Whether that is because it has been paired with negative emotional experiences like feeling trapped or confined, whether it has been paired with negative physical experiences like feeling sick or being forced into a car, or whether it has been paired up with an event the dog finds unpleasant like going to a vet or groomer, there are many reasons a dog may quickly learn that cars are unpleasant. Some dogs, on the flip side, are hugely over-aroused on car journeys and need to find a little calm.
Dogs need to have learned from a young age how to find cars pleasurable and have been gradually habituated to long journeys. Sadly for many puppies, their first experience of a journey is traumatic, as they leave their canine family, embark on their first long drive and may experience car sickness. This can set up a pattern for the rest of their life if you don’t address it quickly. On the other hand, dogs who arrive with us as an adult may already have learned that car journeys are unpleasant or exciting and we may find ourselves needing to remedy this.
If your dog experiences car sickness, please also consult your veterinarian. You will need both medication and to have followed a programme to help your dog overcome their anxiety. If your dog has high levels of generalised anxiety, you may also need to work with a veterinarian and/or behaviourist. Be mindful that some issues like stomach problems, arthritis, joint dysplasia or inner ear problems can also make journeys very unpleasant for your dog. A sound bill of health might not be necessary or even possible, but it’s worthwhile considering how a dog’s physical health may impact on their experience of journeys.
There are five essential steps to changing your dog’s behaviour around cars.
The first is recognising canine body language that is indicative of stress. Remember, aggression, freezing and fear are not the only ways we respond to stress (the fight, flight or freeze responses) and dogs may also react by “fooling around”, seeming more giddy, more exuberant or more silly than normal.
Understanding lip licks, head turns and posture will help, alongside other things such as their ear position and tail position.
For instance, here is one dog showing she’s nervous about a stranger with a camera:
Can you see the bow, the lip lick, the hard eyes? There are all low-level signs that this dog feels fearful around me. She won’t take her eyes off me.
Here we’ve got “joke face” – what looks like a smile, but is an appeasement gesture, the physical backing away as she has moved back into the kennel, the slight head turn and the long, slow blinks.
Looks kind of friendly, but she’s panting and it’s cold, she still has those hard eyes and her ears pricked as she tries to suss me out.
And here, the spread body posture, as she moves out of her literal, physical comfort zone to get a treat, but a little worried brow, a bit of white from her eye, her back legs ready to retreat, her posture low as she comes forward but ready to flee if necessary.
These (and more!) are all signs of ambivalent feelings, fearfulness and appeasement as she tries to make sense of me. You’ll notice some of these around your dog and cars, for sure. They’re tell-tale signs that a dog feels uncomfortable when taken in context, and can tell you that you are pushing your dog a little too far.
Once you’ve understood some of the common body language dogs exhibit to show low levels of ambivalence, anxiety or fear, you should be ready then to check them out with your own dog. What you will need is a partner (or a camera on a stand) to video you and your dog as you approach your car on lead with the door open where you usually put your dog. That might be the rear doors or the back hatch. You don’t need to get in. In fact, you won’t need to get in. If you’re safe, by the way, and your dog is behind closed gates, you can always do this off-lead. Doing so will enable you much more clearly to see how your dog feels about getting in the car. You’ll see exactly where they freeze, exactly where they feel nervous.
The best way to do this would be to go through your usual routine that you’d go through before getting in the car. The open door says very clearly that it is your intention to get in.
The video will enable you to see the distances you’ll be best to work at. This should be long before your dog freezes or starts showing changes in the body language. You can also play it in slow motion and pull stills from it to see all those tiny behaviours you can look for, such as turning their head away or licking lips, or yawning.
What you then have is your own dog’s behaviour profile.
When you can see what your dog is doing and at what distance, you are then ready to start the third step: goal-setting. As with all behaviours, this didn’t start in a second and it won’t be over with a quick fix. So start with a 3 or 6 month goal. Make sure it is realistic. Turning your dog into a dream in the car won’t happen overnight, and neither should you expect your dog to be able to go for a 2 hour car drive if they can’t currently even get in the car.
A realistic 6 month goal for a dog like that might be to go for a 10-minute drive without frequent stress signals.
What you then do is plan back. What does that look like at 5 months? At 4 months? At 3? At 1? At 2 weeks? At 1?
Make yourself a back-planned list of weekly goals. At five months, I might want them to go for a 2 minute drive (remember that it gets easier to do longer durations as you work towards the end of the plan. At four months, I might want them to manage a 20-second drive. At three months, I might expect them to show no stress signals when the engine is turned on and the car rolls 5m forwards. At two months, I might want to see no stress signals between them getting in the car and me getting in. At one month, I might want to see few stress signals and them choosing to get in the car themselves. At a week, I might want to see few stress signals around a car with an open door from 20m away.
That may sound ridiculously slow, but it depends on your dog. Other dogs might do this in 3 months, working up to a journey of an hour by 6 months.
Break down the component parts as well: Going near the car on their own Getting in the car on their own Getting out of the car on their own Sitting in the car whilst you get in the driver’s seat. Sitting alone in the car Settling as you clip them in. Settling as you close the door. Settling whilst you turn the ignition. Settled as the car idles. Settled as the car rolls in 1st gear. Settled as you change gears. Settled on straight roads. Settled on turns. Settled on bendy roads. Settled at high speeds. Settled on bendy, hilly roads. Settle over bumpy terrain.
Those are just some examples. Most of the time, people know the idea of gradual exposure in small doses, they just have never thought small enough or gradual enough. When you make small, graded, incremental changes at your dog’s pace, you’ll see success. The only thing I ever seem to do with clients is show them how to go more slowly and simply. And when they commit to doing so, they are always successful. The joys of a 100% successful training programme!
In the meantime, you’ll need to suspend all car journeys, I’m afraid. Exposure therapies fail if you suddenly are forced to deal with your fears. For instance, I hate heights as I have vertigo. Gradually getting used to looking out of differently-sized windows over different floors is wonderful, working up to plate-glass walls at the 60th floor, or glass floors etc. What is not fine is if I’m still working around looking out of a small window on the third floor and then you zoom me up to the top of the Burj al Arab. It will destroy my trust in you and send me straight back to the beginning.
The tough thing is that sometimes this is inevitable. Like you’d been working up to a 25-minute drive to the vet’s for the anniversary of your dog’s vaccinations in 6 months’ time, and suddenly your dog rips a dewclaw and needs to go now. If you’re still working at getting in and out of the car, you’ll need to take that on the chin. The good thing is that it rarely takes as long to re-cover the steps that you’ve made as long as you go back to basics again.
But if you interrupt every single gradual stage with a 90-minute car journey through busy, winding lanes, then you’ll not make any progress.
Once you have your weekly goal, break it down backwards into daily tasks. If Week 1’s goal is to feel comfortable 5m from a car with open doors, then Day 6 will be to feel comfortable 10m from a car with open doors. Day 5, 20m away. Day 4 20m away with closed doors. Day 3 20m away with closed doors for 1 minute. Day 2 20m away with closed doors for 30 seconds. Day 1 20m away with closed doors for 15 seconds.
You can then use things your dog finds reinforcing to meet those distance and duration goals. For instance, I could set out our massage rugs and do a brief bit of massage. I could use a game and get gradually closer to the car for longer periods. For me, it’s a no-brainer… it’s food! So I’ll be using scatter feeding, snuffle mats, licki-mats, kongs and so on.
I’ll also be starting to teach behaviours to help dogs choose to get in the car themselves. That may be walking on a ramp. It may be hopping up into my arms so I can lift them if they’re small. It may be learning to hop up onto a bench couch. What I absolutely do not want to do is force, grab, lift or coerce the dog. Now, with an old or invalid big dog, I may need to get them used to me grabbing their front end or back end to hoist them. I have to do this with Flika from time to time. That means I’ll need to get dogs like this used to being helped up and into things. Ideally, though, your aim is that your dog should always get in and out unaided. A dog that makes a choice is a dog who is consenting.
The fifth thing you’ll need to consider is your dog’s general levels of anxiety. If your dog is anxious in many aspect of life, you’ll need to work on bringing those levels down beforehand. That might be with trust-building work, with relationship work, with work on concepts like optimism and confidence, or with changes in diet and handling. Supplements may also help.
For those of you who want further guidance, I’ve written this more detailed mini-book to help you understand the small step-by-step approaches to success, explaining in more detail about how to plan a gradual and systematic programme to help your dog cope better in the car.
I’d like you to meet Amigo, if you’ve never met him before.
I adopted him in 2014, and he was part of my life for a very wonderful 4 years. He came in through the pound, I fell in love immediately (he was truly my heart dog) and I adopted him as soon as I could.
In 2017, he had a stroke and the remaining 14 months or so were spent in a fog of canine cognitive dysfunction. He never regained his hearing, and he was rarely truly comfortable after this, particularly at night.
I can’t tell you what a gentle soul he was. He was never a dog’s dog, but the couple of scraps he had never involved teeth.
The last thing I expected was for Amigo, my lovely, gentle, sweet dog, to bite me in the middle of the night.
He was quite often a midnight wanderer and it would disturb the others. They’d grrr-grrrr and Amigo blithely walked all over them, got in their beds when the resident dog was already in it. Once, he was getting himself ready to go and invade Heston’s very quiet spot and I could tell it would be a fight if I didn’t intervene.
But you can’t call a deaf dog who’s disoriented anyway.
So I grabbed his collar.
And he bit my hand.
Not hard, but enough to say, “don’t grab me!”
It was the only time he bit me.
In the past, we’d have perhaps had a more extreme reaction. Indeed, many of my clients whose dogs have bitten think that the dog can’t be trusted, can’t be with children, should be muzzled… and sometimes they’re right. For some, it’s a red line and no matter how hard the contact, the dog is euthanised. For many of my clients, it can often be the one behaviour that drives them to call me.
When I do an diagnostic interview for post-bite behaviour consultations – which makes up about 70% of my work – I want to know the context, the circumstances, the triggers, the consequences and the underlying emotions. Mills and Westgarth (2017) say similar things in Dog Bites: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Each bite will be different, and often driven by different emotions. Other trainers might like to put a label on the bite as this kind of aggression or that kind of aggression, but I’m not such a fan of doing so.
In one famous study, veterinary behaviourist Dr Ilana Reisner found 27 labels in use for aggression, some of which were used to label dogs. Many were based on late 1960s work on aggression in humans. Many behaviourists have tried to categorise aggression with constructs like dominance, possessive aggression, predatory aggression and fear aggression. These terms are quite often meaningless. One term that did not come up in Dr Reisner’s review, though, and yet is frequently used by French veterinarians is irritation. In French, irritation is not emotional irritation like I might have with my brother if he keeps poking me, but physical irritation, like sunburn or itches or pain. I know some people might call this defensive aggression but for me, that’s really not the same.
Now I said before all bites are different, and that’s the principal I work off. But quite a few happen in very similar circumstances. For that reason, I do actually like this term as it describes a number of bites dogs I’ve worked with have presented with. Including Amigo. Often these bites may seem to come “out of the blue” since it may happen really fast but they’re ALWAYS preceded by a grabby human hand in close proximity. By and large, many of the bites vets sustain would probably come into this category. Pound workers are another group of people who may find themselves bitten in such circumstances, especially if the animal is already afraid or trapped. Also dog groomers. Nobody said Fido was willing to have a buzzcut. The purpose of the bite is a cease-and-desist warning to the hand.
But how do we react to such bites? Many of my clients ask me what they should do next time.
What did I do when my Meegie bit me? Was it the end of our relationship? Had he destroyed all my trust in him? What would I do next time?
I told myself there would be no next time.
That’s not to say it was his final warning and it was curtains for Meegie if he bit me again.
It’s to say that I told myself not to grab an old, deaf dog by the collar when it is dark and he is disoriented. I mean I know I’m only human and I was sleep deprived and I trusted Amigo as he’d never bitten me before. But even so.
I said he would never again be put into the position where he would need to bite me. I said sorry and said I’d do better.
I set up x-pens the next day and that was the end of the wandering into other dogs’ beds that had caused me to grab his collar. Sure, the other dogs had more limited roaming too – but for Effel, he stayed always in the same bed. Tilly always slept on my bed. So it really was easy to put pens around Effel’s bed, with open gates, and to block off the corner where Heston sometimes chose to sleep that he couldn’t get out of should Amigo wander into him.
Amigo still wandered, but it never again bothered my other dogs, and he was safe. No collar grabs needed.
I also realised he might not trust me very much any more, so we went back to basics. I did lots of practice grabbing his collar and giving him treats. We played games and had lots of massage sessions.
Now I’m not a dog bite apologist, going around blaming people for dogs biting. I don’t think dogs’ teeth should touch flesh full stop. But it happens. Neither am I screaming about “forcing” dogs to have haircuts and how pinning them down to look at a dewclaw is an abuse of their rights. Needs must, from time to time. I don’t advocate a totally hands-off life, as it’s not possible. Nor do I feel like we should tread on eggshells around our own dogs.
But I do know that I’m the thinking part of the human-canine partnership, and it’s up to me to sort it out, rather than it being up to the dog to tolerate things they find deeply unpleasant.
Yet it still surprises me that we know that so many of those bites are preceded by our grabby, chimpy, monkey hands, and we continue to do it anyway.
As I said, my motto is that the dog will never again be placed in a situation where they needed to use teeth. That’s what I don’t get about some people who are repeatedly bitten in the exact same situation over a number of occasions.
“My God! My dog bit me again!”
“What were you doing?”
“Well, exactly the same thing I was doing last time!”
Insanity: repeating the same behaviour and expecting different results. Newsflash, people. YOU are the one with the super-size neocortex and rational decision-making skills. Not your dog. Don’t expect them to change if you won’t.
For me, the first thing to check out any health issues. I appreciate this will be with another grabby monkey in a turquoise smock. You may need to do some work before you get there, or make really, really sure your vet is not a grabby monkey. None of my vets are, which is why I like them.
Underlying pain is such a huge factor in a sudden dislike of manipulation. I saw one dog a few weeks ago who didn’t like having his neck touched… vet checks are still ongoing, and it may be nothing, but the vet also felt it necessary to shuffle the dog up the line to a veterinary hospital. On Wednesday, one of our shelter dogs was adopted and knowing her history, lifting a 40kg dog into the back of an SUV with a high tailgate was not a risk I was willing to take given her hip dysplasia and arthritis, coupled with a history of not liking being manipulated. And our award for Most Grumbly Dog in the Vets 2019 at the shelter surely should go to ten-year-old Elzo the shih tzu who needs eye-drops twice daily and who needed three people to wrestle him into a headlock to do it. Itchy eyes, bad skin, wobbly legs… recipe for animals who decide they don’t like being touched thank you very much.
But shock can also contribute to this too. Like Amigo. And my non-grabby vet laughed so hard the other week when doing a blood draw from Heston as I was right near his face and as she was about to stick him with a great big syringe, I said “Don’t bite my face!”
She laughed, but she wasn’t at the bitey end of a big, scared dog about to get stuck with a fat syringe.
These issues can arise with grooming too. We had one beautiful Bernese mountain dog with us for months who’d been brought in with chronic ear infections and a dire need for grooming. He said no. Hence the untreated ear infection and the lack of grooming… making everything so much worse.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
I’m not a fan of wild animals in facilities, but I know there are such things, so if there are, I’d prefer to do things kindly.
What they don’t tell you is that many animals in experimentation are trained to present body parts for blood draws, for cables to be attached or restraints to be applied. Madness. If we take one thing from this, it’s that even in the world of animal testing, they’re not wrestling dogs to the floor and using four people to hold the animal down.
Zoos also picked up on this trend:
Now I’m not a fan of zoos for many reasons but this did make me think how much easier it would have been to have had my cat do this rather than having to trick him, ball him up in a towel and hope none of my scratches went septic. Can you even do that with a tiger?
And when you can’t, that’s when sedatives come in. But that isn’t a good thing and it can really interfere with your health checks, particularly if the animal has heart problems.
We spend so much time thinking it’s our right as animal guardians to wrestle our “stubborn” companions onto vet tables or at the groomers, or drug them, that I think we get a little trapped in that. It doesn’t cross our tiny minds to teach our dogs the same stuff that animals are taught in zoos or labs. I mean they’re our dogs, right?
But it doesn’t take much to build up a ‘yeah, I’m not such a fan, Sharon, so I’m sitting this one out!’ from your “stubborn” dog when grooming, handling or putting on harnesses even. Certainly when attaching leads or putting on collars, securing in vehicles or lifting dogs up and down. Then we think there’s something wrong with our “aggressive” dog. Trouble is, the bite usually works to stop the irritating thing (you) and that’s NOT a good thing for a dog to learn…. because, as we know, DOGS DO WHAT WORKS. So says Jean Donaldson. And she’s right. Dogs who’ve bitten when a hand approached are likely to do the same again if it stopped the hand doing stuff to them. These bites, by and large, are often bites to the hand. But I’ve seen bites to the face for people who were crowding their dogs.
Dogs are quick to work out what hurts and to find ways to stop it. I caught a moment of this the other week. Lidy, my reprobate malinois, got her lip caught by a dog a few months back. It bled profusely and the skin is still a bit delicate. I was doing a video for a client about how to get her to approach the brush. Things were great through seven trials. Then she just stopped. Stopped looking at the brush, wouldn’t orient towards it.
I was a bit stumped. I let her finish the remnants of the treats thinking we needed to refresh our training, and only then did I see she’d caught her lip on the brush and it was bleeding a little.
She is such an obedient and operant girl – she loves learning. She does practically everything I asked, and she played dumb.
“Bumped brush, brush hurt, won’t look at brush…”
Can you see why a more sensitive dog might quickly build up a link between you and the tools you like to use to hurt them with?
This is worsened by one of the most controversial behaviours in dog training (and most abusive – let’s start from there) that has been sadly popularised by barbaric trainers and by TV programmes. The Alpha Roll. You know, force your dog to submit and pin him to the floor.
