't appreciate the fine writing and the plot, they do enjoy the engaging human voice.

Further research is needed with more examples of each genre, so we know the results pertain to audiobooks in general. It would be interesting to know if dogs prefer the same book repeated over time, or like new books to listen to. Maybe it would also work for shelter cats. 

This is a very promising study because it suggests a low-cost way to reduce stress in shelter dogs. 

Does your dog like audiobooks?

Brayley, C., & Montrose, V. (2016). The effects of audiobooks on the behaviour of dogs at a rehoming kennels Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 174, 111-115 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2015.11.008
Photo: Janis Maleckis (