Fear in shelter dogs may result in euthanasia due to their aggressive behaviour, but this could be avoided by providing positive human interaction.

Positive human interaction can decrease fear-induced aggression and improve adoptability of fearful shelter dogs according to the latest research in the U.S.

Admittance to an animal shelter is a stressful experience for dogs, as it includes exposure to many novel stimuli combined with a loss of control. Stress can exacerbate fear and fear-related aggression in dogs, which in turn can lead to these dogs failing behavioural tests performed in shelters that determine their suitability for adoption. Reducing the stressfulness of the shelter experience for fearful dogs may reduce their aggressiveness. Anecdotal observations suggest that enrichment with positive human contact may improve adoptability in shelter dogs, indicated by the dogs passing the behavioural tests used by animal shelters.

This study investigated whether positive human contact could improve the adoptability of shelter dogs, based on their performance in behavioural tests.  This research was conducted at a large animal shelter in the US. Fearful dogs were identified within 24hrs of admission based on their behaviour in the kennel, resulting in 124 fearful adult dogs included in the study. These fearful dogs received positive interactions with a calm, non-threatening human who provided toys and treats during two 15 min sessions each day for 5-7 days. The dogs were then tested for aggression and adoptability using a standard behavioural testing procedure.

The results of this behavioural test were then compared to the results of a control group of fearful dogs that did not receive the positive human enrichment (Experiment 1). During Experiment 2, the impact of the enrichment on the test results was compared between fearful and non-fearful dogs that both received positive human contact.

Most fearful dogs that did not receive the positive human enrichment treatment failed the aggression test, whereas most fearful dogs that received the enrichment passed the test. Nearly all non-fearful dogs passed the aggression test regardless of enrichment, supporting the idea that the aggression shown by fearful dogs was a stimulus-specific response to the shelter environment rather than a permanent trait.

In conclusion, fear in shelter dogs may result in euthanasia due to aggression, but this impact could be mitigated by providing positive human enrichment designed to reduce fear in these animals.

Willen RM et al (2019) Enrichment centred on human interaction moderates fear-induced aggression and increases positive expectancy in fearful shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 217:57-62.

Source: RSPCA Science Update 66 October 2019

How you can help fearful shelter dogs

Contact your local animal shelter to ask about volunteering as a canine calmer just like Frances O’Connell,  Animal Welfare League South Australia, our 2018 Winner of the Volunteer of the Year in the Jetpets Companion Animal Rescue Awards.

Photo: Jo Lyons Photography