This “technique” was dreamed up by the Monks of New Skete (actual monks, not some name for a family of expert dog trainers, just in case you thought they might know about dogs rather than gods) who popularised it, passed it on to Cesar Millan …. and then …. retracted their guidance. They said it was too complex for most people to do and it could backfire. Bless ’em. The general population are just too crap at wrestling dogs into submission. Sure it could backfire. This Alpha Rolling or forced submission is behind so many irritation bites I can’t even begin to tell you.
Forcing dogs into grooming, handling or veterinary care causes such a breakdown of trust that it can be impossible to overcome completely. And yes, you might be able to force the dog once. But woe betide you the next time. It kind of made me laugh to see on one dog’s vet notes that the first time the dog was presented, the vet thought there was a suspicion of hip dysplasia and was able to manipulate the dog. Strangely, yes, strangely, and he’d written that word on the notes, the second time the dog went back, she was too aggressive to be manipulated. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? Don’t think so.
Some dogs will submit and will seem to tolerate it. I say “seem” and that’s important.
In the late 60s and early 70s, a psychology professor named Martin Seligman did some studies on a concept called learned helplessness. It informed us why people sometimes don’t act to change things when they can, or why they tolerate the intolerable. Dogs are the same. If you’re scoffing about me making anthropomorphic comparisons, you need to know he figured out human motivations using dogs. So no anthropomorphism at all.
First, he “restrained” dogs in what’s known as a Pavlovian hammock. Basically an inescapable mechanism for keeping dogs still.
You may be disgusted and thinking ‘how inhumane!’ but if you use your hands any time to restrain your dog, no matter the circumstances, it’s not much different if you ask me. All shades of grey.
So these dogs he shocked. Because they were restrained, they couldn’t escape it.
He also used some other dogs in a different system: a shuttlebox. This has an electrified floor on one side, and an escape hatch to a no-electrified bit. They were shocked, but they learn to hop over the other side.
What he learned was dogs who’d been subject to shocks they couldn’t escape from in the past would just accept shocks and not seek to escape even if they could.
They basically just shut down completely.
Now, yes, this tells us a lot about resilience and depression and learned helplessness and why battered spouses stay in the relationship and why depressed people don’t seem to help themselves.
But it also tells us that dogs who’ve been restrained and punished may just shut down and give up.
So your pinning a dog may seem to work.
However, I’m not comfortable with that; I mean, I know in emergencies, you do what you need to – and I know I’ve had to do that sometimes, knowing what the repercussions are, just because it was medically necessary. But I’m still not comfortable with it.
I also know that such behaviours, in almost half the times it’s used, come out fighting (and biting).
It may also be that your dog will tolerate it, tolerate it, tolerate it, and then won’t.
So I don’t choose to restrain my dogs because a) if they tolerate it, it may be that they’ve just shut down, and ethically, I can’t disapprove of Seligman shocking dogs in hammocks or slings if I’m hypocritically pinning my dog to do things to them that they find offensive, and b) because one day, my dog might decide to become one of the very, very large number of dogs who become more aggressive when restrained.
Does that mean I’m just some sensitive soul who doesn’t touch my dogs or that I tread on eggshells around them?
Not at all. Just like the guy with the tiger, I know I’ll need to do some stuff to my dog that if my dog had their say, they’d say a loud “no thank you!”. You don’t have to be some kind of sensitive soul who goes through life never handling your dog. That way madness and even neglect lie. But when dogs feel they have a choice, a marvellous thing happens.
First, you don’t put your back out yoinking your dog around.
Second, your dog (because they’re dogs and dogs are great) will perform many amazing things. After all, if they can teach a tiger, you can teach your dog. My whole epiphany about animal care came from watching a walrus opening its mouth on cue. I was quite ashamed that I had to wrestle my dogs to look in their mouth.
Here’s the crucial bit…
When a dog has choice and consents willingly (be very clear about this… it is not coercion or force!) then you find they’re more relaxed, it’s less stressful and you can stop being afraid your dog will bite you.
You ask and they consent.
It really is a request, too.
The requests we make of our dogs also get easier with cold trials and repetition and practice. The more they do it, the more they say, “fine!”
It requires a change in mindset though. I was never a very grabby dog person anyway. Now I rarely grab them (if ever?) but you know, when it does, say for instance, an escaped dog at the shelter, then I know I have work to do to both practise it for next time and to smooth out the ugly fallout from having grabbed them in the first place. You know, most of the time, dogs put up with it. This morning, we had an escapee, and one of our staff had to corner him and then picked him up. But just because we may need to do it and dogs tolerate it doesn’t mean they always will. Also, what we do in emergencies is one thing; what we can plan for is another entirely.
Heston and Lidy both know “open!” to open their mouths without handling. Heston knows “show me your wiener!” which seemed like an impossibly cute trick to teach a 6 week old dog, but turned out to be a stroke of genius when the vet wanted to ogle his undercarriage. By the end of her life, Tilly rattled she had that many pills and drops, but she presented her eyes and ears willingly right up until the end. That was a long way to come for a girl who bit a vet, aged 4. Likewise Elzo, the grumpy shih tzu, who grumbles but comes to get his eyes done by his foster dad and then trots off with a treat. No fingers bitten! Heston knows “up!” to come and stand on the back of a chair for me to check for ticks. He knows “hup!” to get in the car (although he does that with any open door, cars are that much fun).
Teaching dogs “up!” and “on!” and “off!” and “down!” helps cut out so very much of the handling that ends up being classed as resource guarding or handling sensitivity.
Giving them choice about putting muzzles on or harnesses on also sets up dogs to say yes rather than no. This brings up a crucial point about Lidy, my little work-in-progress. Vets are not for her. There is no way by the time her vaccinations are due that I will have got her up to a chin rest whilst other people stick her with pointy objects. But I can make the muzzle a less unpleasant experience for her as we make steps towards cooperative care. And you know what? She may never tolerate vets. That’s fine too. She tolerates the things I need to do to her and that’s the important bit.
As you can see in the following video with the chihuahua, when the dog chooses, it stops the vicious circle of aggression and punishment. Little dogs are far more likely to have been restrained, sadly. One of the best things I ever say to my clients is to imagine how they’d do things if they had a 50kg grumbly big dog. That’s one reason I’m less of a grabber these days. When you’ve had big dogs, you do a lot of this stuff instinctively.
There are literally so many ways you can allow your dog to choose. Refusal isn’t a big deal, telling you that the dog isn’t able to handle it right now. But refusal gets less and less because, guess what, you’re not having to use force in the first place.
Whilst I’m not a fan of the Julius harness used in this video, I am certainly a fan of teaching your dog to consent to harnesses rather than have the damn thing forced on.
Two things that I find really helpful as well are teaching your dog to nose touch to hand and to rest their chin on your hand or lap. Those two behaviours can build up nicely into so many others. Using target sticks like the tiger can also help. I like my hand as I’ve always got that with me though.
The good news is that more and more vets are getting on board with fear free cooperative care, as are groomers.
If only, when I got Mr Basil back in 1997, I’d known you can clicker train cats… how different our relationship would have been. Luckily, through many people who have pioneered cooperative husbandry in companion animals, it has been the saving grace of my relationship with my dogs. That my cat was so terrified of the crate and the car need not have depended on me forcing him to comply or removing his choice.
The best thing about cooperation and choice is that your dog is much more “compliant”. The tough thing is that this doesn’t happen overnight. I do a little a day and repurposing tricks like playing dead, giving a paw or tilting their head can be really great ways to turn something terrible like tummy inspections, blood draws or ear checks into something fun.
The best things you can work on to start you off are nose-to-hand targets, chin rests and getting up and off things themselves. But there are literally so many things you can teach your dog that make vet care and grooming an absolute doddle. Start small and keep it fun, and you’ll keep building up the trust you’ll need to get your dog through the pains of old age.
At the beginning of this series of posts, I took you through some ways that we view animals and how their roles are constructed depending on our cultural values.
As with so many cultural constructs, our views shift over time. The traditional way we saw dogs as utility animals, lab animals, clothing, flesh, entertainment or companions changes as we confer new roles on dogs. One of those new roles is the role of “rescue”.
Despite the fact that across the globe, unwanted animals from a variety of species are often construed as pests, that role is changing for stray dogs, largely driven in the West by post-industrial Anglo-Saxon views.
Although some of the stereotypes about dogs persist in relation to disease and behaviour, the very large number of dogs adopted each year shows that people’s views are changing. That so many introduce their dog as a “rescue” suggests this has some social capital. Capital that presidents and prime ministers have been keen to appropriate, if Macron and Johnson are indicators of this change. Perhaps I am cynical in thinking that presidents and prime ministers rehome dogs simply to improve their image, of course. But I don’t think it’s wrong to say that it is “fashionable” to rehome a dog. It’s also part of that culture to keep referring to the dog as a “rescue”, as Graham Norton does here:
Graham Norton isn’t the only celebrity to buy in to the “rescue” moniker. Many celebrities from Ellen DeGeneres and Jennifer Aniston to George Clooney and Kaley Cuoco have dogs they’ve acquired from a shelter. That’s certainly helping the shelter agenda.
It’s so acceptable to use the “rescue” badge, in fact, that people who buy dogs may refer to them as “rescues”, and some pet shops have rebranded themselves as “rescues”. I’m a member of a few breed-specific groups on social media and it’s not that rare at all to see people write that they “adopted” their dog at 8 weeks because the breeder or puppy farm was that awful… I make no comment on that. And I read yesterday of one English kennels rebranding themselves as a rescue centre to get around the newly-introduced “Lucy’s Law” prohibiting the sale of dogs via third parties. Clearly, being a rescue means something.
We know too that the kind of dog we acquire, and where we acquire it from says something about us to people, allowing them to make a quick decision about what type of person we are. Very possibly, some of that warmth dogs evoke is something we benefit from.
But what do our rehomed dogs say about us?
That was something I asked a number of people about through a series of semi-structured interviews that I used for my final dissertation for the International School of Canine Psychology and Behaviour.
What was clear is there are many reasons why people adopt. There are many different types of adopter. This is why it’s not as easy to see “rescue” dogs as some kind of badge of honour. Those multiple reasons for adoption also mean we can’t just see adopters as a homogenous group, say for instance like Liverpool football club fans, at least for that one symbol. In reality, where there may be high levels of similarity between people who buy Christian Louboutin shoes, or between people who go to Led Zeppelin concerts, there’s no single trait that unites adopters.
It’s not, therefore, a case of signalling our virtues, or of showing how compassionate we are. Sure, though, some people do that, and I want to write about that too. I think there’s an underlying narrative for many about creating a different way than buying from a pet shop or breeder, what Donna Haraway might call the process of “autremondialisation”, creating a new paradigm than the current economic model. But I don’t think that is true for all people who acquire or rehome a pet via a shelter.
One reason I think studies about length of stay and adoptability are so contradictory is that unlike so-called pure bred dogs, dogs we rehome are not subject to the same market forces. If we are indeed constructing a new way of thinking about dogs from the moment of acquisition, there’s every reason why our choices don’t conform to economic choices.
But it’s more complicated than that.
Take for instance the fact that small, young female dogs are likely to shoot out of the shelter… why is it that bichons, maltese, lhasa apso, yorkshire terriers and shi tzu aren’t more popular registered breeds? I mean the demand we get is ridiculous, yet they are fairly low down on France’s registered breed popularity lists.
In fact, the most popular registered breeds are all fairly big dogs. Australian shepherds, malinois, staffordshire bull terriers (the smallest of them), GSD and golden retrievers top France’s most popular list. The French bulldog, cavalier and chihuahua come in at 9th, 10th and 11th place though. Yorkshire terriers flag at 13th position, and the little shi tzu at 20th. Clearly there are different market factors at work for the pedigree market and for the market to rehome pedigree dogs. Like in many shelters, the breeds we get are popular ones to buy as puppies that have little “rehome-ability” and are socially stigmatised breeds that are then hard to adopt out into the community. But there’s no accounting for why large breeds are popular as pedigree puppies and are not at all adoptable once they get into a shelter.
One thing is true though: some people certainly rehome dogs in ways that are subject to market factors. They want a young dog, a popular pedigree breed, a female, a well-behaved dog. Research about market factors certainly explains their choices.
For me, that “market” divides into two: those who want a cheap second-hand dog of a type and don’t want to pay for it, or those who like a particular breed and want to source it ethically, if you will. The same way we might want a Michael Kors handbag and buy it from ebay. We might want the “label” without the price tag. On the other hand, we might want a Michael Kors handbag but not support the disposable fashion industry (do people dispose of Michael Kors handbags? Oh to understand THAT world!) so we might have a second-hand one for our conscience.
And shelters need to understand both of these customer bases. We definitely have plenty of “second-hand dog” buyers who are looking for a cheap dog, and we definitely have plenty of people who see rescue as an ethical way of sourcing a product. Both of these motivators are likely to respond to economic factors.
Others, and I find myself among this group, tend to go for certain types of dog, or even breeds, because it speaks to something deep inside of them. One of my interviewees described how she adopted elderly female hounds and it was clear that there were factors at work about this person’s compassion and caring for vulnerable, exploited females who’ve been used up and spat out by the system.
Another spoke of adopting a series of elderly lap dogs, which were not his type at all, and then spoke of his mother’s dementia and how lost she was in a nursing home. He certainly saw the connection between lost dogs who’d been used to a certain way of living, only to find themselves cast adrift by family at the end. Part of caring for elderly lhasa apsos was a way of doing something practical in lieu of caring, which made little difference to his mother. Displacement caring, if you will.
For me, I know why I find my heart breaking over malinois. Stigmatised as “security” dogs, they work long hours, live lonely lives, are vilified by the media, seen as temperamental and highly-strung “maligators” when in fact they are sweet, obedient dogs who may be a bit gung-ho in the name of loyalty but who end up “retired” and spat out by the system that should have valued their service, their skills and their blind loyalty. I mean I’m a spaniel girl at heart, yet something about the martyrdom of the malinois in France spoke to me. Especially those elderly ones who have given their whole life to being a utility item and then are discarded when they’re inconvenient. For some of us, I’m sure certain types or breeds of dog speak to our deep-seated need to care for ourselves, care for those we love or right a wrong that is equally true of types of people as it is for types of dog.
Other people aren’t fussed about the “label” their dog comes with.
I love these adopters. No matter what their dog looked like, they all described their dogs as gorgeous, handsome or beautiful. Some, in my opinion, were fairly homely and ordinary. One was eye-bogglingly mismatched in terms of proportions and despite having no hair to speak of on their rear end, the owner still described the dog as the most handsome dog they’d ever seen.
These adopters go into adoption with their eyes wide open, knowing they are looking for that individual connection. They see past breed and see the individual dog. For me, these tend to be the adoptions that work out, as the adopters choose a dog that suits their lifestyle. They are often charmed by their dogs and I found that interviewing this type of adopter, they were less likely to comment on behavioural difficulties or problems they’d experienced. I mean everything about their dogs was ace, in their eyes, even if they bit postal workers or waiters’ ankles.
I also found these adopters also had the highest correlation between their own personalities and the dogs they adopted. Because they didn’t come wanting a particular breed or type of dog (although they sometimes adopted breeds or types) and because they were looking for a dog that matched their life the best, those tended to be the dogs that they were highly satisfied with. They may introduce their dog as a “shelter” or “rescue” dog because they know their dog is a great ambassador for adoption, and that is just wonderful. Their need for external validation was low, but they are often keen to support shelters, and thus, for them, “rescue” is not a badge but about ambassadorship. They’re not proud of their own actions, necessarily, but they’re proud of their dog.
A large number of people are also really keen to take on complicated dogs. I love this adoption group lots too. They’re often people involved in volunteering already, but not always. They’re the kind of people who turn up at a shelter explaining they have the right environment for a dog and they have the capacity and motivation to do something about it. These are the adopters who say, “who’ve you got who’s been here a while?” or ask for your oldies, your sick dogs, your maniacs or your miscreants. I would say these are the ones where, when you dig a little deeper, you find them deeply involved in lots of altruistic actions, even having made a career out of it. They’re often in public sector work, from teaching to caring, social work to police work, armed forces or nursing.
The nicest part about talking to people like this is how matter of fact they are. Some are a little unprepared for whatever problems come up, but I never got a sense from talking to these adopters that they were doing it to be noble or to draw attention to themselves. Often, and if you are part of a shelter you’ll know this, these are the dogs who are rehomed and you barely hear from the new family again. They just get on with it. That makes it hard for us to know that things are okay, but what I found for these adopters is that their need for external validation was really low. These adopters may send you private messages because they know you had a long relationship with the dog, but you can see also how much work they’ve put in. They just get on with it.
The best thing about these adopters is that all they need from you when adopting is honesty about your dogs. Both those who choose a dog who matches their temperament (and may or may not be a “problem” dog) and those who take on more challenging companion animals, they aren’t phased by the “imperfections” of the dog.
I think all this has a vital and strong message for shelters.
You WILL have those adopters who want perfect pedigree pets, who are really just after a second-hand dog. They’ll be the ones who can’t tolerate problems and may return them straight away, just like they would with shoes that didn’t fit. And you may have dogs who’d fit their needs. Probably, the dogs you’ll have that’ll fit their needs won’t LOOK right for them, and they may go away empty handed. They’ll crack for a particular physique and return the dog when it doesn’t fit in with their life. But if you have a steady stream of young, small pedigree pups without specific needs, then good for you.
You’ll also have adopters who choose a dog who’s right for them, who may or may not be a breed or type, but who are looking for an adult dog because they want a dog who they can see fits into their lifestyle, even if that’s with a little work.
You’ll have, no doubt, those great adopters who will take on your tough-to-rehome dogs. I never fail to be astonished by (and a lot in love with) those people who fall in love with dogs that I feel are going to be impossible to rehome. These are the dogs I despair of ever finding a home for, and all the adopter wants to do is “something good”. Eyes wide open, purely for the joy of doing it.
The worst thing I think shelters can do is to try and force those tough-to-rehome dogs on people whose temperament and lifestyle doesn’t match the dog’s, or to let dogs go to a home when their temperaments don’t match, but the family have cracked for a particular physique. There is no point, from a shelter perspective, trying to make every dog marketable. That way, you end up with a series of impossible tests to weed out all but the most sociable, most well-adjusted dogs. And then what do you do with the rest?
