Time with a Person Benefits Fearful Dogs in Shelters

For fearful dogs in shelters, 2x15 minute human interactions per day over 5 days improves scores on a screening test and makes most of them be classed as adoptable.

Enrichment time with a person helps fearful dogs in shelters pass a test of adoptability. Photo shows woman petting dog on couch
Photo:  Lightfield Studios/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Arriving at a shelter is a stressful experience for any dog. For fearful dogs, being unable to escape from something threatening – such as a person entering the kennel – can cause them to show aggressive behaviour such as growling. New research by Regina Willen (HALO) et al, published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, shows the effectiveness of an enrichment program in helping such dogs be classed as adoptable.

The scientists write,
“While fearful dogs in shelters are vulnerable, the vulnerability is not inevitable. Providing relatively brief human interaction in a quiet area with other elements of enrichment (e.g., treats, toys) can be a powerful means of reducing the aggressiveness of these animals, and appears to also improve their affective state, at least under the conditions tested with our cognitive bias procedure.”
Many shelters use a standardized screening test called The Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming (SAFER) to assess whether dogs are aggressive. The test exposes dogs to situations such as eye contact, touch, having the paw squeezed, and their food bowl being moved while they eat*, to see how they react.

Fearful dogs often fail. The test is designed to be just one of several measures used to assess dogs, but in busy shelters where staff are pushed for time, dogs who fail on this assessment are often euthanized.

For the study, dogs were assessed within 24 hours of arriving at the shelter and were classified as fearful if they showed behaviour such as avoiding eye contact, cowering at the back of the kennel, panting, and so on. When approached, they growled, leaned away, had a low posture, and would not look at the person. Aggressive dogs (e.g. tail up, moving towards the person) and those with a bite history were not included in the study.

For fearful dogs in shelters, 30mins a day human interaction improves test scores and optimism
Lightfield Studios/Shutterstock

In a series of three experiments, fearful dogs and non-fearful dogs were assigned to either a control or enrichment session for 5 days. Then they either had a SAFER assessment or, in the last experiment, a test of optimism in dogs.

Almost all of the non-fearful dogs passed the SAFER test, regardless of whether they received the enrichment. However, only a minority of the fearful dogs in the control groups passed (33% in experiment 1 and 13% in experiment 2). When they took part in the enrichment program, however, the majority passed the test (77% in experiment 1 and 94% in experiment 2).

In the cognitive bias test (experiment 3), dogs were trained that a bowl in one location always controlled a treat, while a bowl in another location never did, then tested to see how they would respond to a bowl in an ambiguous location.

Fearful dogs needed more training time than non-fearful dogs prior to the actual test. Fearful dogs who had received the enrichment had a much faster latency to reach an ambiguous bowl than those in the control group, suggesting they were more optimistic that a reward would be there. (Another example of cognitive bias tests is in a study that found nose work increases dogs' optimism).

Surprisingly, the non-fearful dogs who received enrichment had a longer latency to reach an ambiguous bowl than those in the control group. However, it seems unlikely that the enrichment program made them pessimistic; it seems more likely that in an ambiguous situation, they preferred hanging out with the human they were used to receiving petting from.

The enrichment program involved two 15-minute sessions per day in a quiet room with a person who would pet them and interact with them if they approached. The room was designed to be like a room in a house, including carpet and a couch. Classical music was playing, and the scent of lavender was diffused into the room, as previous research has shown these to be beneficial for shelter dogs. There were several dog toys, and small treats were available. If the dog did not want to interact with the person, they were free to sit quietly or explore the room.

The enrichment sessions were conducted by an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist, and the scientists note that it would not be safe for someone without appropriate expertise to conduct the enrichment. For some of the fearful dogs, it took many times of the person going by and throwing treats before they were able to leash the dog and take them to the room (for a handful of dogs, this did not happen until day 2).

Although it would be ideal for the cognitive bias test to be conducted by a different person than the one who provided enrichment, this was too scary for the fearful dogs, and so the same person had to do this part of the study too.

Because the shelter was busy, the SAFER tests were sometimes conducted by shelter staff a day early or 1-2 days later than designed, but this worked out roughly equally across the different groups. The study took place at one shelter, and additional research is needed to see if other shelters would find the same.

The results show that a short enrichment program consisting of human attention in a pleasant environment is effective at increasing the number of dogs who pass the SAFER test. This is very important because it increases the proportion of fearful dogs that are considered suitable for adoption, and therefore also able to experience volunteer programs (e.g. dog-walking) whilst at the shelter. This result is in line with other research that found a short petting session improves well-being in shelter dogs.

Fearful dogs who took part in the enrichment also showed more optimism, a sign of improved welfare. Overall, these findings suggest that more could be done to help fearful dogs in shelters, and enrichment time with a suitably-trained person is a good way to do so.

Are you involved in a shelter enrichment program, and if so, what is it like (e.g. dog walking)?

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

You might also like:
Eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe
How to pet cats and dogs

* N.B. At home, do not remove your dog's bowl while they are eating as this is associated with resource guarding behaviour.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Willen, R. M., Schiml, P. A., & Hennessy, M. B. (2019). Enrichment centered on human interaction moderates fear-induced aggression and increases positive expectancy in fearful shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 217: 57-62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2019.05.001

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