Changes for shelter dogs to reduce stress

One happy rescue Shepherd :)

One happy rescue Shepherd Sam :)

Adopting our rescue dog Jess, many years ago, is what first prompted me to learn more about how the kennel environment affects a shelter dog and the effects it can have upon their behaviour. When we first met she had such a worried, panic stricken look in her eyes, as she sat slouched, ears back, in the far left corner of the kennel. Outside of the kennel she wasn’t much different, but it made me wonder ‘how can the whole ‘shelter experience’ be made better for these dogs?’ To make it better I suppose we should first understand what makes the kennel environment so stressful for these dogs. In an ideal world shelters would be much more of a ‘home’ for them and not just a temporary holding point. But of course shelters endure many limitations; hygiene requirements, time and costs.

Woodgreen Animal Shelter has made what I think is a significant change to the way in which their dogs are viewed, in the hope to reduce stress felt by the dogs. Instead of walking freely around the kennels you must first make an appointment. Here you discuss your needs with a member of staff before meeting any of the dogs. This means potential adopters have to be really serious about re-homing one of their dogs, which can only be a good thing (read more about it here). I imagine some shelters have already adopted this method, however to me, locally, it is a fairly new concept.

Here I’ve listed a couple of the reasons as to which I think this could be a beneficial move for other shelters too and an improvement for the dogs.

1. Noise levels. Barking is contagious and is often seen in a kennel situation. By social facilitation or contagion, one dog starts barking…and they all start barking, even those oblivious to what they are barking at! This must be hugely unsettling for the nervous dogs, or those that have come from a quiet home. The layout of the kennel block at Woodgreen has been designed to minimise barking, but still perhaps less visitors/disruptions may mean less barking.

2. Impulse adoption. I’m not really sure how often this happens, but we’ve all met a dog and ‘fallen in love’ on first impressions. But we have to be careful not to let our heart rule our heads. Perhaps some dogs do get adopted on impulse, and of course they could enjoy a fantastic new life, but maybe for some it’s just not the right match. A good chat/interview with kennel staff beforehand means you are more likely to be matched up with a dog that’s right for you in every way, not just looks-wise. You might like the look of a Border Collie but it’s just not fair if you can only give him 20 minutes of exercise a day. However, if a rescue is responsible it means every dog is only sent home with a suitable owner anyway, and no less, no matter how they’ve met.

3. Dog frustration. We all know dogs are massively social animals. They will often greet you tail wagging and bum wiggling when you meet them through a kennel door. But they cannot come out to play, they cannot cover you with kisses or roll over for belly rubs. We simply greet them, then move onto the next one while the dog looks on. I know we cannot help that’s the way it is as visitors, and foster systems means some dogs don’t have to go through this, but it must be so up and down for them, emotionally.

4. Happy dogs = more adoptions? ‘Stressors’ within the kennel environment are vast; temperature, humidity, a change in diet and routine, noise levels, isolation and unfamiliar faces are just some examples. Visitors produce noise and crowds can be pretty daunting, even to us! To deal with stress dogs adopt coping strategies e.g hiding, but sometimes their environment may not allow it. Stress levels may also be detrimental to a dogs health both physically; stress lowers the resistance of the immune system, and mentally; manifesting as stereotypies. A lot of the time a dog can appear ‘transformed’ when out of the kennel environment. Therefore, it’s pretty simple, less stress equals happier and healthier dogs. Dogs that can be themselves and strut their stuff might bag themselves a forever home! It’s a win-win situation.

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