It’s important for shelters as well to share flaws as well as virtues of their dogs, stopping thinking they’re “unadoptable”. There are lots of people happy to take on the odds and sods in life. Who relish the odds and sods. Who look forward to giving a little something back to a dog.
The hardest group of adopters for me are the ones who want to adopt as an ethical choice. That’s worse still when they want to make a badge out of the word “rescue”. One issue I have with this is that the owners never let the dog lose its “rescue” or “shelter” tag – if they lost that, then that would lose all the dog’s power as a symbol for them. For these people who may find themselves out of their depth with a truly difficult dog, the word “rescue” can become an excuse for problem behaviours that they don’t have the skill to deal with. For others who want the “rescue” label but end up simply rehoming a dog without any problems, there’s a certain sense that they have to work even harder for the social capital that they wanted their “rescue” dog to gain. That can give false impressions to people who do take on more challenging dogs.
“Oh, my rescue settled in straight away!”
Often, their dog is really just a dog in a second home. It can lead to other people then thinking it’s really easy to adopt certain dogs or certain types of dog. I know I spoke at length about adopting oldies with one participant and we laughed about the whole “oh, old dogs are so easy!” myth. I mean, they can be. Ralf was a dreamboat, as was Tobby. But bloody hell if you’re not prepared for what is essentially being a canine care home… pee, shit, vomit everywhere and dogs that seem to find a second childhood or won’t settle because they’re disoriented in a new home and they’re in pain.
It’s all very well to present adopting an oldie as noble, but it’s going to be profoundly difficult when you realise you’re a burning martyr for a cause you don’t truly understand. One of my poor clients had 7 months of sleepless nights and endless vet visits without so much as a whisper of support from the shelter for a dog who screamed most of the night. Nobility goes right out of the window when you’ve got a senior like that. If you want people to think, “Look how good they are”, you’re going to find that isn’t enough to keep you going at 4am when you’ve got a pensioner who has been pacing for 3 hours. But for many of my lovely friends who’ve taken on seniors, they’re at least prepared for a sleepless night. And you know what? A lot of them spend their nights on the sofa with the dogs, because they know how much they are prepared to adapt.
Of course, most adoptions are not like that, either. Despite the misconception that surrendered dogs or shelter dogs are badly behaved or have baggage (can we stop touting this myth please?) most dogs, in the right environment with people who understand them, settle really quickly.
Neither is it helpful for people to keep using the “rescue” label to talk about their dog when really they’ve just rehomed a very easy family companion. Sadly, because some people who use the “rescue” label are in need of external validation, they often post on social media and mythologise about their dogs’ histories, often inventing trauma narratives for them about how they lived, or making up reasons for current behaviour based on unknown assumptions of abuse or neglect.
I see this sometimes on social media – dogs whose stays are gradually exaggerated or owners who profess miracles have occurred. There are even rescue associations who make a meal out of the neglect and abuse cases, or who are using your anger to feed their ego. These adopters often befriend shelter staff on social media, tagging them in all their public posts, and from my experience, it can be very hard not to interfere with the narrative they create for the dog. For instance, for one dog, his stay went from 3 months to 2 years over a period of weeks as his new family discussed him, and I could see allegations of neglect and abuse alongside lots of mythologising about how bad the shelter must have been.
Luckily, these adopters are few and far between. Sadly, it can go another way and end up as animal collecting, hoarding or even Munchausen’s by proxy.
Even at its most mild, those who continually signal their ethics and virtues by way of public posts about their dogs can also have a detrimental effect on the adoption community too. #AdoptDontShop is one example of this behaviour at its worst. Taking on a dog – any dog, from any source – should be a responsible decision. When “rescue” is used as a label for virtue signalling, a badge of honour, it harms both the dogs and the adopters.
I mean I read this great article about why Adopt Don’t Shop is harmful, and as you can imagine, the comments on social media were eye-popping. Now, I am fully on board with stopping the exploitation of dogs. I think mixing up money with dogs has caused us all kinds of issues related to status, exploitation and oppression, but I think these are issues no different from a number of other issues in our relationships with animals, and unless we’re going to live a kind of wild and free life alongside dogs, and unless we accept that many dogs don’t really fit into an urban, motorised, restricted family life, we’re moving to a world in which we’ll be conservationists of wild dog populations rather than having dogs in homes. I’m not supporting puppy farming if I say that well-adjusted, healthy family dogs have to come from somewhere. I think Adopt Don’t Shop is so conflated by contradictory aims and behaviours that to use “rescue” as a way of guilting people into where they get a dog from is counter-productive and leads to more problems than it solves. I want the right dogs in the right homes, and with the best will in the world, if all dog owners in the west went “rescue”, there’d be a huge deficit of dogs within a year or so. And a very large number of people engaged in making round dogs fit in square peg lives. I don’t want anyone arriving at the shelter having been guilted into adoption. Come, sure, knowing that we no doubt have a dog for you somewhere, but don’t come because Sharon on Facebook made you feel that other ways of acquiring a dog were not ethical.
Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to group people who adopt together as being united by one belief system. There seem to be many reasons why people acquire shelter pets, and to dismiss it as virtue signalling or a kind of cult is to misunderstand human actions completely. But I think this is why, particularly in Northern and Western Europe, we need to step away from studies about adoptability based on economic models, because that isn’t what’s driving a lot of people to adopt. There’s still so much to be learned about our motivations to adopt a dog rather than buy one, but then there’s still a lot to be learned about why we like hanging around with other species full stop.
But for shelters thinking all dogs need to be perfect or trying to run shelters like shoe shops, I think that this runs the risk of misunderstanding the best clients of all: those who choose an individual dog who is right for them, regardless of age, gender, size or fur, and those who adopt because giving something back or putting right wrongs are part of who they are as people.
Next week I’m back to the real dog stuff and I’ll be looking at constraint, consent and choice.
I read a very interesting chapter in Dog’s Best Friend by John Sorenson and Atsuko Matsuoka that really made me think. It was about a new shelter in Istanbul, and about both its appearance and its geographical position. It really made me think about how shelters look, about the word ‘shelter’ and how we talk about kennels where you can adopt a dog, and about why people find it so hard to adopt.
After all, LOADS of people say that they would adopt… and then… buy a puppy from a breeder.
Why is that?
For me, I think there are many factors behind why people say and do different things, and some of it has to do with their perceptions of shelters.
I mean, let’s think about that word for a minute.
“Shelters” in France weren’t always “shelters”. In fact, some still aren’t. The word implies sanctuary, refuge and security. In fact, our shelter is called a “refuge” here in France. The idea of protection is as inherent in it as Societies for the Protection of Animals, or Humane Societies. But despite this word, what people think about kennels from which unowned dogs are rehomed, how those kennels look and what they sometimes do can mean that people are unwilling to buy into the idea that this is what “shelters” do.
In France, that’s not much different than the rest of Europe.
French law says this: stray companion animals are the responsibility of municipal authorities. They have an obligation to either keep the animal themselves for 8 days or pay another body to do so. For us, the municipal authorities club together, pay a subsidy to a syndicate, and the syndicate ask for tenders every two years, then awarding funds to the winning tender.
For the last six years, we’ve won the tender to run the pound services. The pound and the shelter are two different things. The pound is a legal entity designed to house unclaimed animals for a short term. The shelter is a charitable trust designed to protect animals. It’s not unusual to have both the pound and a shelter on site: lots of our local neighbours are the same.
Not all pounds, however, are invested in rehoming or in animal protection. Some run in a financially efficient way, meaning mass killing of surplus animals, just as pounds often have done in the past. Sadly for those of us invested in animal protection, that financial efficiency can mean they place better tenders. That in itself is an issue. But there are plenty of pounds who run on economic models and for whom animal protection is nothing but sentimentalism. That makes it hard for our own shelter to shed the image that pounds kill strays, because it’s hard for the public to know if you are or you aren’t. Even if you aren’t, there’s still suspicion about shelters in countries where there are mixed approaches.
Despite rehoming kennels and traditional pounds being driven by two very separate agendas, many people are understandably confused by these two approaches, which are very contradictory. One is in the business of saving animals’ lives. The other is in the business of managing overpopulation and stray populations. It’s not shades of black and white either. There’s a whole spectrum of grey in between with shelters who must euthanise for space and pounds who rehome, and thousands of variables in between.
All the legal nonsense and mutually exclusive goals aside, what pounds and/or shelters sometimes have to do is so against the ethos of animal protection that some people have a hard time trusting shelters. How can you profess to be saving animals’ lives and also extinguishing them? It leaves many shelters looking hypocritical to outsiders.
Where shelters are charged with population control it can really add to that hypocrisy. The ugly side to the function of pounds and/or shelters that can be so at odds with what we’re supposed to stand for that people don’t trust us not to be dog-catching killers intent on wiping out a species.
It doesn’t help that the laws in most countries permit the legal killing of unclaimed companion animals, thus meaning that even if YOU don’t use euthanasia as a way of managing over-population, other shelters may well do, and the general public have no idea if you or you don’t.
Mostly that picture is the same across Europe and Eurasia. A pound picks up roaming or stray animals (with varying frequency depending on local laws) and (mostly) keeps them for a period of time before killing them or rehoming them. So in countries with highly restricted dogs and high levels of ownership, that pound will be responsive to individual ‘stray’ animals, and in countries with infrequently restricted dogs and low levels of ownership, it’s probably related to times they become a nuisance or a health hazard. In countries where adoption is a culture, fewer dogs will be euthanised, and in countries where supply outstrips demand, more will be.
In very, very few countries or regions do laws forbid the killing of collected animals. The UK and the USA and France are not part of the countries where legislation forbids the euthanasia of unclaimed animals. Just to put that in perspective. A growing number of countries like Italy insist on rehoming, but not all.
So the number one battle shelters face is that in most countries, despite our mantra of animal protection or humane society, we ARE killing dogs and cats. We might not like to. We might have very high live release rates and adoption rates – almost 100% if we can. But we still may kill some dogs and some cats. Even if we do that for medical necessity, we still do it.
It’s at odds with what we call ourselves. A shelter or refuge should be exactly that: protection.
And so, for better or worse, shelters are talked about as if they are prisons, as if they are extermination camps, as if they are death row. And some are.
People talk about concrete and bars when they talk about shelters. And they are right, on the whole. Even if you have pretty parks and glass instead of bars, or even if you have doors and wallpapered walls.
Now that image lingers. Most people don’t feel bad about leaving a dog in kennels for a holiday. We have a really nice kennels near us. The runs are bigger, it’s smaller, it’s cleaner. They have a heated bit. But it’s still the same as a shelter. Quieter and prettier, but still offering the exact same thing.
I mean we have nicer grassed areas and parks too – and nice places to walk.
We even have some bigger park areas where dogs can let off a bit of steam or decompress.
Shelters ARE kennels. Some shelters are nicer than some kennels. Some kennels are an awful lot nicer than some shelters. Some have comfy beds and chairs and grass and heating and others don’t. In reality, it probably matters very little to a dog. But those perceptions matter hugely to people who adopt.
Now don’t get me wrong: our shelter is often a lot better a life for some of our dogs than they have ever known. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re not.
But we still LOOK like a dog prison.
And that is one battle we have to face.
We still face a huge battle, as most shelters do, between protecting animals and sometimes killing them. Even if that’s for medical reasons rather than over-population or behaviour. In fact, we know that, for the cats for example, bringing them to the shelter is a death sentence for some – hence our extensive foster system. The sad fact is that if you don’t have widespread immunity in the local population, and you transplant animals from one area to the other then boom, you’re mixing up sick animals with diseases from various communities with one another. I know that for some of our cats, for instance, simply bringing them from one isolated population has left them vulnerable to diseases from another. The same with all creatures, including people. Even if you may not mean to kill animals, sometimes by transplanting them to a shelter where they are exposed to other animals, that can be a death sentence anyway.
Intensive quarantines are the only way forward – but they can be enormously stressful for animals. We’ve had dogs arrived in French shelters with foreign microchips and no passport who we’ve legally been obliged to quarantine for 180 days! No wonder people consider shelters to be prisons.
I think one of the hardest things a shelter has to do is turn around public opinion of the communities around them, to have an open door policy and to overcome myths that we’re prisons and extermination camps, which make it very hard for people to want to visit. Many people just don’t know what happens behind those walls, and they’re afraid to ask. Rumours spread and they make people less likely to want to adopt. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of people who will adopt animals because the shelter kills them otherwise. That doesn’t help with the “big, bad shelter” image though.
Another thing that adds to that is how shelters LOOK. You know, walls and barriers and so on. We’re designed to keep dogs in. We have a 4m high fence and 2m gates. We LOOK like a prison.
That doesn’t make us the most welcoming-looking place in the world. And it also makes it hard for people who don’t come in to imagine what actually happens behind the walls. Those barriers to reduce noise and keep dogs in also keep people from seeing the good stuff going on. For all they know, we’re an extermination camp for dogs.
It doesn’t help that this is once what MOST pounds were. I mean, 19th Century New York, stray dogs were rounded up, put into cages and drowned in the river. No wonder rumours build up about what we’re doing behind those walls. For many “shelters”, this is what we still are.
So one of the tough things shelters have to do to battle public perceptions is get out there and open doors. If we truly want to be seen as protecting the legal and moral rights of companion animals, we bloody well better do that. If we’re in a country where the law allows us to kill surplus companion animals and we do differently, we bloody well better say so. And if we don’t, we need to be honest about that too. If we aren’t, or if we’re just quietly getting on with the daily business of protecting animals, we run the risk of being seen as inauthentic by our local communities. Only when they trust us will they adopt from us because they trust in us, share our values and believe in what we are doing.
This is hard though, walls and gates and prison-style kennels apart.
Another factor that Sorenson and Matsuoka’s book made clear was the geographical location of shelters and how that leaves many as physical outsiders, a physical “othering” no different than happens with some ghettoised human groups. Just as segregation does with human populations, this geographical distance creates more than just a physical barrier.
Take a look:
One local shelter is down at the end of an unpaved dirt track, trapped between the river, a high-speed train line and a motorway, surrounded by industrial estates. It’s fairly well signposted, but it is clearly an after-thought. Would you stop by for an Open Day or a public event? “Come on Karen. Let’s spend the afternoon by the High Speed train tracks.”
Isn’t is interesting, though, how the way shelter animals are valued in society mimic the places they are kept?
This is the same shelter so you can see it in relation to the rest of the city:
I mean you might as well say the animals there are the untouchables, the Dalit, the unclean. They are literally next to the water purification station. The sewage treatment plant. That’s a metaphor and a half, isn’t it? The place where our shit gets cleaned up.
One more, so you can see I’m not making this stuff up… literally in the middle of some woods. The grey strip on the bottom right is a runway for the local airport. I mean you don’t get more forgotten about.
I mean you can get some sense of how shelters are geographically outcast from this aerial map of the same shelter:
Sure, beautiful forested area with lots of space to walk our dogs… 1km from a waste sorting site, a dog food factory and various other stinky and unsavoury industries.
A forest owned by the National Forestry Commission who run hunts with dogs right on our doorstep every Friday from September to March. The same commission who we lease the land from, who pave our roads, who provide our fencing, and to whom we need to be bloody polite about the abuse of animal rights literally on our doorstep most weeks in case they decide we’re a nuisance and kick us out.
Some Fridays, it doesn’t half feel like ‘Know Your Place, You Bleeding Hearts’… I won’t tell you how many hunt dogs we get in. I think my point is clear enough.
You can also get a sense of how far out of the city we are:
Believe me, we are not well signposted. I’m forever giving out GPS coordinates and asking would-be adopters to use sat-nav.
Does anything say “untouchable” like the geographical position of a shelter?
Now don’t get me wrong: maybe nothing was meant by all of this. It’s sensible to have noisy, smelly places out of suburban or residential areas. Not In My Back Yard, right? Also it’s quieter for the animals too. It’s not all bad.
But that physical isolation causes two problems. The first is that it adds to the mystery surrounding what happens in shelters. Not easy for people to know what is going on when you have low volume traffic. I mean, it took me no time at all to see where the new McDonald’s was going in my town. I went there one time to meet a friend for coffee and I was seen by five people I know who were driving past. Everybody sees what’s going down at the McDo car park. But tough to do that with a shelter.
The second problem is it literally distances adopters from the animals. In a way, that’s fine, because if you want a dog or a cat, you’ll make the effort. But it makes it tough to get volunteers or even staff. Irregular bus services or public transport make it a nightmare to make good use of young people who might be the first step in changing the minds of a community.
That’s worse still for us here in France, as a large number of big towns and cities with nice suburban areas and plenty of great places dogs and cats could live… they don’t even have proper shelters. I mean we’re one of the largest shelters in France and … we serve an area with a below-average population density and a town that is the 171st largest in France. Bordeaux, by contrast, a much, much bigger city, has no shelter. I need not explain to you what happens to stray animals there.
But what that means is that all the lovely people of Bordeaux – and wealthy urban liberals tend to make really good adopters who buy into the ethos of shelters – would have to drive 2 hours or so to find themselves a shelter dog or cat. And if that shelter needs a homecheck? Wow do the logistics get tricky.
Where countries do have networks or franchises of shelters, which France does a little, that can ease things by moving dogs to places they’re more likely to be adopted. At the same time, it’s a crying shame a big old town like Bordeaux is just sitting there without any way to help out.
What does that mean for shelters?
The first thing is to consider your geographical location and your surroundings. Are town dumps and sewage plants linking your shelter with emotional responses of disgust and dirt? How far are you from the kind of residential areas that would suit your animals?
Once you work out that depressing picture, you can at least begin to combat it.
Now I’m not suggesting hauling arse into the city with a busload of shelter animals, though yes, some shelters do this, but it’s worthwhile thinking how you can market your dogs better and get them seen in the places they should be seen.
As a sensible animal lover who also knows the bite risk of taking live animals from one stressful environment to another, I’m more a fan of publicity stands with one or two bombproof demo dogs. I mean you can’t take all your animals up to the big city (we have around 400…) so chances are, your ‘customers’ will need to drive out anyway unless they want that exact dog or cat you’ve taken into town. Plus, if you’re good at online marketing and you have reached a good level of foot traffic as we have, our easily adoptable dogs are gone in hours or days, which leaves us in the unenviable position of trying to take our more complicated dogs into town. Not for me.
