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Meeting the Individual Needs of your Shelter Dogs

Jacque Lynn Schultz, Director, Special Projects, ASPCA

Every Dog Counts – Meeting the Individual Needs of your Shelter Dogs

As shelter workers, we are used to making decisions based on what is best for the whole group. Shelter veterinarians practice herd health care. Animals with drippy noses or honking coughs are removed and often euthanized for the sake of those housed around them. Food is often ladled out with little concern for the size and activity level of the caged inhabitant, while all puppies under a certain age get an additional daily feeding. Treating our dogs as “the masses” may be efficient on the surface, but we lose the opportunity to see each dog’s individuality. If we wish to make lasting matches and do our best for the animals relinquished to our care, it behooves us to learn who they are so we can meet their unique needs.

Owner relinquishment forms can capture information on the dogs’ likes and dislikes, fears, favorite toys and games, and level of training. Even if the dog comes in as a stray, there are ways to glean this knowledge. Behavior assessment tools such as the Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming (SAFER test) or the Assess-a-Pet test are fairly predictive of the dog’s behavior under stressful conditions when executed as designed. The Canine-ality Assessment in the ASPCA Meet Your Match (MYM) program captures information on arousal levels, sociability, play preferences, energy level, house manners, focus, motivation and drive. Test scores can form the basis of a behavior modification treatment plan to employ while the dog is at the shelter and identify individuals best suited for transfer to a rescue group or foster home. Dogs that receive “supervisor alerts” on the MYM assessments will need some one-on-one work with a trainer, behaviorist, experienced kennel staff or knowledgeable foster family before joining the others on the adoption ward.

Canines that pass their dog-to-dog assessments can be paired up together based on size, age, and play style for safe, supervised work-outs in the shelter’s play/exercise yard. Dogs that have their social and energy needs met are likely to be less reactive when they return to their cages, resulting in a quieter kennel and less stress on all who enter.

Does your staff move adoption-ready dogs into the first available cages or do you scrutinize your ward layout and occupants and place dogs in the cages that best meet their needs? Choose the right cage and the dogs will be more readily adopted. Identify which corners are the darkest and the lightest. Dark dogs should be placed in the cages with the best light, while light-colored dogs with unique coat patterns will be adopted out of even the darkest of cages. The shy dogs quaking at the backs of their cages will be grateful for the quiet corners. Those with dog issues or cage-guarding tendencies should be in low traffic areas so they don’t have as many chances to practice their bark-and-lunge routines.

Don’t overlook the quiet mature dogs. Often victims of a family’s change in circumstances, they feel lost and confused in the tumultuous goings-on of shelter life. Give them time away from the kennel hubbub by letting them spend time in one of the offices. Snuggling up under someone’s desk and receiving the occasional scratch behind the ear will go a long way toward keeping their spirits up. By seeing each shelter animal as an individual, we can play to their strengths, work on their challenges and match them up with adopters searching for the dog that’s just right.

Keep these thoughts in mind:

The majority of visitors will adopt one of the first ten dogs they see and most have come in to adopt a puppy. Unless your shelter is swimming in canine youngsters, make sure potential adopters pass by all the adult dogs before they get to view the puppies. They might just fall in love with an older dog before getting to the puppy area. Colorful toys and bandanas brighten up cages and bring out the dog’s playful side. Reserve the most colorful patterns and eye-catching toys for the plainest-looking dogs (i.e. all the black Lab mixes), but make sure all dogs have a size-appropriate chew toy or plaything.

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