The Importance of Training in Shelters
By Nicana Garmon and Savanna Zerfoss
Over 3 million dogs find their way into shelters across the United States each year. Of these 3 million, 2/3 will be adopted, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). When looking at a study done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it was stated that in the US, the number of companion animals returned to animal shelters within the first six months of adoption is estimated to be anywhere from 7% to 20%. That means that if 2 million animals are adopted, anywhere between 140,000 and 400,000 of these pets will be returned within a few months. Statistics in the same study revealed that 38.2% of these dogs are returned for behavior issues related to aggression.
When we break down all of these numbers, we can estimate that around 152,000 dogs are returned to shelters post adoption due to behavioral concerns each year in the United States. So, why is that?
The truth is, training, management, and behavior modification are not always prioritized, or even considered, in some shelters. Due to lack of resources or education, this part of animal welfare is often brushed over. The correct resources are not always given to adopters when taking pets home, either. The shelter is an extremely stressful environment, and depending on the length of stay, an animal missing this pillar of care can suffer from life-long negative effects.
Training is crucial in shelter environments for many reasons, but two primary ones are, A) the dogs’ quality of life during their stay in the shelter, and B) decreasing returns and keeping dogs in their homes.
Providing access to training for shelter dogs means providing access to mental stimulation. Training is one of the best forms of enrichment you can give to any dog. It keeps their minds busy and tires them out! Most adult dogs need around 10-12 hours of restful sleep every day. When a dog is in a shelter, the stress of the environment can keep them up, and the lack of sleep can cause even more anxiety, as well as undesirable (sometimes harmful) behaviors. The mental stimulation of training and species-specific enrichment outlets will help to physically tire out dogs. Dogs need about 20 minutes of mental stimulation every day to lead fulfilled lives. Plus, 20 minutes of mental exercise is equivalent to nearly an hour of physical exercise for dogs! If everyone in the shelter is asleep, there isn’t much room for the environment to become amped up and stressful. Training is fun for dogs when they are given the opportunity to be engaged in something so rewarding.
In order to avoid long lasting negative side effects from the kennel environment, shelter staff should focus on management and prioritizing certain aspects of training when there is a lack of resources. For example, if a dog is suffering from moderate to severe anxiety, they may try behavioral medications, and delve into using training as enrichment to help fulfill the dog’s need for mental stimulation. Shelter staff can work alongside a behavior consultant to assess dogs individually and come up with a plan to focus on modifying specific behaviors through training.
Working on training, behavior modification, and life skills are crucial to keeping dogs adopted, and in their homes. During their time in the shelter, dogs can be learning basics such as loose leash walking, recalls, stay and release cues, muzzle training, polite greetings, and so much more! Cooperative care for grooming and vet visits is an increasingly common practice that all dogs should have the opportunity to learn. If a shelter has staff that is able to assess needs on a dog-by-dog basis, they can also dive into more in-depth behavior modification. This could include reactivity, resource guarding, and emotional regulation.
Training in shelters is crucial in setting the dog up for success and sending them out with their best foot forward. As they learn these skills, they are learning behaviors that are going to appease adopters’ expectations and take away some of the stress of adjusting to a new environment. If the dogs can use what they were taught in the shelter post-adoption, they already have a better chance at staying in their home. At the end of the day, dogs cannot be rescued if they are not taught the skills and tools they need to go back into the real world. We don’t want them to be returned for the same reason they ended up in our care twice, or multiple times. Our goal should be to get dogs adopted and keep them adopted.
If you are interested in learning more about training and enrichment for shelter dogs, or for your own dog, please reach out to us at Upswing for more resources and information!