Social media definitely helps bridge the gap. Photos, videos, stories and posts all help people know what happens in your shelter and helps them arrive with animals in mind. You wouldn’t think there are shelters who aren’t on board with that yet, but I KNOW at least five local shelters where they have had to have some big arguments about whether to use social media at all or not.
For us in France, we’re behind the times.
We don’t have rich charities who can pay for social media teams like the UK does, or like some shelters in the US. It is very much a grassroots kind of thing. I mean “social media” for one of France’s largest shelters is basically a team of five volunteers. But it works.
That said, you have to go through some pretty uncomfortable periods where frustrated individuals berate you on Facebook at midnight because you wouldn’t let them adopt a St Bernard as they lived in a 10th floor apartment and work 8-6, or some heartbroken couple who share stories of their kitten who died of FIP shortly after adoption, unwittingly giving everyone the idea that all your animals are sick and diseased.
And if you kill dogs and cats for space… that can make some shelters very reticent to share their animals only to then have to explain “we killed this one for space” and face uproar in a community that don’t understand. People follow posts. They want to know what happened to Mabrouk or Mabelle. Heaven help you if you don’t have a good answer. Of course, we also know those shelters who work with the !!!!!THIS DOG WILL BE EUTHANISED TOMORROW AT 7AM IF NOBODY ADOPTS THEM!!!! and seem to be torn either between having no shame or being completely desperate. Or both.
What is important though is recognising the geographical problems you face as well as dealing with misconceptions about what you do.
It’s important to build up an authentic relationship both in real life and on social media with people who share your values and who will adopt from you time after time. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing people coming back again and again, becoming involved in a community. With so many shelters being geographically outcast, it’s vital to build a community who work by word of mouth. I mean, in my tiny hamlet, the number of dogs and cats from our shelter has gone from 0 to 9. I know I have two of those animals, but even so… as a friend said a few weeks ago, “you’d have to be bloody hard-hearted in our community NOT to have a shelter dog”.
That brings me to a final point.
You may do everything you can to open up your shelter to the world and people will still find it hard to cross the threshold.
Whether people believe you’re dog catchers out to kill all the dogs in the world, or whether they’re just not ready to face a wall of dogs who remind us of our failings as a species, some people are going to find it hard to cross your threshold even if they say they would adopt.
Shelters can make this easier by bringing dogs out of the shelter, using areas that have a more home-like feel or even using foster systems.
Foster systems, for me, are the future. We’re not there yet at our shelter because so much of our client base is – believe it or not – foot traffic. It’s changing, and we’re already changing for the cats, where most of our kittens are off-site. We’re happy to lose those “customers” who want to “buy” a kitten in 10 minutes. But we’re not there yet, and most of our dogs in foster are there for age or medical reasons. We’re yet to start using fosters for behavioural reasons or for other reasons. People still turn up at the shelter and expect to “buy” a dog in 30 minutes as if they are buying a pair of shoes. That’s one behaviour our cattery staff and volunteers have been really good at fighting. But we’re not there yet with the dogs.
It’s not just about getting out into the community. The truth is though that fosters – even short term ones – can be really good for dogs who need a stress break from the shelter. Gunter et al. (2019) found that temporary foster systems for short stays were as effective as you’d expect at reducing stress levels short term.
That said, not only are foster systems good for dogs, they can get the dogs into parts of the community shelters don’t normally touch. What wouldn’t I do to get shelter dogs in a foster network in Bordeaux? I daren’t bear to tell you. When foster dogs have lower cortisol levels and are more likely to cope with outings, that makes it easier to take them to public events. Mohan-Gibbons et al. (2014) found that foster programmes were a great way to get dogs to the places where they might be adopted and to break down the geographical barriers to adoption.
For me, shelters have a long way to go to move opinion from animal control. That’s made much harder because of the geographical location of many shelters. Foster programmes, social media and other outreach work can help shelters encourage more people to adopt. Opening our doors and engaging with the community may be the first way to achieve that.
Next week, in the final post in this series, I’ll be bringing the last posts all together to help shelters make the most impact in adopting out animals successfully.
Gunter, L. M., Feuerbacher, E. N., Gilchrist, R. ., Wynne, C. D. L. 2019. Evaluating the effects of a temporary fostering program on shelter dog welfare. PeerJ 7:e6620
Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., Garrison, L. and Allison, M. 2014. Evaluation of a Novel Dog Adoption Program in Two US Communities. PLoS One 9(3): e91959.
In the last two posts, I’ve been looking at how we view dogs as a social construct, and then how we view dogs who belong to a small group with a name of its own, known as a breed. Today I’m looking at how we view strays, rescues and shelter dogs, before, during and after their arrival at the shelter.
Most of the world’s dogs live unrestrained lives. With around 200m dogs in the handful of post-industrial, developed countries and another 800m or so in the rest of the world, it’s only in recent times that restraint and ownership have really come into their own. Some dogs living in some cities now have the misfortune to only be allowed in very, very specific places. If your landlord agrees, and the other tenants agree, and you keep your dog tethered on the street, and you have a dog park, your dog might have a tiny modicum of what we might consider freedom. Their rights to eat what they want, go where they want and reproduce with whichever dog takes their fancy are so very narrow that we now have to consider enrichment activities as if they are zoo or lab animals.
I make no judgement on that, by the way. It’s just a description of how some dogs live in the modern world.
Some countries don’t face problems with unrestrained populations. I am, by the way, going to leave ‘unowned’ populations until later because that’s different again. Unrestrained doesn’t mean unowned. The cocker up the road is a perfect example. You can spend your days at liberty without meaning you don’t have a name on your ID documents. He wanders about a quiet village to his heart’s content. Sure, he annoys all the other restrained dogs, but c’est la vie. Lots of things annoy restrained dogs.
Unrestrained dogs were fairly regular in my childhood, despite leads being more and more common. In British suburbia we did have dogs who took themselves off for a walk in the 70s. But most of the dogs on our street lived restrained lives, from the westie at number 1, the pair of chows who lived at number 17, the labrador next door, the collie at the end of the cul-de-sac and our own cocker spaniel. You can see one reason why on this photo…. cars. The invention of the automobile changed a lot for dogs.
In the US, in Australia, in Japan, in France, in the UK, and in many other post-industrial societies, the gradual loss of freedom for our dogs has been an on-going process these past few decades. The wealthier the country (or even region) and the more urban it is, the less likely it is that unrestrained dogs will be tolerated.
We still get ‘stray’ dogs – owned dogs (whether identified or not) who are temporarily unrestrained. Whether they’ve escaped or got out or been let out… there have been times my own dogs have been stray. Temporarily unrestrained. But they don’t live in complete freedom.
We don’t have populations of dogs who live unrestrained, ownerless lives in north-western European countries. It’s why I always laugh about that stray dog myth going around about the Netherlands, that they have abolished their ‘stray dog’ population. No they haven’t. Any such country, where dogs live and are restrained, might accidentally face a sudden break for freedom. What they mean is that the Netherlands, like France, the UK, Germany and a large number of largely northern, largely western, European countries, don’t have dogs who live permanently unrestrained or ownerless lives. You know, Call of the Wild stuff. The Netherlands are certainly not the only country not to have dogs who live permanently unrestrained lives.
In a number of those countries, reducing unrestrained and unowned populations has also been linked to the (practical) eradication of rabies in dogs, like in France for instance. But remember too that a number of these countries who like to brag about their lack of dog problems and bemoan those in southern or eastern Europe (and the rest of the world) are small populations over vast terrains that are largely unsuitable for dogs to live in because there’s a) nothing to eat and b) nobody to mate with. Scandinavia just hasn’t faced the same issues Germany or France have.
In post-industrial countries with large, dense populations like Japan, France, Germany and the UK, we got there by extensive culling of dog populations, a move to bought dogs rather than found ones, and by the commodification of dogs in general. By turning them into property, giving them identification details, having licences and legal obligations, we’ve removed the majority of what were once unrestrained dogs or unowned dogs. We may get strays, but we do not have large populations of permanently unrestrained or unowned dogs. That didn’t come into being in glamorous ways where people suddenly started thinking differently about dogs’ freedom and ownership: it came by mass culling as well as legal and cultural change about restriction, sterilisation and ownership. Ironically, the cultures where we find it abhorrent that others kill stray dogs are ones where we had to cull a large number of dogs just to achieve that coveted status of being a ‘no kill’ country. And worse still, a lot of those cultures where we believe mass killings of dogs is unethical are ones who still practise it whilst at the same time demonising other nations that do. Tricky, this morality and ethics business.
How we currently deal with those who are temporarily unowned or unrestrained dogs in Europe depends on many things. In some countries like Italy, some dogs may languish in shelters as it is illegal to euthanise. In others, such as pre-2014 Denmark when legislation changed, if you wanted to shoot such a dog, you could. In countries like the UK and France, the futures of these dogs (and cats by the way) are shrouded in secrecy in many cases: moral outrage means that if shelters euthanise, they are subject to intense public scorn, and if they don’t, they may end up with dogs in kennels for a long time. In other countries like Spain, it varies region to region. In some countries, dogs and cats are killed on capture. In others, there is a legal delay of between 3-90 days before municipal authorities can kill unclaimed dogs and cats. What’s important to remember – the “gold standard” of 100% identified dogs with 100% accurate details, 100% restrained lives and as close to 100% reclaiming/rehoming if they are temporarily unowned – is a work in progress for most countries. That is easy in a country of one person. It is easy in a country with one dog. It is not so easy in a country of 80 million people and 8 million dogs.
Outside our very blinkered Northern/Western Europe paradigm, the picture changes. Dogs do live unrestrained lives.
“Unowned” dogs might not have one named owner, but they still might belong. Dogs like this might even have a number of humans that they consider sources of something useful – whether that’s a place to sleep, someone who feeds them or gives them water. The dogs, whether they are urban or rural, might be known as village dogs, pariah dogs, street dogs or so on. They, collectively, depend on us, collectively.
In some cultures, that’s accepted and encouraged. Nobody owns them and most people care for them in some way or another.
In others, dogs like this are seen as a nuisance, especially to us wealthy post-industrial tourists. Sometimes, dogs are seen as a nuisance due to over-population or failure of trap-neuter-release schemes. Other times, public policy changes as the country develops, and what had been a fairly benign relationship between communities and their dogs then becomes antagonistic as society tries to clean itself up to emulate Western European standards. Witness the mass round-up and slaughter of dogs in some cities before global events like the Olympics, for example. As societies move from a benign or tolerant approach to dogs, or even one where large populations are sporadically culled, into a world of new media where both unowned and/or unrestrained dogs are not tolerated by people in the west who impose their values on other countries both for having such dogs and for trying to deal with the problem, we then get a number of interventions.
Some of these interventions have been successful, such as trap-neuter-release schemes in Bali and other SE Asian countries. Others are less successful (and I’ll add this in very big capital letters is very much my OWN opinion and you’re very welcome to challenge me on it), by transplanting dogs who have lived permanently unrestrained and unowned lives into countries where they are then subject to fairly intense restraint. That’s not to say that dogs who’ve lived family lives in one geographical area can’t make great dogs in another, but in my opinion (let me stress that) we need to think carefully about the kind of lives we are offering to dogs who have come from living on the streets and whether it is fair to ask them to adapt. We Cultural Imperialists like to do such things – witness all the 19th and 20th century attempts to ‘domesticate’ indigenous peoples by displacing them into “civilised” places – and I think it’s worth an ethical conversation with ourselves about what consequences there are. As long as we’re having that conversation and we know it’s truly for the best for that animal as an individual, then I think we can live with that.
If you disagree with me, as well you might, ask yourself how we manage cats and how we think about cats. Cats are (and this is not my opinion) as worthy as dogs, but we humans feel peculiar about dogs in ways that would take 10 books and several encyclopedias to explain. I include myself in that, of course. But we don’t call cats “rescue” cats, we don’t fly thousands of miles to pick them up, and when I travelled through Morocco’s ports with a number of kitty friends, I did not think I should send them back to the UK as a solution. Thinking of things that way can sometimes shine a light on our own Western behaviour of transplanting populations of animals without consideration of their welfare. Of course, those decisions are easy to make when there are benevolent trap-neuter-release schemes and education programmes designed to help dogs stay in situ and help the public know how to have a relationship with these dogs, but it is not an easy decision when someone is sharing photos on Facebook of dogs in a pound who will be killed the next week if no home can be found. Ethics are great in theory, aren’t they?
A lot of it is about how we feel about unowned and unrestrained animals, though, as a culture.
James Serpell (2004) plotted animals (and dogs) on a graph of emotion vs usefulness.
I think this is a useful way of looking at dogs. At the same time, social psychologists were busy doing a similar thing showing how people thought about other people:
I don’t see these as different in many ways. We have dogs we admire, like service dogs and support dogs. They are useful (competent) and we like them, having warm feelings towards them. The effect that dogs have, by the way, transfers to humans and makes others more likely to talk to us if we’re in a wheelchair, get us a phone number or get them to be helpful. The role of certain types of dog as ice-breakers is pretty well established.
We have dogs who we don’t like so much but who are useful, like security dogs or guard dogs for example. If they seem biddable and friendly then we might feel more warmly about them. But otherwise, we tolerate them and are a bit scared of them. Unlike humans, they’re not competing with us, but they might pose a threat if we’re on the sharp end of their teeth if we’re taking drugs through airports or messing with explosives. In France, many French feel “cold” about working dogs like hunt dogs, even though the dogs are useful. It’s one of the problems we struggle with at adoption, as British, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, Austrian and German adopters love our hounds, pointers, setters and spaniels, but convincing a French person (of a certain age) that they are family pets is another thing entirely.
For stray dogs, whether temporarily unrestrained and unowned, or permanently, we may feel contempt and loathing, or pity. It’s these feelings shelters may have to deal with, that people don’t feel the same about such dogs as they do about guide dogs. If they look sweet and we find them appealing, we’ll feel pity and if they look ‘cold’, we’ll find ourselves having a reaction on a purely emotional level to them that is one of disgust or scorn.
You’ll see how this works. This is Ania. 13 years old and found as a stray. Do you have positive feelings of pity? A pang of ‘Aww?’ A sense of outrage on her behalf that this has befallen her? Do you feel sorry for her and feel like you want to intervene in her life? She’s not ‘useful’ – but she definitely makes us feel warm towards her.
If you don’t, I think you need to visit a cardiologist, pronto, and check out if you’ve got a cold lump of granite instead of beating living tissue in there, you stone cold beast.
Then poor Oural here who looks scared… most people don’t have the same response to an ‘awww’ for him. If I add that he barks, that he growls (he doesn’t but if you came to the shelter, we have dogs who do) and that he’s suspicious of people, immediately all the warmth starts to drop… some people and cultures feel less warm about boy dogs (those puppy dog’s tails) and about dogs with pointy ears (seriously) and we start moving from pity to contempt.
Now of course we pick up on this when we ‘market’ shelter dogs. My bloody heart breaks when I see old dogs in shelters. But I know disgust vs pity is a fine line and based on personal views. Not everyone thinks an old dog is something lovely and it might well make you feel scorn or disgust rather than pity. But I know enough people adopt dogs they feel sorry for, and that’s why Ania here will find a home quicker than Eden
Ania has that air of dejection that Eden lacks. Despite the fact this boy lived all his life chained up in a garage filled with rubbish, despite his similar age to Ania, despite even those floppy ears, we just don’t feel the same, especially when we visit him and our feelings of ‘awww’ fade as we realise he has a few ‘nuisance’ behaviours in kennels. Result: Ania will have a stay of days, and Eden has had a stay of years.
Our feelings about dogs in shelters are impaired also because of perceptions they aren’t good dogs. We might blame the dog, we might blame the former owner, we might blame the shelter experience itself. We might not even like that we feel this way, but we can’t ignore it. We might blame culture and our rational thoughts tell us pit bulls are not responsible for how they’ve been created whilst at the same time, our emotional systems are telling us that these dogs don’t merit the same response as a cocker spaniel. That’s borne out thousands of times on social media shares. Small, young female cocker spaniel? She’ll be shared thousands of times. Lummox of a muttley middle-aged male? He’ll be lucky to get a handful even though the first dog really doesn’t need your shares and the second is the one who really, really does.
For me, I think this is why studies about shelter dogs haven’t been able to agree as to whether temperament or looks are more appealing, and that they can’t find a single thing that dogs could do to make themselves more adoptable, behaviour-wise. I think it’s why fearful dogs will find a home more quickly than aggressive-looking ones, as even though both are about fear, a sad looking dog inspires our positive affects, and an angry-looking one doesn’t. If a dog makes you feel pity rather than loathing, you’ll adopt it. If you feel warm rather than cold, bam, you might as well put your name on the adoption contract.
Trouble is, other things are at work that affect whether we feel warm or cold towards dogs.
Pedigree is one of those things and it works in a variety of ways. Partly because of how we view breed dogs as “pure-bred” and say things along the lines that we know their heritage and their behaviour will be predictable, that then affects how we view other dogs. I think that’s why some pedigree/breed or type dogs will leave soonest. I think that’s why other breeds like bull terrier breeds (or even terriers themselves) will stay longer because pedigree isn’t always experienced positively for humans, and because we bring a shedload of prejudices with us. For us in France, our hounds are seen often as ‘useful’ but ‘cold’ – they’re seen as outdoor, untrainable dirty, loathsome dogs who won’t bond with humans. It’s categorically untrue, but the chance of a French person adopting a dog like Jaguar (below) is very, very low.
In a shelter in France, he gets the contempt response, not the pity response. In Germany, where they don’t face such stigma, he’ll be gone in days. Especially where they know his story, which adds loads to his ability to make us feel sorry for him.
