First Impressions Can Be Deceiving In Shelter Environment

Robin and Beetle Juice

Robin and Beetle Juice

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“Adoptable dogs are through the door on the left.” Every time we say those words, it is only a matter of moments before a cacophony erupts — dogs barking, howling and jumping in their kennels. Some of our visitors take the noise in stride, calmly strolling through the kennels and interacting with the dogs they find appealing. But others can be overwhelmed. Some people come back out holding their ears, shaking their heads. If they came in looking for a specific dog or type of dog, we can usually ease their discomfort by bringing an appropriate match outside to a play yard. But sometimes, visitors come out of the kennels with an entirely different, and unfortunately negative, opinion of the dog they came to see.

Why the sudden change? First impressions can make all the difference for a shelter dog. Unfortunately, some dogs didn’t get the memo! Whether out of boredom, frustration or antagonism from surrounding animals, many shelter dogs develop kennel behaviors that can be detrimental to finding them a home. They can be stressed, scared, frustrated or even aggressive when fenced off, surrounded by noise and facing constant traffic. And while the reasons can vary, the end result is usually the same: a barking, growling dog that nobody wants to meet.

But most dogs are not the same once out of their kennels. Given a little time in the yard, on a walk, or in a quiet room, many dogs that previously showed bad kennel manners suddenly become well-behaved and friendly. Below are some of the common reasons for kennel reactivity. Remember that most of these can be corrected fairly quickly when a dog leaves the shelter environment.

Fear

The shelter can be a scary place. Often dogs come in as strays, sometimes having been chased or physically restrained in order to be caught. Add to that the trauma of being placed in a loud, unfamiliar kennel, surrounded by other barking dogs and new people, and it’s understandable that a dog would be frightened! And a frightened dog will often revert to a flight or fight response. Some will cower at the back of their kennels, shaking, possibly even urinating, and won’t come to the front for anything. Others will make eye contact and bark or growl. In both cases, the dog wants one thing: to make the scary situation go away!

The best way for us to help dogs overcome their fears is to make our approach less frightening in the first place. We can’t change the barking of other dogs, or the newness of the kennel, but we can make ourselves smaller and less threatening (to the dog) when meeting a dog. Instead of standing over a dog, it often helps to crouch or kneel. Instead of facing head-on, turning sideways to the dog presents a less threatening posture. Things like direct eye contact, loud talking and sudden movements should also be avoided.

Stress

Dogs are social animals, and many have a strong need for interaction and activity. Many shelter dogs become used to having their own space and a set routine. But for others, being cooped up in a kennel all day can be very stressful. Any dog can become a victim of kennel stress. The sights, sounds, smells and constant activity in a shelter environment can leave some dogs feeling trapped, with no outlet for their energy and/or no place to settle down and decompress. Some become depressed and lose weight while others become hyperactive and start exhibiting extreme behaviors. Some dogs will be in a constant state of agitation, spinning or jumping constantly, as though stuck in an endless “motion loop.”

There is very little that a visitor can do to help a dog in this state. But shelter staff and volunteers can place added emphasis on variety as a means to help the dog overcome stress. Long walks, time in the yard or lobby, play groups with other dogs, and time to chill out with a toy or Kong can all help alleviate some of the stress of confinement. The best solution will be placement in a stable adoptive or foster home.

Frustration

Some dogs really like other dogs. Others really like to be with people. Still others simply don’t like to be cooped up. Much as with stress, kennel frustration is a reaction to the things that are missing in a dog’s immediate environment. Or to be more accurate, things that are present but the dog cannot reach — usually a person or another dog. Dogs are social animals. They want to approach, sniff and interact with each other and with people. But in a kennel, a barrier exists that makes this difficult or impossible.

Dogs have been compared to human toddlers as far as their state of mental development. What happens when a two-year-old wants something really badly, but can’t get it? Oftentimes, a tantrum. A dog at a fence or kennel gate reacts in much the same way. A dog that loves people will want to get out and say “Hi.” And a dog that loves to play with other dogs will get excited as other dogs pass by. When they find they can’t, they essentially lose their composure for a moment. All that energy has to come out, and quite often it comes out as a screaming/barking fit — a tantrum! But just as with children, it’s important to remember that most of these dogs are quite friendly when not in the midst of a tantrum.

Territoriality

Dogs are territorial animals, and when kept in confined areas will sometimes guard those spaces. A territorial dog can be differentiated from a fearful or otherwise stressed dog in that it will often exhibit much more confident behavior — standing tall, coming directly to the fence, holding eye contact, etc. All of these are the dog’s way of saying “This is my space.” Many will also bark, some will growl, and a few will show overt aggression, showing teeth, lunging or snapping at passersby.

The key to remember is that dogs that are guarding a space will usually not show these behaviors once removed from that space. Some dogs that are extremely territorial may also exhibit territorial behaviors in other settings, but most will adjust to a more stable environment very well. The proof is in the way shelter dogs react to shelter employees and volunteers — in other words, people the dogs know. If they see the same people with frequency, whether those people are responsible for feeding, walking, medicating or socializing with them, the dogs will wag their tails because their comfort level is good.

Don’t judge by kennel behavior

Dogs will bark. They will get excited in their kennels. Some will be frightened or stressed. Some will be frustrated and may throw tantrums. Some will guard the only space they can call home. Look at a shelter from a dog’s point of view. Their life as they know it has ceased to exist. They are then thrust in a kennel, which sometimes has little room, are surrounded by other barking dogs and smells which they cannot see or identify. This is their new home. They do not understand the many feet walking by, or what will happen to them next. Is this someone they know? Is this someone who will hurt them? Are these feet going to take their food or bed away? If we can give them a little reassurance, it goes a long way toward keeping them happy and stable. And if we can give them a chance to show their personalities outside the kennel, most will transform into the happy, loving pets that we want to see.

Interested in a shelter dog? Please don’t judge them by their kennel behavior! Ask a staff member or a volunteer for help, and we will bring the dog out to the lobby or a yard so that you can meet the “real deal.” Not only will you see the dog in a better light, but you will help that dog have another positive experience that can break up the hours spent in a kennel.

Following are a few adoptable pet pairs currently at the shelter. Some of them came in together, some of them formed a bond after they arrived. To meet them and other adoptable pets, visit us at 605 W. Wilson Court. Hours are Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.; closed Sunday.

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Robin and Beetle Juice

BEETLE JUICE and ROBIN

Beetle Juice and Robin became friends shortly after we added Robin to the cat house that Beetle Juice had been in for a few months. Robin has always been an outgoing, affectionate cat. Beetle Juice, on the other hand, is standoffish and a little nervous around people. Now that they are buddies, Beetle Juice has warmed up and is welcoming to receiving ear scratches. He and Robin can been seen sharing the shelf together, while they groom one another. A true Bromance in the making.

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Big Teddy and Stud Muffin

BIG TEDDY and STUD MUFFIN

Big Teddy and Stud Muffin have been inseparable since they were puppies. They have grown up together and are used to living their lives side by side. Easygoing and affectionate, these boys are bound to steal your heart. Brotherly love.

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Hank and Rex

HANK and REX 

Hank and Rex have been best buds for years. If you’ve ever owned a Rottweiler, then you know how loving and loyal they can be. That is exactly how these two are with each other and with the people they meet. Rex could be Hank’s father, which is a strong bond that cannot be broken.

There are two more dog pairs not pictured — Teak and Tawny, Cupcake and Zepeelin.

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