Socializing Dogs in Shelters

Bound Angels Blog

One of the biggest issues facing dogs in shelters is the shut down of the behaviors we’ve bred into them for so many years; namely socialization. A dog’s ability to live with, and be happy with, other dogs and people is one of the key things that makes the dog a perfect companion animal.

Among the people who have done the most damage to the species are those that bred (and continue to breed) dogs for fighting. Yes, dogs fight in the wild, but it is not in their nature to fight for no reason; this is a human characteristic that has been bred into them. Once a dog is dog aggressive, it is a painstaking process to “unlearn.” The reports you hear about fighting dogs being rehabilitated are mostly not of the aggressive dogs, but rather the “bait dogs.” A true fighting dog is almost impossible to turn around because it has been bred into him and trained into him from day one. This cycle continues because people who have these dogs oftentimes don’t spay / neuter their dogs and they give birth to dogs that have this genetic makeup. Aggression must be dealt with in puppies and continued throughout adulthood if we want it to end.

It is also very interesting to note that aggression can be learned, or as I like to say “is contagious.” If a dog is around another dog that is aggressive, it will often begin to act aggressive itself. This is a behavior that is hard wired into its DNA. That is why it is important to rehabilitate aggression at its earliest spark. Aggression should not be tolerated.

When dogs end up in shelters they are cast into a world that is unlike any they’ve seen before. Most often dogs start out in a state of shock and it doesn’t get any better from there. Many dogs suffer from kennel syndrome which can transform their behavior in such a way as to make them completely un-adoptable.

Upon entering the shelter dogs are cast into a kennel, either alone or with dogs they’ve never met before. The dogs that are aggressive will oftentimes be caged alone and this takes up valuable kennel space forcing kennels to put down more dogs. Kennels in shelters are not designed to allow for continued socialization, in fact they tear down the socialization that the dogs have by keeping them at bay of other dogs just in front of them. This leads to barrier aggression to both other dogs and sometimes people.

Although shelters spend thousands of dollars for medical care of dogs, I am remiss to find shelters that spend an equal amount on behavioral programs. Behavioral programs could prove equally as successful in saving lives as veterinary care. Ed Boks once spoke of the importance of treating behaviorally challenged dogs with compassion just like we treat medically needy dogs. This type of thinking is one of the greatest hopes for the millions of dogs that are killed every year.

Having done countless temperament test, the primary focus of my work remains the challenge of shelter pets that have behavioral challenges. As an experiment I recently took 4 dogs out of their individual kennels at a local LA shelter. These were different breeds, sizes, sex and temperaments. I would introduce all four in the guise of an adoption video. The video can be seen above.

Although the introduction was not without some very slight conflict, within 5 minutes we all sorted out our positions and the dogs played very nicely. This videos shows 4 very adoptable and social dogs. Dogs that are able to get along with other dogs are much more adoptable than dogs that cannot get along with others. Doing the work to teach dogs to get along is paramount to saving their lives.

The critics will say that dog fights will break out and that dogs will be injured. They are not totally wrong – but they are not totally right either. Having “just anyone” introduce the dogs is like giving “just anyone” a scalpel and letting them perform surgery. Teaching dogs to get along is a process that should be handled by people who have the training and instinct to do it. This training is rarely learned from books, courses or through conventional “dog training.” Reading dogs is a talent that is tough to understand, it must be clearly understood and should be done by someone who can fairly handle dog introductions and also someone who can handle dogs that engage in fights.

The more social we can get dogs in shelters; in groups of 2,3,4 and more, the more likely these dogs are to get adopted and the less likely these dogs are to suffer the adverse effects of kennel syndrome. This work is not without risks. Just like it’s impossible to house train a dog without ever having one mistake, so there will be mistakes in this training process. We hope that through these “mistakes” we will help dogs grow to become more adoptable, learn better social skills, decrease the numbers of dogs that are killed for behavioral issues & lack of social training and lack of space.

As you can see in the video above, 4 dogs that were kept alone in kennels can learn to get along and enjoy the process. I encourage shelter managers to consider the idea of socializing dogs in shelters and giving them the life saving skills they need to get the loving homes they so deserve.

Please visit and read the articles I’ve written on kennel syndrome and barrier aggression. These articles are free downloads in the article section of the site.

Robert Cabral
Bound Angels