What we do know though is that dogs who’ve passed through a shelter or been rehomed are incredibly popular. There are a lot of warm and kind people out there who take on a dog they may not know much about or a dog who may have faced a lot of disruption. In France, by my estimates, at least 65000 dogs are rehomed every year and that makes them more popular than Aussie shepherds, Malinois, German Shepherds , staffies, Amstaffs and golden retrievers put together. The top 6 registered breeds in 2018 in France can’t compete with shelter dogs in popularity. I suspect that picture is duplicated in a number of other countries too.
There are differences, though. In the UK, for example, which has 9.9m dogs (estimated) to France’s 7.3m in a similar-sized population, our French shelter population is only the same size as the top two British breeds, the French bulldog and the labrador. These cultural facts make a difference: French people like “type” dogs, but breeds are clearly much, much less of a commodity here. In fact, four of the top six French breeds require registration to work (Malinois and GSD) or to avoid BSL (staffies and Amstaffs). You’ll see a number of yorkies or bichons for sure, but without paperwork to speak of. Work about your own national and regional demographics is vital if you want to understand what you’re up against as a shelter.
What else do we know about adoption trends from academic studies?
Surprisingly little, actually.
Most studies are done in the USA, Australia or the UK. Very little exists in Europe, and what I know of UK, German and French shelters is that there are enormous cultural differences. We need more studies about global shelter sizes, populations and trends. Until we understand demographics, we can’t compare countries or the specifics of particular systems. We can’t even compare ourselves with our neighbours.
We also know that the studies that have been undertaken fail to really show us anything in particular.
Most studies have focused on how dogs look or behave.
How dogs look has frequently been investigated as a factor behind why people choose a specific shelter dog, with variables such as size, coat length and colour, breed and age influencing adoption rates. I’ll just take you thought a handful…
Normando et al. (2006): young dogs adopted more quickly, gender not an issue
Posage et al. (1998): some breeds (terrier, toy, hound and non-sporting) are more successfully adopted. Light coat colours, small size and surrendered dogs from homes were also more popular.
Protopopova et al. (2012): breed type and small size determine length of stay.
Weiss et al. (2012): appearance in general was important for just 29% of dog adopters
Brown et al. (2013): young dogs and small dogs stay the shortest time in shelters. Coat colour and sex did not influence adopters. Guarding breeds stay longest. Giant breeds had the shortest stay. “Fighting” breeds were adopted surprisingly quickly.
Siettou et al. (2014): young dogs, small dogs, pedigree dogs and coat length affected speed of adoption.
Kay et al. (2018): age, coat colour and breed affect adoption rates.
Voslářová et al. (2019): coat colour influences length of stay and black dogs stay longest.
As you can see from this small selection of research about physical factors influencing length of stay, nobody agrees on everything. Sometimes things matter and other times they don’t. For us, small female bichons under two years of age will not stay long. Middle-aged big dogs of unknown heritage will stay an age (sorry Eden). Old dogs go quickly as long as they’re smallish and behave like old dogs.
Looking puppyish or like a juvenile also influences us, though studies were not carried out in a shelter (hence our love of squashed noses, oversized floppy ears and supersized bug eyes). Human coloured eyes might also influence our choices (like blue or honey-coloured eyes). Large eye size and inner brow movement have also been suggested to increase the appeal of dogs.
Despite this, decisions to adopt based on looks are clearly complex and no single factor studied has made us say “that’s the one!” Studies suggest that if a dog conforms to a certain type, they will be more easily adopted, but do not explain why results are often contradictory or complex.
We also have stereotypes about dogs in shelters which might not be true, like the black dog effect and do not address reasons why certain types of dog are over-represented in shelters in the first place.
Some shelters are following training programmes or enrichment programmes to increase adoptability by changing canine behaviour. A number of studies have shown that shelter staff and facilities may aid adoption. You know, nice spaces, helpful and knowledgeable staff. Even so, studies about in-shelter training or shelter enrichment programmes have shown inconsistent results and have failed to show a clear correlation with adoption rates. In-shelter research has mainly focused on how dogs can behave in ways more conducive to adoption such as lying down or engaging in play although a number of unpleasant behaviours such as jumping and mouthing were shown to be unimportant. Currently, the range of studies about behaviour have failed to demonstrate that teaching specific behaviours or changing the shelter environment would increase adoption.
All that scientific research!
For me, why they’ve failed to find patterns is because we fall in love quickly and it depends on how we feel about the dog. Do we have warm feelings towards them? Because if we do, we’ll be more likely to adopt. I think about Flika and how I think I may have left her had she not had a nosebleed on my foot. My pity levels shot up. And then, when she was here, she reminded me of my old dog Tobby. Not so much in looks but in personality and even how she moved. Warm feelings go up again. Now I’ve got myself feeling all gooey about old malinois as a result of my experiences with them, I then fall in love with them over and over. No longer do I feel contempt for those who shout at me from behind the bars, I just feel love and pity. I think that’s why so many people arrive having just lost a dog, as they’re not exactly lookin for a replacement, but we’ve got al kinds of warm and gooey feelings left over and we want to help another dog – maybe not one too like our last, but we want to adopt a dog to care for it in the ways we may not have been able to do with our last. Look at how mine went: lost Ralf suddenly and fairly traumatically, took on a dog I felt very little for (Tobby) but who needed a home, who then made me feel squishy about malinois and made me unable to resist Mrs Knickers. Compare that to the long, slow losses of Tilly, Tobby and Amigo, and caring for them exhausted me so much I didn’t think I had it in me to do it again. Four ageing dogs in five years has zapped my abiity to cope and then I take a younger one.
These narratives that lie behind people’s reasons to adopt a dog are worth listening to, not least because I do not think all people take shelter dogs in a commodity-purchase kind of way. The studies conducted have seen dogs as a commodity (what sells best? How can we test the product variability?) or the shelter as a distribution point (how can we market better, do sales better, help our clients better?) and adopters as customers. Now I think there are no downsides to better marketing, sales and customer relations, don’t get me wrong, and some people do want a second-hand/cheap dog.
But many others are deeply affected by their feelings towards a dog that may be influenced by but not ruled by breed or size or age, colour or sex or coat length. That’s why shelters have adopters who say “I’d like a young female spaniel” and leave with an elderly male German shepherd. The heart wants what the heart wants. Such adopters do not bear up to quantitative studies. You ask them and they try to justify why they picked the dog, but they can’t really explain why the homeliest dogs you’ve ever seen is one they find handsome or cute and loveable. It’s why adopters fall in love with the misfits and the grumps and the ones who look like they’ve been stuck together wrong.
People do fall in love with all kinds of unpredictable dogs that leave you wondering what on earth was going on in their tiny brain.
What I think this says for shelters is yes, you can obey the rules of marketing once you know your own shelter demographics, but you’ll also need to fight prejudice and contempt for some of your dogs. Sometimes, that will be your own prejudice and contempt too. I’m not a Jack Russell fan, and I know I need to fight my own feelings about cuties like this boy:
That affects us all: shelter workers who present their own favourites and ignore the dogs they feel negatively about, as well as euthanasia policies, marketing policies and adoptions. Sometimes, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I think it’s helpful for some of our dogs if we can move them to other shelters who don’t face the same stigma for certain types. We certainly make use of that to rehome our hounds.
I think it’s important to know that people may be governed by cultural preferences for dogs as a commodity, but that not everybody is. Every dog will have someone who makes them all gooey and some adopters are governed by very strong emotional affects like pity, love or empathy. I don’t think we should underestimate BOTH market factors that drive adoption of dogs-as-a-commodity, and emotional factors that drive adoption of others. Shelters definitely need their own data though, as it varies so very widely, but it’s worth understanding which of your client groups are driven by economical factors and which are driven by emotions. For some, a shelter dog is a cheap dog. For others, it’s the equivalent of ethical sourcing. In both, the shelter dog is a ‘second hand dog’ and whether that appeals to people for economy or ethics that’s worth understanding. However, a large number of people ARE driven by emotional affect to adopt a dog, and it’s worth bearing that in mind for dogs who fall into any of the studies’ “unhomeable” groups or if you don’t have a strong enough base of “ethical” buyers who are still driven by market forces but want an ethically-sourced dog. Someone out there somewhere WILL have warm feelings and knowing when to inspire pathos in your advertising and for which dogs is certainly a skill for shelters to consider. Woe betide you, however, if you as a shelter constantly go for the pity factor, as you’ll soon find yourself inspiring cold and incompetent feelings when people suss that this is what you’re up to. Save the emotional appeals for where they’re needed and your client base will trust your competence.
Next time, I’ll take you through prejudices and stereotypes that shelters themselves have to deal with and how they can do that.
Some of the studies mentioned:
Brown, W. P., Davidson, J. P. and Zuefle, M. E. (2013) Effects of phenotypic characteristics on the length of stay of dogs at two no-kill animal shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 16 pp.2-18.
Fratkin, J. L. and Baker, S. C. (2013) The role of coat colour and ear shape on the perception of personality in dogs. Anthrozoös. 26, 25-133.
Kay, A., Coe, J. B., Young, I., Pearl, D. (2018) Factors influencing time to adoption for dogs in a provincial shelter system in Canada. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 21(4) 375-388.
Normando, S., Stefanini, C., Meers, L. et al. (2006) Some factors influencing the adoption of sheltered dogs. Anthrozoös. 19, 211-224.
Posage, J. M., Bartlett, P. C., Thomas, D. K. (1998) Determining factors for successful adoption of dogs from an animal shelter. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 213, 478-482.
Protopopova, A., Gilmour, A. J., Weiss, R. H. et al. (2012) The effects of social training and other factors on adoption success of shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 142, 61-68.
Siettou, C., Fraser, I. M. and Fraser, R. W. (2014) Investigating some of the factors that influence “consumer” choice when adopting a shelter dog in the United Kingdom.Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 17, 136-147.
Waller, B. M., Peirce, K., Caeiro, C. C. et al. (2013) Paedomorphic facial expressions give dogs a selective advantage. PLoS ONE. 8.
Weiss, E., Miller, K., Mohan-Gibbons, H. and Vela, C. (2012) Why did you choose this pet?: Adopters and pet selection preferences in five animal shelters in the United States. Animals. 2, 144-159
Voslářová, E., Zak, J., Večerek, V. and Bedanova, I. (2019) Coat color of shelter dogs and its role in dog adoption. Society and Animals. 27(1) 25-35.
I mean, let’s face it… when we want a dog, we have two choices: a brand new baby one, or an adult one from somewhere else.
If we live in developed, post-industrial countries and we want a brand new baby one, we can choose one that comes with a dog breed or we can choose that doesn’t.
The same if we’re getting an adult one.
I want to dissect that choice we’ve got and really get to grips with the thinking underneath it – a binary thinking often so part of our culture that we don’t stop to question it.
Let’s talk about that word “pedigree” first. I’m not going to use it myself because it has notions of class and being “pure” or somehow better than a “mutt” or a “mongrel”. If anything, I like the slightly cute “Heinz 57” to describe dogs who don’t conform to a type, but that is arse-backwards because so-called pedigrees came out of the Heinz dogs, not the other way around. It’s like saying “mixed race”. Well, they’re just not. It’s not a definition for a dog that looks like this:
It’s not like we had 400 different breeds of dog and “mutts” came out of them. We had mutts. Some were good at jobs. We specialised for jobs, like terriers and lapdogs and sighthounds and shepherds and livestock guardians. And breeds came out of them.
Mutt is such an ugly word anyway. Merriam Webster’s first definition is “a stupid person”. You can see why I’m not okay with this, even if it is an American definition.
They’re not “mongrels” either. Merriam Webster says: “being offspring produced by parents of different races, breeds, species, or genera” – well, “mongrel dogs” existed way before different breeds.
I could go “woke” and call them “unique”, but they’re as unique as every other dog on the planet (or other animal). I don’t think we’re at the point where we can reclaim these words either, as various other pejorative terms have been.
I have real trouble finding a non-judgemental word to describe the huge population of dogs who don’t have a type. So I’m just going to call them “dogs” and I’ll add a word to help you know when I mean a dog who isn’t. I might have said “unknown heritage” but I say that knowing you may well know their heritage. All those words are troublesome and are a result, no doubt, of some quite ugly 19th century social trends that I’m not so comfortable with. We need better words. Most cats do not have this problem and nobody cares apart from a few cat fanciers.
I’m using “type” here to mean dogs who look like a breed, without any pedigree papers. Dogs who did jobs, largely. I will use “breed” for any of those 400 (more?) types of dog who require you to have a list of their grandparents, and who in all likelihood, you probably need to pay for. I will not call them inbred mutants or pure-bred as both of those are imbued with meaning I don’t want to convey. I don’t want you to finish reading here, though, and think I’m anti-breed. It’s far more nuanced than a simple “pro” or “con”. Besides, having had two true pedigree dogs, two “type” dogs who were pedigree in all but evidence and four dogs who had no such claim to a name, you can see how complex it is for me. That said, in France, we don’t tend to get so many that don’t have some breed genes in there, simply because of the balance of dogs of no clear breed vs breed dogs.
Most likely, our first specialisations happened thousands of years ago, dividing dogs into hunting dogs and guarding dogs. Those guarding dogs may well have even helped domesticate humans. How mad is that? Civilisation as we know it, that sedentary city-building, crop-growing species we’ve become, might only have been possible with guardian breeds to help us domesticate other species which then meant we could stop moving around so much. Madness. Nobody knows for sure how or why humans domesticated dogs, whether dogs domesticated themselves or whether they actually domesticated us, and no one theory is better than any other. But those ancient guardian dogs who now give us Aidis, Akbash, Carpathians, Kangals and Kuchis may well have been among the oldest “types”. But essentially, long ago, they were all just dogs.
What I love about archaeological dog stuff is that even really great archaeologists mostly only know proto-dog bones from young wolf bones because they were buried near humans. Dogs have long since meant something to us.
Their first use as a status symbol was probably not unlike having a very good spear or axe: it conferred elevated status upon you because your dogs helped you be better than other people at stuff. Your dog’s progeny (and maybe yours too) became meaningful because you were better at that stuff. If you had more sheep alive at the end of the year because you had five particularly good guardian dogs, both your economic and social status would improve as a result.
The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had their role in shaping the destiny of the dog, not least dogs of war, house guardians, hunters and shepherds. Varro gives us quite a lot of description in his Rerum rusticarum libri tres. I’m sure when he was talking about shepherd dogs, though, he meant livestock guardians rather than herding dogs – a specialism that probably came later.
From those early days, we specialised and specialised. In the UK (and henceforth affecting its New World colonies who continued some habits but not others as a kind of double-fingered salute to their erstwhile Imperial overlords) dog ownership was based on exclusivity: you had to have a certain amount of cash in the 11th century if you wanted to own a dog. Hounds became associated with the aristocracy, particularly greyhounds. Although in other parts of Europe, greyhounds were banned altogether as unsportsmanlike, so good were they at their job. Thus, the galgo, podenco and various other Iberian sighthounds continue to be used to work in those countries, compared to others like France and Germany who thought it was just bloody unfair. Sporting dogs implied money and leisure-time. Poaching dogs implied criminality.
Don’t know about you, but I see two rich kids and their greyhound just kicking back, and some kind of general dog on the right in the shadows. There’s a metaphor for you.
In the homes of the aristocracy, a lady might keep a ‘small popie’ (I just love that phrase… a small ladys popie) as a lapdog. Laps only exist if you get to sit down, so that tells you a lot about that. By the way, some men gave them to their wives as a chastity belt alarm… were the small popie to be put down and left so that you could engage in a little “how’s your father”, well they were supposed to yap to let everyone know.
I mean, that looks like a small ladys popie to me. I don’t know about you. You can see he is ready to bite anyone who looks like he might want to get up to a bit of hanky-panky with his small lady.
Nothing so much as a genealogy for any of those dogs, though.
Shakespeare tells us a lot about dogs, as does John Caius with hisDe Canibus Britannicis written in 1570 about all kinds of dogs. Collies make an appearance, not as a breed, of course, but as a type. Greyhounds, bloodhounds, harriers, spaniels, setters, shepherds, water dogs, mastiffs, and all manner of other dogs make it into his book, including a number of others such as the Tumbler (who tricked rabbits into capture) and spaniels known as Comforters, a name I like very much. His final category is about “Curres of the mungrell and rascall sort”, which shows how deep-seated our negative views about dogs go. “Mingled with sundry sortes”, responsible for their own reproductive choices, including perhaps with bears and foxes according to the author, Caius didn’t have a particularly positive view of them. He may well have founded a college in Cambridge, but biology hadn’t quite hit its stride yet, clearly. Breedist prejudice, yes. Biology, no.
Written genealogies start on both sides of the channel in the 17th century as the Agrarian Revolution takes interest in improving livestock quality across the farming world. Aristocratic hounds were the first to get their genealogies, but plenty of other domesticated animals kept them company.
I mean, this seventeenth century dog does not look unlike a Brittany spaniel. Mabelle at our shelter is almost the spitting image.
Right down to the freckles, the dudley nose, the ginger ears and eye patches, the central white band, the amber eyes…
But there were spanielly looking dogs right in there with greyhound looking dogs in art as early as the fourteenth century. There’s a Mabelle right underneath the horse if I’m not mistaken.
As revolutions took place and the Enlightenment spread across Europe and its New World colonies – or its former ones – dog ownership rules relaxed and the nouveaux riches and the new bourgeoisie took up dog keeping too. Leisure time became an actual thing through the Industrial Revolution, and gundog breeds in particular started to find a place for the aspiring gentleman. Indoors, the small ladys popie became a middle-class pastime of its own: hobby breeding. To be fair, hobby breeding and “fancying” other animals from pigeons to rabbits was also hugely popular with blokes too. What else are you going to do with a little time on your hands? Leisure time, time itself and weekends were practically invented in the Victorian Age and when you have time and leisure and weekends, why not start hen fancying in your spare time?
It tied in with other ideas too: the “improvement” of the race. “Pure” bloodlines didn’t just affect domesticated animals, as eugenicists found a society ripe for their ideas. Kennel clubs, “pedigrees” and the likes find their founding dates at such times all over the globe. Line-breeding and in-breeding, closed stud books and other bleak forms of artificial selection all found a home in the 19th century. Now anyone could have a dog, well, let’s bloody well interfere with nature as much as we can.
