Oh Behave … - Little Orange Buddha
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Oh Behave …

Part four in an ongoing series of saving Chicago’s healthy and treatable animals

I am owned by six cats. This is humbling. One of my cats is a troubled soul. If you look at the 17-year-old calico the wrong way or tell a bad joke, she will bite you — let’s just call her “Kate” to protect her identity. She’s been nasty since kittenhood. My other cats are nice. But in certain situations, they transform into spitting hell-fire demons, especially when they are removed from their home. Unlike Kate, their behavior is affected by their environment. Kate, well, Kate’s just mean. She is loved very much no less, and her behavior is safely managed. Many of us have pets with a quirk or two.

Pets enter municipal shelters like CACC for various reasons: Some because they are aggressive and have bitten people or other pets (these are usually euthanized soon after arrival); others because landlords won’t permit them, or the pets are unwanted or can no longer be cared for. The majority are stray so little is known about them upon intake, and some are confiscated for abuse or neglect. Some are brought in to be euthanized, usually because of health or behavior. Some dogs are impounded while they await a dangerous dog investigation pursuant to Chicago Municipal Code 7-12-050. Some are undergoing a 10-day rabies observation for biting, and returned to their owners afterwards. Sometimes people are honest about the reason for surrendering their pet; and sometimes they are not. The shelter must determine for the animals that become City property, which are appropriate for adoption, rescue, or euthanasia.

If a shelter commits to saving its healthy and treatable animals, the devil in the details becomes what a community will accept as treatable behavior, and what animals will be considered rehabilitatable and what behaviors manageable. And where the heck did those terms come from anyway! (Please check out the origins of these terms here.)

What is important to understand is that these terms though a good starting point for civil discussion are somewhat relative, and that a community plays a very important role in determining what the terms will connote. For example, communities that permit feral cat programs would not consider a feral cat unhealthy and untreatable, and thus not a likely candidate for euthanasia at a municipal shelter. Given the relativity, these terms have their limitations, and are somewhat in the eye of the community beholder, but they have laid out at least some common language to discuss how decisions can be made about animals in a shelter setting and how these decisions will be recorded. The terms also evolve as a community evolves its thinking: What might have once been considered unhealthy and untreatable in a municipal shelter setting, like parvo or ringworm, may become treatable if the resources present themselves in the form of money or partners.

If indeed a municipal shelter has adequate capacity, i.e., adequate kennel space, the tricky question becomes when will it be acceptable to euthanize for behavior or temperament, and when will it not? Most people agree that when a dog unpredictably attacks, or bites and causes serious injury, or has uninterruptible drive, that the dog could pose a risk to public safety, and should be euthanized. Dogs with known serious issues like these were euthanized at the City shelter, if they were City property.

With regard to just about everything else, most people will disagree, and euthanasia decisions based on what is perceived as treatable behavior have proved controversial. This is perhaps the topic, in addition to treating all dogs as individuals, that needs a lot more consensus-building within our community — and more resources directed toward it.

What is a treatable behavioral issue?

What is a “treatable behavioral issue” is perhaps a question that is the most difficult to answer. I’m not an expert in dog behavior, although I’ve read a lot about the topic. From being very hands-on with shelter dogs for more than a decade, I’ve had an opportunity to observe the following:

  • No one can predict dog behavior 100 percent of the time, or guarantee that a dog will never growl or bite — moreover, these are not aberrant dog behaviors in certain circumstances.
  • A dog’s kennel presence, for the most part, is not a reliable indicator of who a dog is once outside of a kennel, but can provide some information, such as how a dog might be when crated or in kennel, or the stress level of an animal in shelter.
  • Fearful and stressed animals might growl and, sometimes bite.
  • That bites are breaks in the skin, and can be anything from very minor scratches to severe tears in the skin and muscle.
  • That dogs can be friendly with some dogs and not others, or very friendly with dogs, and enjoy their company.
  • That some dogs are unpredictable, and not predictable in their unpredictability.
  • That leash testing is not always a predictor of how a dog will be with another dog.
  • That not all dogs enjoy the company of other dogs, but have gone on to make great companions for people and great family pets.
  • That formal behavioral evaluations provide some information, but are not necessarily predictive of behaviors outside of the shelter environment.
  • That things can always change.

I have seen some of the worst kennel presence imaginable. But I’ve also witnessed patient, well-trained volunteers work (and have myself worked) with these animals to bring them round to their better selves, outside of the kennel. If every dog’s life were ended based solely on what might be perceived as “aggressive kennel behavior,” many a beautiful and loving dog would not have had a chance to go on and become a valued family member. Conversely, and though these dogs have been far fewer, I’ve seen dogs with terrible kennel presence nip volunteers upon a kennel exit. We worked with trainers to devise methods of removing animals safely, especially if once outside or in playgroups, these dogs were otherwise friendly and sociable. Others had to be euthanized. But very few.

To place perspective on this issue: as of the end of June 2018, roughly 3500 dogs entered the shelter alive. Roughly 310 of these were euthanized at their owner’s request. Roughly 265 were euthanized for reasons of health, behavior or capacity for care, and roughly 280-300 dogs remain in kennels at the shelter, a number that will fluctuate daily as dogs come in and leave.

One of the more thoughtful articles that I have read on the topic of dog behavioral evaluations in shelters as a basis for making life and death decisions is “No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters,” by Gary J. Patronek and Janis Bradley. Another is “Dog Bites, Problems and Solutions” by Janis Bradley. These articles are available online, and there are many more besides available through the National Canine Research Council, Maddie’s Fund and ASPCA pro, as well as other resources.

Behavioral euthanasia decisions (when not a black and white issue, like unpredictable aggression or bites causing severe injury) are the toughest decisions a shelter makes.

This much I know is true: The institutionalization of dogs in kennel settings, rather than in a home-like setting, is not easy on their mental or physical well-being. And although it’s not the worst place some of these dogs could end up– especially for horribly abused animals–a municipal shelter should be a short-term proposition for any animal if they are an adoption or rescue candidate.

But that is not the case for many dogs, especially those that have beach-bodies, blocky heads, and great smiles (see my previous post), and some can stay many months before a second chance presents itself. I would far prefer that a dog that appears to be sociable stay as long as necessary to get that second chance, even if it does cause some temporary stress, so long as there is space within which to house them and they are able to be adequately enriched while they are there. Most volunteers and rescues agree that if there is a chance for a second chance, and it is just a matter of more time, that the dog should be sheltered until that opportunity arises.

A community’s focus on the municipal shelter is critical, however, to achieve shorter lengths of stay. Additionally, a foster program can alleviate the stress of sheltering, and provide the time necessary to find adoptable animals good homes. CACC was in the process of implementing such a program, and it is my sincere hope that it is successful in doing so.

While I was at CACC, we took a hard look at how dog behavior was being assessed in shelter and when behavior would be the basis for euthanasia. Within its resource constraints, the shelter relied upon dedicated volunteers, including Safe Humane volunteers, to conduct more in-kennel enrichment, more playgroups, more manners classes than at any time previous, and to expand capacity for care for many of the dogs, so that they would be able to better cope with the stresses of being in the shelter.

The shelter also worked closely with Safe Humane Chicago to begin developing a more comprehensive process for assessing dogs in the shelter to ensure that multiple sources of information were being captured: i.e., what did the owner represent about the dog, what were the initial observations upon intake at the shelter, and after a decompression period, what was observed in-kennel and outside of kennel by staff, rescues, and volunteers in play groups, manners classes, during in-kennel enrichment and other enrichment activities. The eventual goal is to create behavior assessment teams to ensure a fair and informed approach.

But this is all truly a question of adequate resources, and having enough people to provide enough enrichment to the animals at the shelter and to make these observations. Behavior is a multifaceted conversation, and an important one to continue having if the City is going to become a model city for people and pets.

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Susan Russell
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