To be honest, though, if you spend an hour or two drifting through the National Portrait Gallery’s “pet dog” section, all the landed gentry seem to have far more indiscriminate dogs of unknown heritage far, far more than they have anything we’d know as a “breed”. Class, as many writers point out, was largely an invention of the middle classes. Dogs in paintings were a symbol of a different sort: loyalty and blind adoration.
As you see here, I’m pretty sure this isn’t a dog that has survived as a “breed” and the aristocratic Earl of Strafford didn’t seem to care much about that, as long as the dog was looking at him with blind devotion. For me, I don’t think it was particularly the toffs who cared about breeds, and for many countries with early kennel clubs, they were republics filled with the nouveaux riches, where their own human pedigree was not a barrier to success. Ironic indeed that the Americans and French in their republican spirit of égalité should have become quite so fixated on what breeds said about them. The humble dog-of-no-known-type would have been a much better symbol if you ask me.
Who had what dogs really became a huge thing in the Victorian times. Bull baiting, badger baiting, ratting and betting were the province of either the criminal underclass or the working man. I hear talk of bull terriers of various nationalities being Nanny dogs, which is largely nonsense. I mean there’s an awful lot of mythologising goes on about pedigree dog breeds. That’s especially from fairly knowledgeable dog people who should know better. I even saw a French behaviourist I respect very much classing huskies and pharoah dogs as ‘ancient breeds’. The pharoah dog’s myths are pretty evident on their wikipedia page: ‘From DNA analysis based solely on the genes of the Gray Wolf, a recent theory arose that the breed may have been recreated in more recent times from combinations of other breeds. However, popular belief holds that this breed is descended from the Tesem, one of the ancient Egyptian hunting dogs based on the similarities between the breed and well documented images of dogs and descriptive writings found on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs.’
Mythologising at work.
Still, a lot of what went into a breed MAY have had a long working history. I think that’s why, even in show lines, you get very stereotypical behaviours.
The trouble starts when dog breeds are appropriated by one group or another.
Take the German Shepherd for instance. Lots of mythologising about that breed, for sure. I’ve had experts in the field who may even work their dogs telling me about how the GSD worked 200 years ago. Ahhhh.
But as we see in the 20th century, sometimes the GSD has been appropriated as the symbol of white supremacy, not least in Nazi Germany where ‘pure’ blood wasn’t just for humans, and the GSD served as a perfect metaphor for strong German blood, but also in South Africa and Zimbabwe later as a symbol of white oppression of black majorities. Blondi’s appropriation by Hitler is just one symbol of how human cultures can use a dog breed in a rather ugly way. Even where they were not used by the police, they were often used by white landowners to protect their land.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback has a similarly ugly use: originally an African landrace dog used for hunting, it still carries the name of a colonial past and its genes reveal a closeness to Great Danes brought in by Europeans, then appropriated by white landowners. The boerboel has a similar heritage, bred for one purpose: to protect the homestead.
If you thought that the delightful hybrid wolf-dog escaped such ugly connections, a symbol of freedom, the call of the wild, think again. Wolf-hybrids were bred specifically in South Africa to track insurgents. Huskies, Malamutes, Saarloos, Czech Wolf Dogs and so on may have that rugged look that says you love hiking in mountains, but their purchase by dog trainers who use heavily aversive training methods says that Man’s Desire to Master Nature is not quite dead yet either.
It’s not all about white male supremacy, I promise. But it doesn’t get much prettier.
I’m from the working class north, a land of flat caps, whippets, miners and pies. Does anything say Working Class North better than pigeon fancying and a whippet?
Dog fighting and bull or bear baiting have mostly died a death, largely due to middle-class outrage (if you want to read some nice analysis of this, check out Hal Herzog and Jessica Pierce) but the dogs associated with them still find themselves appropriated by what Stuart Harding calls hypermasculinised disenfranchised young men. Pit bulls, staffies, bull terriers and the likes have a long history of association with men operating on the fringes of society. Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist may be well-known for his English Bull Terrier Bullseye, although Dickens referred to his dog as a “white shaggy dog” and no mention is made of a terrier at all. Breaking the stereotype about owners of bull breeds is one of the biggest battles shelters face on behalf of dogs who are 99% exactly the same as other dogs and who don’t care about stereotypes and your human prejudices thank you very much.
Dogs have a long history of being appropriated to represent race, gender, status, class, nationality and much more. Does anything say white working class English bloke like an English Bulldog? Does anything say, as Ricky Gervais brings up in his snippet in Humanity, elderly homosexual other than a miniature poodle? Does anything say middle-class white suburban girl like an English cocker spaniel of non-working lines?
Last time I was at the hairdresser’s, I know a rare occurrence, i picked up some Home Style kind of magazines to remind myself how other people live. Nothing but cavachons, maltipoos, labradoodles and dachshunds mentioned in the biographies of those mud-free, hair-free homes. Not a real mutt among them, and I flicked through at least five magazines.
You may laugh or may be offended, but these stereotypes affect dogs every day. I did have the man who wanted me to add ‘cross’ on a pedigree poodle’s paperwork, so afraid of the ribbing people would give him if he picked up a poodle at the shelter. How many people walk around a shelter smiling and turning up their nose at a bull breed or dog of unknown provenance?
If you want to join the world of agility and really succeed, are you getting a Jack Russell or an Aussie shepherd or a collie? Are you even allowed to go to an agility meeting if you don’t have a ponytail and lady bits? I joke, of course, and you’ll no doubt find me 50 examples of men doing agility with their dobies, but I did watch an awful lot of videos of agility trials before I allowed myself to make that statement. Yes, there were men and there were ladies without ponytails and without collies or Aussie shepherds. But I didn’t need to keep a tally.
And if you fancy a little mondioring, French ring, schutzhund or the likes, are you doing it with a spaniel? Are you male or female? Let’s be honest, it’s a sport dominated by people with penises with a penchant for a buzzcut and a doberman, shepherd or rottweiler. I see a few young women with ponytails who like camouflage far more than is normal, and then the odd non-camouflage woman who breaks the mould, perhaps just to show that she can. I love those obstinate creatures like myself who refuse to be bound by stereotypes and at least force me to question them.
The connection between race, gender, age, class, status, place, pastime, nationality and so much more is so deeply part of what we think about dogs that it can be impossible sometimes to step back and ask questions of our choices.
For those of us who work in shelters, in rescue or in breed-specific rehoming, we fight these stereotypes every day on behalf of less popular types or breeds. We currently have four German Shepherds, five Malinois, two Beauceron, eight American staffordshires, two cane corso, six German Shorthaired Pointers, two breton spaniels and a whole number of breeds who are not popular for one reason or another. You can imagine the scrap when a bichon lands, however.
And for our so-called mixed-race dogs, who may very well be a product of two or three predominant breeds, or a happy mélange of nothing in particular, what do THEY say about the people who adopt them? That was mostly what I wanted to know when I started my studies. Are they nothing more than a badge of honour that says how very virtuous we are?
That, however, is a topic for another post entirely!
If you want to know more, you’ll find these books really interesting:
Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. (2016) What is a dog?
Derr, M. (2011) How the dog became the dog
Mills, D. and Westgarth, C. (2016) Dog bites: a multidisciplinary approach
Miklosi, M. (2015) Dog behaviour, evolution and cognition
Ritvo, H. (1987) The Animal Estate: The English and other creatures in the Victorian age
What makes us pick a dog? Why this dog? What is it that makes us just click? Why do we have a preference for spaniels or poms or beagles or German Shepherds?
Once, long ago, a fledgling idea crossed my mind that led me to pick a name for the stuff I was doing. Woof Like To Meet. A matching service for people looking for a shelter dog.
I like to think that a part of me knew then that some dogs just appeal to us more than others. In reality, I’m just explaining a choice I made 6 years ago because it was cute.
But it became a bit of a sport. What dog would people go for? Could you look at a person and know what kind of dog they’d pick? Anyone involved in shelter adoptions and relinquishments will know what I’m talking about.
It comes down to stereotypes and prejudices more than anything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with Identikit guys who’ve had their pit-bull seized. You know. I wish one day they’d NOT conform to that type. I can spot who’s likely to pick out a poodle at fifty paces.
I remember watching Ricky Gervais handing out jobs for dogs and laughing at the stereotype about miniature poodles being carried around by elderly homosexuals. Except in France, that’s not true at all. Your average poodle owner would be an wealthy, elderly widow who lives in town and whose children had bought her a poodle for company after the death of their father. We get one or two surrenders of apricot poodles from time to time and they’re always like that. Mainly because their owners go into nursing homes or die themselves and the children don’t want the dog. Of course we don’t get apricot poodles from middle-aged gentlemen who might not die quite so quickly. I really need better demographics than my own narrow observations. There may well be a large number of poodles living out lives doing canicross and dock-diving and search and rescue who don’t end up in rescue. Better data is always needed before you start judging dogs and their owners.
Having just finished my dissertation for my Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour from the International School of Canine Behaviour and Psychology (sorry for the humblebrag!) I decided to focus my analysis on why people pick certain dogs. Be that types, breeds, looks or labels. I’ll be publishing this series of articles in relation to that, and the next five posts or so will be exploring my findings. But what makes us pair up elderly homosexuals or les mamies veuves with poodles? What makes that happen?
What do dogs say about us? Do we pick them to say stuff about us? Do people really pick dogs who look like them? Do we pick out dogs that share our temperament? Are they just a way of saying to people, “Hey look! I own a Turkish Piebald Leaping Dog. Look how unique I am!”
That’s what I wanted to know.
And, more specifically, what does a former stray who’s spent time in a shelter, say about us? Are they really nothing more of declaring what saintly people we are?
In order to find out, I read a lot of studies and I carried out some interviews. Some of the stuff I read was so interesting I needed to share it with you. I hope that it’ll be useful for shelters too, by the time I wend my way around to explaining that.
Sociologists and anthropologists who’ve focused in on human-animal relations say animals have socially constructed meaning.
What I think that means is that the label we give them is a short-hand way of saying how we view them and how we treat them.
Writers like Arluke and Sanders, Hal Herzog, Jessica Pierce, Peter Singer, Nik Taylor, Samantha Hurn and Marge DeMello have explored those socially-constructed labels for animals: lab animal, livestock, food, clothing, entertainment, weapon, pest, companion animal…. how we label animals then affects the moral and legal rights they have. It affects how we view them and how we think about them, as well as how we use them and even how we kill them.
Those writers look mostly at all animals and big categories. I just wanted to think about dogs. I liked thinking about other animals, sure, and it was interesting and complex. Like why we eat cows and hate snakes and love dogs, but if you eat snakes, hate dogs and love cows, you’re weird – or worse still if you eat dogs, hate cows and love snakes.
It just struck me that we use dogs in so very many, many ways. More than most other animals.
Maybe that’s because they are hugely successful as a land mammal species. 1 billion dogs, estimated, potter about this planet of ours. The number of pedigree dogs is surprisingly small and keeping dogs of named breed is inextricably tied up with development and wealth.
But how we think about and use dogs covers so many categories. I wished those authors would write in as much detail just about dogs.
Dogs are food in some countries. In fact it wasn’t so long ago that we in the West wouldn’t have had to look quite as far to find dogs bred for the plate. It tends to cause outrage and disgust in quite a few societies who really don’t have to look too far into the past to find the same.
Like this Belle Epoque butcher in Paris, for instance.
And dogs, as we know, are used in laboratories. We at the Refuge de l’Angoumois work with Association GRAAL to rehome beagles who’ve been used in labs. I guess, after the great apes and monkeys, our moral outrage about dogs in labs is next on the list.
We also use dogs as breeding livestock on farms, just as we might breed pigs and cows, sometimes to consume in some cultures, and sometimes as a commodity in others. Puppy mills or usines à chiot make money off the back of this commodity just like we might off any other livestock animal.
Dogs are clothing: I don’t have to tell you where some of the fur trimmings come from on festive hats or gloves. It’s not just for Cruella de Ville.
Then we start to specialise. Dogs are entertainment, be that in dog fighting rings and racetracks or on the screen.
Dogs are weapons, whether legally held or illegally. From disarming terrorists or guarding a building on the one hand to their use in drugs rings to protect stashes, cash and dealers.
Dogs are tools to help us turn spits, to drag sleds, to hunt other species, to keep down pests, to protect our sheep. Some are even named after this function. Retriever. Pointer. Shepherd. Terrier.
Dogs are prosthetics, acting as eyes, ears and hands. Some of them do that officially, and others just freelance. They’re a literal extension of ourselves.
Dogs are a commodity, a brand we choose like washing powder or soup. They’re even used to market other commodities like cars, toilet paper or paint.
Dogs are metaphors that help us explain that someone is ugly or sexually promiscuous, or in the dog house. They are artistic and literary symbols that help us understand class angst (like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights) or social standing.
Dogs are companion animals, even family members. They can be closer to us than many of our friends or family.
And the category I’m most interested in is ‘dog as pest or nuisance’. Because for a long time, that’s what ownerless stray dogs were. Out of their ‘normal’ geographical space and out of their ‘normal’ relationship with humans, dogs considered as pests are the strays shelters are charged with rehoming. Some, of course, are strays. That implies ownership. I don’t see a pigeon and say “man, the problem round here is all the stray pigeons”. It means you have a place you’re supposed to be and it also means your movement is restricted because of some strange thing called culture. Others are ‘village’ dogs, implying they’re communal property but nobody really takes ownership of them. Some are street dogs, as if they’ve never had a place within the family. We sometimes use the word feral, but feral dogs don’t really exist. Feral means a return to pre-domesticated status, and dogs, as far as we know, don’t have the ability to turn back into the long-dead ancestral wolf they once were. We use feral differently of course. But even then, there are few dogs who could live completely outside human spheres, untouched by human behaviour.
Our track record with other species ‘out of place’ isn’t good. Nuisance animals are often killed in the most brutal and inhumane of ways. Where lab dogs and companion dogs have very strict laws about who can kill them and how, dogs who are pests are often killed in the least efficient and most violent ways.
Like the turn-of-the-century dogs who made it onto the table, we Western countries don’t have to look too far into our own pasts to find the ugly canine skeletons in our closets.
Partly, this is tied up with disease management, particularly of rabies. There is a correlation between evolution of welfare laws and decreases in rabies. But New York used to round up strays, pack them into cages and drown them in the river not so very long ago. ‘Shelters’ are a modern notion: in the past (and very often in the present) they were simply a holding pen for dogs awaiting death. In many places, seeing a pack of stray dogs inspires the same feeling of disgust and fear as seeing rats. Strychnine, electrocution, drowning, gassing and shooting are commonly-used methods of killing such dogs, just as they are with any number of other species considered pests (even humans, much to our global shame).
Two dogs show me how little stray or ownerless dogs were valued not so long ago. One is Laika, the first dog in space. A Russian stray, being sent on a death mission into outer space has somehow glossed over the fact that Laika probably wouldn’t have been used in such a way if she was Khrushchev’s pedigree pup. The second dog is actually a group of dogs. In the sixties and seventies, psychologist Martin Seligman and his team used stray mutts to experiment on to teach us about learned helplessness. That involved electrocuting dogs until their muscles gave out in some cases. Though these ‘harms’ to ownerless dogs are far from rare, and in many ways are arguably less unethical than slow starvation or any other way of reducing stray dog populations, for me, they are strong symbols of just how recently ownerless dogs were outside what we in the west might classify as acceptable.
Why all this interesting yet seemingly theoretical musing is of interest to me is because it affects how we see shelter dogs, and that affects their adoptability. A pedigree dog (or at least one that conforms to type) will often, more easily, walk out of the shelter in days if it’s a breed that society approves of. Society still sees dogs of no known ancestry as ‘mutts’, ‘mongrels’, words we use to suggest impure, imperfect. Words that express our disgust in ways that we don’t feel about ‘mutt’ cats or hamsters. Even writers who take issue with being called the owner of a dog or with the word pet are happy to use the term “pure-bred”. In fact, I’m so conscious of this that instead of referring to my boy Heston as a mutt (12.5% GSD, 12.5% cocker spaniel, 12.5% labrador, 12.5% ‘other’, 50% groenendael) I call him a groenendael cross – largely because he kind of looks a bit like that and I can get away with it.
To be fair, France (the country our shelter is based in) has a high proportion of “type” dogs who look like an identifiable breed. Largely that’s based on a long working history with dogs and then quite a lot of breed-fancying from the 1870s onwards, briefly bottle-necking in WWI before continuing freely since then. We don’t have many dogs whose heritage isn’t immediately visible.
Flika looks like an elderly malinois because, largely (87.5%) that’s what she is. Apart from the 12.5% of her that says Great Grandad was a German Shepherd. Oops.
Few dogs look like mixed up muttleys in our shelter; they look like pointers, setters, terriers, shepherds, labradors, American staffordshires, breton spaniels, dogue d’argentin and so on.
But that tells you a lot about this pursuit of ‘purebred’ – those words that euphemistically gloss over the genetic manipulation, inbreeding and reproductive control that is fashionable.
When we in the west want a dog, we have 1 billion dogs to choose from. The ones we choose speak volumes about us, about our culture and about our social backgrounds. We eliminate a few million pedigree dogs from our choice list if we choose a former stray of unknown heritage. We eliminate a good few more if we choose to adopt in our own country rather than abroad – by my estimates, France has some 112,000 stray dogs available every year, most of whom are more ‘type’ than ‘breed’.
Dogs in shelters (and shelters themselves) still suffer from the stigma and stereotyping of how we label them. For many, a shelter animal or even one from a breed-specific rescue association is unthinkable. We’d prefer to adopt a puppy in the hopes that we can mould it effectively to our lives rather than choose an adult dog of no known heritage. The fact that 112,000 other people perhaps thought the same about the dog who ended up in the shelter escapes us. We may have the best intentions – like the people who ring me up and ask if we have any bichon frise, preferably female, of less than 6 months of age – because we might reject that awfully economic way of acquiring a family member by going to a breeder.
Because of the way we categorise dogs, we have an awful long way to go to overcome shelter stereotypes. British shelters are not filled with greyhounds, staffies and Jack Russells. French shelters aren’t all filled with hounds. Romanian dogs aren’t all ‘streeties’ without valid passports. Most European shelters do try to rehome rather than euthanise. Dogs in shelters don’t have behavioural problems. But shedding that ‘disgust’ and ‘contempt’ lip curl and sneer about shelter dogs (much, much more than shelter cats who don’t suffer from the same stereotypical labelling) is a vital role for shelters to undertake. We may have stopped serving dogs for dinner or drowning strays in rivers (on the whole) but the stigma attached to having once been classified as a pest still sticks to many of our dogs.
Shelter dogs have a tough role too because many of them will have been seen as something else before. They may have lived completely beyond human reach, responsible for their own lives and reproduction. That is rare in France. They may have been treasured family pets. They may have been in a lab. They may have been rescued from the dog meat trade. They may have been a weapon or entertainment or ex-puppy-mill breeding stock. Shelter dogs often carry more than one label, more than one understanding of how humans treat them. Sometimes, we leave the shelter label on there too. How many of us know a ‘rescue ex-racing greyhound’ or a ‘rescued puppy mill dog’? They often carry those labels through life forever.
As I come to the end of this piece about how our social categories of dogs affect them, I thought I would mention their use as a symbol. That is where I’m going on the next article… an exploration of how certain breeds or types of dog have been used as a symbol in many ways. Despite many people’s thoughts that shelter dogs may be a way of signalling how holy, how virtuous or how ethical we are, none of my research found that. What I did find was that although people may arrive at shelters asking for young female bichons (and heaven knows we have plenty of calls if we have any) people view shelter dogs (and definitely those shelter dogs of undefined ancestry) differently than we view pedigree dogs.
In the next post, I’ll be taking you through why I think agility classes are filled with women of a certain age, why a guy asked if I could put ‘cross’ after ‘poodle’ on a pedigree dog’s registration details and why the pit bull has become the avatar of choice for certain disenfranchised young urban men. It all brings me back to what one of my study’s participants said: “read the dog, read the owner.”
If you’re looking for some interesting reading, try:
Horowitz, A. (2019) Our dogs, ourselves.
Herzog, H. (2010) Some we love, some we hate, some we eat.
McHugh, S. (2004) Dog.
Pierce, J. (2017) Run, Spot, Run.
Sorenson, J. and Matsuoka, A. (2019). Dog’s best friend? Rethinking canid-human relations.
In a previous post, I explored barrier frustration and barrier aggression so that you could get to grips with why your dog becomes a barking furball of craziness whenever they see another dog if they’re unable to get to them. Today, I’m only focusing on dogs who’d like to greet (not eat) another animal, particularly those dogs who can’t seem to handle it when they can’t go running up to say hi. You know, like the black dog in the photo above.
You know these dogs. I’m sure one or two of you own them!
These are the dogs who go nuts when they see another dog. You know, you’re blithely walking along and suddenly your Bernese Mountain dog almost pulls you off your feet. Just as you grab the lead in time, they’re barking like maniacs, pulling, frenzied and drooling.
“Sorry!” you shout and you make a mental list of another place you just can’t take your dog.
Or you know that your dog is 99% friendly, but they’re big and strong, plus they look like Cujo on steroids when you’ve got the lead on them and they see another animal. So you just let them off lead because it’s easier than trying to hold on to them, it’s less embarrassing and most of the time it works out, even if the other dog (cat, horse, cow … add the animal of your choice!)
You know these dogs. I’m sure you’ve seen a car with a frantic maniac of fur barking in the back seat, practically eating the window to get out and say hi.
I’m not, by the way, talking about dogs who want to chase or attack other animals. They just want to say hi!
It always makes me laugh as I remember seeing another trainer’s video of her doing great work in a busy park with her spaniel, then along comes a huge German shepherd, off lead of course, followed by a plump Northern lady. “Don’t worry!” she says. “He’s friendly. He just wants to say hi!”
My worst nightmare.
You see, i know why that lady had her dog off lead… because he’ll have been too strong on it and too frustrated if he didn’t get to gallop up to every other dog in the whole wide world and “say hi!”
So instead, she lets him do what he wants, regardless of whether that’s acceptable to other dogs. For my three that’ll depend. Flika is whimsical. If she thinks you’re polite, she’s fine. Heston is a bit full on Tarzan but he’s a sticking plaster dog himself (rip it off and get it over with kind of greetings). Lidy will bite your dog in the face without even checking to see if he’s a real dog or not first. We’re working on it. Quite clearly, i am a responsible person and she’s muzzled in public and never off lead, but let’s be clear – in those situations, SHE’s not the one doing the bad stuff.
Greeting every single other dog is a bad habit. It’s false ‘dogness’. Dogs literally don’t do this in street groups or in village groups. They don’t do it when working. Guide dogs don’t do it. Search-and-Rescue dogs don’t clock off to say hi to a Pomeranian over the hill. Your trusty Grand Pyrenees doesn’t desert his sheep brethren to go say hi to the collie on the next farm. We encourage it, in my opinion, with puppy socialisation, where we teach young dogs that you get to meet 100% of the dogs you see and 100% of the time it’ll be super cool good fun. We encourage it with our ‘say hi!’ behaviour and our innate desire to socialise with other dog people (and more importantly, their dogs). We do it because we’re all Ricky Gervais at heart and we all think dogs in our community are as much ‘our’ dogs as their owners. We make a bee-line for dogs when we’re dog people because we’re all slightly nuts. I mean, if you’ve ever seen me with a strange Belgian shepherd you know I have to practically blindfold myself not to ogle them, go in for a massive cuddle and end up giving them a kiss on their great, bemused, nose. You know, that bit right above their great, bemused bitey old mouth.
Let’s face it. Dogs, like humans, are a social species. In fact, few species (any?) are more social than humans. Yet do we go down the street kissing everyone we meet? Saying hi to everyone? If a strange bloke said ‘hi’ to me in passing, I might get the Mace out. If he slipped me the tongue, you’d need to muzzle me, let alone my dog.
Yet this is what I think we’ve taught our dogs to do. We teach them “hey dude, you get to meet hundreds of dogs, stick your nose up their arse, maybe hump them a bit, chase them round and round, it’s going to be great.” We go on social walkies and we “socialise” them and we take them to our friends’ houses or dog parks.
And then we go to a park and WE know that our dogs won’t be welcome to do that so we try to put them on the lead and our dog goes bananas.
You see, THEY don’t understand the rules. They don’t know that in real life, you don’t get to say hi to 100% of dogs. In fact, you probably won’t say hi to any dogs. Sometimes, I’m going to take you to the vet, and I’m going to make a decision that the pointer in the corner might not like to say hi, so I’m going to sit with you and ask you not to engage with a dog 2m away. You might be in a room with 10 other dogs and not be allowed to say hi to any of them. Just like people on the morning train, you’re going to be sandwiched in and I’m going to expect you not to acknowledge any of them, especially the one who smells of pee and seems to be in the middle of some kind of mental breakdown.
And that goes for cats, horses and cows too, dude.
Teaching a dog who thinks it’s 100% respectable to say hi to every moving thing is not easy if they’ve not grasped that fundamental concept that most of the moving beings that we will see, we not only don’t have the right to say hi to, we don’t need to say hi to them either. A dog who feels the need to say hi to every other thing with a nose is a dog with a pathological behaviour that is going to spill out in frustration. Hence the low level whining that turns into a bark (reminds me of a time I was observing a lesson in school and one 16 year old lumpen teenage ne’er-do-well spent most of the lesson trying to attract the attention of his friend, a certain Mr Gibbons, by whispering “Gibbons… Gibbons… Gibbons…” in a crescendo, not understanding that Mr Gibbons could see I had my beady eye on the pair of them) Low level whispering that turned into coughs and other big behaviours to attract attention… just like our dogs do. The lumpen teenager knew full well it was inappropriate to have a conversation across the class with your mate but dogs don’t understand those strange social and cultural customs we do.
What you need is two-fold. The first is to teach your dog how to cope with frustration. Like toddlers, some dogs don’t understand how to cope with frustration. Teaching concepts like patience, disengagement and tenacity are really useful. Food toys, games like flirt poles, programmes like Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed, Fenzi Academy focus games and all manner of other great programmes can help you with that.
The second thing is a carefully planned habituation and gradual desensitisation programme. This is where you make a plan like the one I did here about chasing and you work through set-ups to prepare your dog to cope. In the meantime, no more dogs/cats/horses/goats until you’re ready.
Like all things, you need to start at the most easy level. Dogs, we know, can see 400m away. Some even 900m. Plus they have a nose. They KNOW there are dogs, even if they can’t see them. That’s why you might need a behaviourist as a critical friend to help you read your dog so that you know when he’s alert but able to disengage.
You also need to make a plan. I usually use a 6-month SMART plan. That in 6 months, I expect my dog to be able to wait in the vet with 6 dogs and pay them no mind.
And then I work back from that goal. In 3 months, I think that’ll look like being in a Sports Hall sized room with one other boring dog over 50m away and pay them no mind.
In 12 weeks, that might look like being 100m away from three or four boring walking dogs when we’re outside and paying them no mind.
In 6 weeks, that might work back to being 200m away from a boring dog who’s in sight for 5 seconds and paying them no mind.
In 3 weeks, I want to be 400m away from a boring dog who’s in sight for 3 seconds and paying them no mind.
In 10 days, I want to be 600m away from a boring dog who’s in sight for 2 seconds and paying them no mind.
In 5 days, 800m from a boring dog who’s in sight for 1 second.
You can see there are lots of goals I’ve not put in there, like the length your dog will see the other dogs for, raising the excitement level and number of the dogs and so on and so on. I didn’t want to bore the pants off you with my over-zealous goal-mapping. Confession: former marathon runner. This is how I trained. Dullsville.
You’re going to need an irregular but fairly frequent supply of animals and you want them in view. I like to be able to control the sightlines, as you’ll see from my post about chasing stuff, so I think of that set up a lot. I’m a big fan of big box pet stores… big car parks, I can be right at the back and set up screens using parked cars if necessary. I’m also a fan of sitting outside vet surgeries at a distance if you can find that space. They have a steady stream of clientele. Groomers, doggie day cares, dog parks, people parks and shelters are also great places as long as you are far enough away and your dog is under threshold. Please get yourself a copy of Grisha Stewart’s BAT 2.0 if you haven’t already: this is essentially that.
When you have a clear plan, you need also a taught behaviour. Often, dogs start to fixate in the absence of other guidance from you.
I don’t mean “Stop that!”
That is not guidance from you. Guidance from you is a thing to do instead.
I mean a behaviour you want them to do instead. Some people play engage/disengage, or ask for a look at me! I play “Where’s the dog?” (I do this with dog-aggressive dogs too – a bit like Where’s Wally?) which is just my cute version of “Look at that!”
Lidy is a big fan of Where’s the Dog? and we do it with a U-turn as what’s reinforcing for her is to create distance between her and the dog. But if your dog’s problem is frustration, that’s not necessary. Really, you just want them to get used to dogs being about who they don’t have the right or the need to interact with – I want them to be able to walk through a dog show like I do – saying hi to if I know people but ignoring virtually everyone else.
Normally, I try and give the dog a replacement behaviour that has the same function and reinforcement. So Lidy wants space and is reinforced by security. You can’t do that with frustrated greeters. They want to decrease distance and be rewarded with a new dog friend. All I’m doing is teaching them, “sorry dude… not on lead!” or “not unless we say so!” – so what you are doing is inoculating them, little by little, against frustration. You’re using very small amounts of tolerable frustration to get them used to it.
Now some may say that this isn’t what they want for their dog. Their dog shouldn’t have to get used to frustration. They might even think that this is not “Force Free” or “Purely Positive” training. Frustration is an unpleasant state and our dogs should not have to feel it.
The trouble with this view is that it’s so massively ego-centric, and not even thinking of the dog’s welfare. Flika likes to chase cars. One day she will get biffed in the face by one and I will cry. I don’t let her chase cars. She also likes to chase cows. One day one will kick her i the head and I will cry. I don’t let her play with cows. I understand that it’s frustrating; I want her to feel as minimally frustrated as possible. But I have a responsibility to other beings, including those dogs like Lidy who find it an affront to their very being to have some great lummoxing dog race up to say hi, and to those cats, cows, horses and other creatures.
Life has its frustrations.
I do like to teach other behaviours too.
I do a “Let’s go!” as well. It’s lucky I did when Heston and Flika ran into a bunch of over-excited cani-cross dogs on Sunday.
I don’t use a clicker – just a word. Less to manage. You don’t need a clicker if you feel it’s cumbersome or if you haven’t used one before.
But the thing to remember is that practice makes perfect. Don’t expect your dog to control themselves if you haven’t trained them to. I was never so glad I’d done this stuff as the day someone brought their goat to the vet. Having the best behaved dog in the vet made me so proud, especially when I know how full on he can be. Most importantly, the goat didn’t have a dog whose intentions he had no idea about. Your dog isn’t just frustrated themselves: they make you embarrassed or upset or angry, and they turn other dogs into the Lidys of the world: over-reacting to any acknowledgement whatsoever by stabbing them in the stomach.
Set a time-table, sit down and write your goals. Plan your set-up zones, be prepared and remember, if it’s frustrating for you, it’s frustrating for your dog too. On the other hand, you don’t want to risk your dog becoming antisocial, so teach them how to greet nicely too. Jean Donaldson’s book Fight! has some excellent guidance on that. And yes, I mean on-lead greetings as well as off-lead ones. My dog needs to be versatile to cope with what life throws at them.
So don’t feel like you have nowhere to go with this, or don’t feel you need to use punishment (fastest way to turn frustration into fear and aggression). Use a harness and a long line, learn how to read your dog’s body language and keep an eye on their behaviours. Forgive yourself (and your dog) the occasional mistake or slip-up and remember that you can do it. Go back to basics and work up through your plan again. It’s boring, it’s meticulous. It’s Dullsville, but it works 100%.
TLDR; it’s all about adaptation and compromise – from you!
I make little apology for the sparsity of posts recently. I’m trying to finish off an 18-month learning journey about dogs and their humans culminating in a 10,000 word dissertation on shelter dogs. And just because I don’t do things by half, I adopted a new dog in December.
Say hi to Lidy, number 3 Belgian Shepherd in the WLTM household.
I planned on taking Lidy way back in September. So why did it take me 12 weeks to get around to it? A lot of it comes down to psychology.
Our actions are underpinned by two things: capacity and motivation according to psychologist Fritz Heider. He said capacity was ability + environment, and motivation was intention + exertion. Well, I had the intention and maybe the ability, but the environment needed a bit of exertion.
The reason for that is that I have two other dogs with some complex needs of their own. The first is 15-year-old Flika, who has separation anxiety, is destructive if left alone and who is set in her ways of wake up – breakfast – nap – walk – lie outside in garden pretending to guard it – refuge – dinner – sleep.
I knew that Lidy and Flika would never be able to live together. Flika is generally tolerant of about 70% of dogs but Lidy would attack any female dog without even asking questions. Worse still, she’ll sometimes seem fine but then ‘bam’ – and I’m not talking a common-or-garden scrap where no blood is spilt, I’m talking a fight that would end up with dogs staying at the vets and needing multiple stitches for multiple wounds. Killer queens indeed.
So that needed me to build a Lidy garden and have separate sleeping arrangements, to fix doors and fit locks, to set up airlocks. I always remember in The Others, Nicole Kidman talked about having two locked doors between her and the scary stuff. That’s what I needed. Dog trainer Michael Shikashio, an aggression expert, talks about two levels of security. Baby gates and secure locks, tables across doors. Sounds extreme, I know, but let me just be clear, Miss Butter Wouldn’t Melt who has just arrived has complex behaviours often involving her teeth.
She is very lucky we have each other. Having worked with her for such a long time, I know all her problem spots and she has ways to tell me shit is about to hit the fan, but being muzzled on a lead in the street is not the same as living with the bitches from hell 24/7
You’d think it’d get easier with lovely handsome Heston.
And it kind of is okay – and it will be okay – but Lidy has predatory behaviours around dogs having a fit (nearly dug her way out to get a beagle who was having a fit outside her kennel) and Heston has epilepsy. Mostly it’s when he’s sleeping and it’s well-managed, but Lidy will never, ever be unsecured in a room where Heston is sleeping so I needed to set up the environment to allow that, as well. Also, following his starting on medication, he was one of that small number of dogs on phenobarbital who go nuts. He decided that every time I left, I was going for a walk, and became a crazed dementor. The house would be wrecked when I returned. That also needed addressing, unless I intended to spend the next 7 years taking him everywhere with me (I do this mostly with Flika – it’s not fun, believe me!)
When maligator genes conspire with a limited learning experience when growing up, when you’ve got extreme predatory behaviours, dog-dog aggression with all female dogs, fear-based “bite first and ask questions later” biting behaviours, dog-to-dog aggression with 90% of all other dogs, stranger danger, redirected biting from frustration, possessive aggression, protective aggression and territorial aggression, you’ve not only got to have the right environment but also the ability to both manage it and minimise it. Excuse all the labels, I just wanted to show that it’s not just some randomly easy adoption where the dog just turns up and goes to sleep in their new bed. Dynamite with a laser beam, Miss Malou.
The first thing I needed was ABILITY.
That’s a lot about what my clients need. They’ve never encountered anything like the problem they’re dealing with, or their strategies for dealing with it in the past aren’t working any more. A lot of the time, they just need to know more. They have the INTENTION and they are prepared for a little EXERTION.
In fact, when working with clients, one of the first things I ask is how much they intend to keep the dog. And if they can’t see anything good, or it’ll be impossible to give them the capacity as quickly as they need it, then their intentions will never turn into actions. If they’ll never have the environment or they aren’t prepared to put in any effort, it’s not worth it either. The only way I can help is to write them a good adoption advert and pray for the best. Love doesn’t conquer all, I’m afraid.
So when first shelter dog arrived here and had a massive scrap with Heston, I needed the ability. I had the intention and was prepared for the effort. One crash course in behaviour and Amigo and Heston lived peaceably for the next four years, following their very rocky first four months.
And that’s what I hope my blogs do – give you a little bit more of the ability and the capacity.
So when Miss Maligator 2019 arrived here that took all of my ability. No matter how much you know a dog before you take it on, you can’t predict everything. I didn’t predict that she also would have some anxiety related to me leaving her. Cue three dogs who can’t be left for various reasons, and two who only want to be with you. Multiple moving parts always make for more interesting problems, don’t you find?
That meant a lot of training about how to be on their own. It meant suspending absences and getting in dog sitters. It meant taking it easy until they were ready to be left for longer. It meant being respectful of their needs and not just saying “oh they’ll cope” when they clearly weren’t. I had to compromise and adapt. Now I’ve got one who accepts she has to be on her own all night (and it kind of breaks my heart to hear her playing by herself, or crying if she’s startled but the only time she’ll sleep with me is after Heston and Flika are gone). I learned that she hates being outside but is calm inside. I videoed everything obsessively when I wasn’t here. I moved from her accepting that doors close between us to accepting my absence for a couple of hours. I learned that sometimes there’s a mess, but it’s easy to clean up.
It took a lot of engineering. I use food toys daily. I spent a lot of money on chews. I cried at the pharmaceutical bill, as I had two dogs in Adaptil collars, Pet Remedy plug-ins, Anxitane, Zylkene, Valerian and melatonin plus usual medications for arthritis and epilepsy. I went through my body weight in paté and spreadable meat pastes. I bought a lot of new toys and feeders, from Nose-its to Kong Wobblers to lickimats to snufflemats. An occupied dog is a dog who’s not resorting to other behaviours. That was the EXERTION bit. And management to stop wars…
Those are things I never needed before. And they’re things I need less and less as time goes on. As long as I can get out of the door, Heston seems to remember I go out without him from time to time. as long as Lidy has stuff to keep her busy and she gets a couple of hours cuddle time with me in the morning and evening, she is coping with what are, no doubt, very hard periods where she can’t see me or get to me. A lot of this was just having the capacity. That’s where trainers can be invaluable.
But it takes effort. There are no magic bullets. No remedy I bought stopped Flika chewing through doors. No remedy I bought helped Lidy stop her compulsive circling in the garden. And new problems rear their heads. Lidy hates gunshot and lightning, fireworks and loud noises. That means I will need a solution for those stormy nights. It takes planning and a calm head. There are times I can’t tell you about where I thought “I can’t do this!” with three filthy dogs and the washing machine running all day. I can’t even think to the future, about needing to move to a smaller house and how I’ll cope with that, let alone trying to put the house on the market. Those are bridges I’ll cross when I get to them. But they’re bridges I know are coming.
Ultimately, you may take on an easy pooch who settles down in minutes and is part of the family in days. You may take on a dog who seems like the dream companion only for all of these behaviours to emerge in the weeks that follow an adoption. You may take on a dog who you know is going to be a bit of a handful. So many of us do. It’s testament to our ability that we create environments to suit our dogs, often involving a lot of exertion or expense. But our dogs cope better for it. Before you adopt a dog, though, think about your ability and your environment. What have you the capacity for? On what are you prepared to compromise?
And, as one of the lovely people I interviewed about shelter dogs reminded me… she was out walking him at 6am when he first arrived. No more lazy lie-ins, so she thought. 6 months in and both she and the dog were still in bed at 11am. Dogs will follow your lead, but if you adapt to their needs first and give them time to meet you in the middle, you’ll find you are both adapting by the end.
You can’t plan for everything. I’d planned for a jumper, a digger, a fence smasher. I’d planned for a bird chaser and a lizard catcher, a dog with complex pathologies. I’d not planned for a girl who cried when I left and ran round in circles barking. But you can plan for a lot of stuff and anticipate problems dogs might have. A bit of ingenuity is often all that’s needed (no more laptop research at 5am for me… I’m in bed with Lidy Malou reading books on my Kindle and Flika is happily working her way through a Kong instead of shouting for me and Heston is wherever he’s happiest).
But if you choose a relationship with a dog – be they a pedigree puppy from Crufts’ lines or a hoary old one-eyed shepherd from a shelter, know that it will fall on you to compromise if you want your dog to settle. You may hate it and think your levels of effort or expenditure will always need to be the same, but they won’t. You’ll get there as long as you plan for it to take some time. 5 weeks in and it’s not been all smooth sailing (not least the fact I’d locked Lidy’s room from the inside, snapped the door handle off the main house door and had dead-bolted the outside door from the inside too) but those days when I thought “I can’t do this!” are further between.
What absolutely won’t work, though, is expecting the dog to compromise and adapt to you without a single real concession on your part.
Just remember, if you have adopted a new dog, don’t just think that time and love are all that are needed. Your own capacity is vital. Don’t be embarrassed to contact a trainer or behaviourist if you feel like you don’t know how to move forward, even if you really want to. There are many good networks of trainers, from the Pet Professional Guild to the Pet Dog Trainers’ networks (Europe and the UK). If you’re based in the UK, the Association of Into Dogs can also help you locate someone near to you. Six years ago, when Amigo joined me, I had no concept of how I could ever move forward. None of us know everything. I’m still excitedly finding my own ability.
Be mindful that anyone who suggests coercive methods has not got your dog’s welfare at heart; anyone who suggests there are quick fixes needs you to make a quick exit. That said, from my perspective, I think 5 weeks is a reasonable “quick fix” and i know I haven’t spent more than I would have on a kid’s birthday party! Coming back to my own research, what was abundantly clear was that the most straightforward adoptions are the ones where the humans had insanely low expectations and were incredibly flexible. As I said, adaptation and compromise may well be needed, but if this is what you really want, then I suspect that you’ll find your motivation in there somewhere.
A few months back, I read an article by Jane Messineo Linquist for the IAABC about training puppies, Sit Does Not Mean Sit, which gave me palpitations and enormous food for thought. It’s a term she no doubt has been using for years. I was happy to come across it as it gave a name to a behaviour I’d been fostering in a number of my adult dog clients.
Definitely read her original before you go any further!
I apologise now to all my ‘normal’ readers… this will get geeky and it is a post meant for trainers and behaviourists, or even you great home schoolers who’ll see the practical applications for dogs under your care.
I also apologise that it took me so long to stumble on this term and technique but to be fair, I read a lot of dog stuff, and I haven’t heard anyone use this term or anyone talk about why the concept might just be the communications breakthrough for adult dogs with behavioural problems. I mean I had a major lightbulb moment. Seriously. It was, I am happy to say, something I was already doing, but reading more has very much crystallised my thinking. It’s reached a point where it’s good to share, even. I’m sure that like me, your dogs may also be using mands all the time.
The word ‘mand’ comes from BF Skinner, the father of behaviourism. He talked about it in many speeches and wrote about it in his book, Verbal Behavior. As you can tell from the title, it was a word he used for a verbal behaviour, so you’ll be forgiven for wondering what the hell it has to do with dogs. The linguistic skills of dogs? Surely not. I both apologise to Skinner for what I’m about to do with his word, and thank him too for giving me what has come to be a much fuller toolbox. He’d either hate the way I’m about to abuse it, or agree with it fully. Who knows? I’m going to explain more detail what I think the term mand means to me, and in the next post, how I use it with aggressive and fearful dogs.
You’d also be forgiven for thinking Pavlov is our guiding father when it comes to behaviour problems, with a little help from Watson. Conditioned emotional responses. Counter conditioning. Gradual Desensitisation. In fact, there’s been such a backlash recently against ‘training’ for aggressive or fearful dogs that many behaviourists will be rolling their eyes that Skinner, oh he behind clicker training and both conscious and unconscious learning, could be mentioned in the same breath as aggression or fearfulness. We’ve been about the relationship, about the bond. About security and wellness. About being more relaxed and reading body language to help make decisions.
I still think that is a huge part of the process for many dogs. Most of it. I will say, though, that I have never found obedience or any other form of training to be mutually exclusive with building relationships. For me, those activities are as much about a partnership as dance or jiu-jitsu or capoeira or sailing a two-person yacht. The activity can be a way to build a relationship as much as anything else, but I definitely understand why people might say you can’t ‘train away’ fearfulness or aggression. Pavlov may well be on one shoulder, though, but Skinner is always on the other.
But what I’m about to discuss flies in the face of the ‘less training’ and ‘more relationship’ mantra that seems to be flavour of the month.
It also, and I want to get this clear right now, flies in the face of dominance-based training. Completely. It hands the reins back to your dog. In fact, think of it less as one of you being in charge of what happens and more like one of those dual brake pedal cars that instructors have, where you’re kind of letting the learner take over, just with some safety mechanisms. Mands let your dog make conscious choices about what happens.
So it’s about time I explained myself, and to do that I want to go back to the source. Skinner. Verbal Behavior 1957.
Skinner was writing about a type of communication that he called a mand. He used the term to mean verbal behaviour that is reinforced by a particular consequence or response. I don’t want to use the word ‘request’ because they are more than requests. It may also be a command or demand. It could be a summons. It can be information. It can compel you to do something. It could be a countermand. It may be mandatory, or it may not. You can see why Skinner liked it, as its Latin roots give us many words related to saying or doing something that compels a response in another. If you’re at all interested in British politics (because who isn’t!?!) you’ll have heard about mandates so often recently you’ll be familiar with the concept of giving power to someone to act on your behalf. Reprimands also… all things we do to influence the responses of others – or at least try to. So mands are more than requests. They can include commands or demands. Mand is the root that links them all. It’s a behaviour that says I want something or I’d like something or even that I insist on something, and that, in directing it at you, I feel you can help me.
But enough with the waffly theory. Let’s get practical. Let’s talk dog.
Dogs are one of the only species that mand with humans. They may not speak but they behave in purposeful and conscious ways to impact us or the things around them.
This is Heston. Most of Heston’s mands relate to play. A dropped toy at my foot is his mand to me to play. Not insistent. Not abusive. Not a command. Just a ‘Let’s play?’ His mands are delightful questions, offers, requests.
And if I reinforce it, those mands increase.
Let’s play, Monkey.
A mand can be an invitation, as this is.
Heston is not my champion mander, though. That was Tilly.
She became an expert at using me as a tool for her own ends. One of those lovely Dognition games was to put a treat in a sealed box and see how long it takes your dog to look at you for help. Heston didn’t look at me once. He just gave up. Tilly? 4 seconds.
Help, Monkey. My tupperware is stuck.
She was so good at it that if a sandwich fell down a well and needed rescuing, Lassie would be a second division Mander in comparison.
As you can see here, she’s quick off the mark to engage me as a tool to get exactly what she wants.
And another. You see also how Heston barks? Another mand. Barking is so peculiar to dogs (rather than other canids) and it is so much more frequent that I think sometimes we get lost in the fact that barking has a purpose. Unlike adult cats who do not meow at other cats, dogs do bark at other dogs, but barking definitely falls into that ‘human-directed communication’ that meowing does too. I suspect Heston’s bark here is just in recognition of the excitement Tilly has stirred up. He has no idea that she thinks there is something on the mantelpiece that she can’t get, and she needs my monkey assistance.
I don’t have videos of Tilly’s other mands, but she would also stick her foot in the water bowl and rattle it if she was out of water, and thump the door if she wanted to go out.
Tilly’s mands were very much about her physiological needs.
I mean, just imagine… a girl who came to me aged 5 with no house-training at all, and she learns how to tell me that she needs to go out! Mands are all about the dog teaching us to have their needs met.
Yes, you trainers may scoff as you may have done similarly, using bells or such like for dogs to say they want to go out. But that was you teaching your dog. Here, Tilly taught me. All I did was open the door and thus reinforce the behaviour.
With Heston, that mand to play was another one he taught me. Drop the ball or toy at the monkey’s feet and she’ll most likely give you a game.
For Amigo, that was so much more purposefully shaped by me. He had two behaviours to elicit contact from me. One was pawing me (always pretty hard) and one was resting his head on my knee. I consistently reinforced one with touch and not the other. He finished with a way to tell me that he’d like contact, please. But without leaving me with claw marks.
So it got me thinking… if dogs can mand for biological and social needs – indeed, we can even teach them to communicate their needs with us through operant conditioning and shaping – then why can’t we teach them to do so for their emotional needs too?
To be honest, I think that we have been. I think the industry as a whole has been moving towards helping dogs more effectively communicate their emotional needs in socially acceptable needs. The whole force-free husbandry movement with things like chin rests, consent tests, Bucket games and asking the dog a question (Chirag Patel) has been very much about teaching dogs to signal their desire to continue or not. I think mands are a part of this. We’ve been very much about consent and choice. We’re definitely getting better. But I think mands are going to help us bridge the final gap between what dogs want or need and ways to express that to us. A true partnership.
With mands, we step away from just passively watching dogs’ body language. Don’t get me wrong, I like watching dogs’ body language. It tells me a lot. BAT and Turid Rugaas’s calming signals have practically revolutionised my understanding of dogs non-verbal communication. Even their energy levels are so communicative.
The problems with watching this way and making choices for the dog are twofold as I see it. Firstly it’s very passive. It depends on us to have good skills to explore dogs’ unconscious behaviours. Secondly, it’s done TO the dog – we make the decision for the dog. By and large, I think we are better at reading dogs, especially as they get near to threshold, but the dog still depends on humans to make a choice for them without an active understanding of how that works. Also, it means dogs are perhaps left feeling uncomfortable until the moment they unconsciously make a signal like a lick lip to say they find a socially-mediated aversive stimuli unpleasant. Manding means the dog is actively communicating and making a choice – exactly what we love about the Bucket Game – in a conscious and deliberate way. They have all the power to tell us “Not today!”
How amazingly empowering must that be for an animal who has perhaps found themselves submitting to unpleasant stimuli because they had no choice? Just like dogs who have full bladders and no way to ask to go outside, dogs may have been feeling quite overcome by aversive emotional reactions to the environment without any way to say, unconsciously depending on an emotionally illiterate or temporarily unreceptive human to meet their needs. The way I see it is that once dogs begin to understand how to work the human world, it can’t but be hugely empowering.
Some dogs I work with have been so regularly ignored (often inadvertently) by their humans or have had to get by on their own initiative that it can be hard to learn to work with humans again. I feel sure from reading the notes from Tilly’s veterinary behaviourist before she came to me that nobody had ever asked Tilly what she needed or wanted. Her needs had been largely ignored for 5 years. Most of her most troubling behaviours, including guarding food and toys, stem from that sense of powerlessness, I feel quite sure. But Tilly learned. Or, rather, I learned to listen to what she was saying and in the end, she was a marvellously expressive little dog.
The same is true of Flika. She had had 14 years of fending for herself both physiologically and emotionally. Her ‘coping’ skills for separation anxiety are hugely destructive. This is a dog who fends for herself, who steals food items, who opens doors for herself and whose only mechanism for coping with loneliness was to bark and destroy. It’s quite sad that she never really asks for anything as experience has taught her there is no point.
So back to mands for dogs… really I just wanted to clarify what they are in this post, and follow up with how to teach them. I thought it was worthwhile outlining the principle and theory rather than the practice.
Whilst Skinner may have used the term ‘mand’ for verbal behaviour, it was quickly integrated into work with non-verbal humans. From teaching babies to sign and non-verbal children and adults to request, mands have a 40-year history of use in Applied Behaviour approaches that have helped humans communicate their physiological and emotional needs.
Where mands have been particularly effective is in the reduction of aggression, destruction and injurious behaviours. That was something the original article for the IABBC touched on, and something that gave me enormous food for thought.
Why it gave me food for thought was because I’d already been doing this as part of my rehabilitation programmes for the dogs with problematic behaviours and it gave a word to that practice. For the first time, it moved beyond instinct and into theory, with lots of practical guidance.
Unlike me, who’d stumbled on mands by accident, it should be a lot more clean – and my subsequent practice has been exactly that. It needs to start with a functional behavioural analysis (that’s a whole post in itself if you haven’t come across this) exploring the antecedents, motivating operations and consequences in order to consider the possible function or purpose of the behaviour. For most of my clients, that behaviour is very much about creating distance. But it’s not true of all dogs, for sure. One of the good things about a functional behavioural analysis is that it can certainly help you unpick the function behind behaviour that may appear uniform, like barking and biting, but also other things like compulsions or other ‘nuisance’ behaviours.
Once you have your functional behavioural analysis complete, you’ve identified the conditions in which it occurs and the consequences that keep the behaviour alive, you then need a behaviour from the same behavioural class – ie a different behaviour that serves the same function. You can see now why you need the analysis: if you don’t understand why the dog is barking or biting, then trying to replace it with a different behaviour that has the same purpose is impossible.
Dogs ‘mand’ all the time. Most dog owners will come to know instinctively what their dogs want, from Amigo ‘s very gentle reminder that it was dinner time to Tilly’s rather stylish bowl bashing to say, ‘Hey Monkey… Water!’. Some of us will be more used to those signals as we deliberately train them into service dogs for the blind and deaf, to signal in Search and Rescue work, to indicate presence of substances in scent detection, to work with us in many, many different environments. Whether dogs arrive at it through accidental shaping by owners or through purposeful operant teaching of a signal, the concept of manding is nothing ground-breaking.
But within the world of functional communication for socially unacceptable behaviours, that was an application that many of us were doing anyway, but that nobody had really put a name and theory to. That’s where I felt it broke new ground.
Within this milieu, mands are the dog communicating purposefully, consciously and intentionally with us to effect an environmental change.
There will no doubt be some backlash from those who think it is not a dog’s place to mand. In language, mands are commands (Go!) and subjunctives (Be still! I suggest that we go now) and interrogatives (Can we?) and optatives or wishes (Let’s…) and lots of other types of utterance. A dog’s behavior needn’t be seen as pushy if we think of it like this, and linguistically at least, it is collaborative and optional.
That for me is the cherry on the cake: mands build a relationship between those who issue them and those who help them meet their needs. It’s true collaboration (okay, for Tilly, I was just her extendable grabber, I know) but it builds trust. Because dogs learn through manding that they can operate us, and we have the ability to operate doors and can openers and things in tupperware, to make u-turns and to make scary stuff go away, the most
In the next post, some of the places where you can build mands with dogs so that they can make requests about their emotional needs. Then on to the how tos!