Can a dog in a shelter tell us how he will behave in a home?

When dogs come into animal shelters, some kind of assessment – whether it is formally recognized as such or not – inevitably takes place. At one extreme a formal appraisal may be carried out, such as the “SAFER” or “Assess-a-pet” tests.  At the other extreme, a shelter may rely on the informal impressions of their staff as the dog goes through vet checks and other intake procedures. A recent study argues that formal assessments are worse than useless and certainly the available tests have been little tested for validity or reliability. I will review the history of the different approaches and their pros and cons before concluding with suggestions on how to proceed in the critical issue of helping dogs find homes without harming people.

The social dog: A review of canine sociability & potentially related constructs

Across the scientific literature, diverse methods have been used to evaluate canine sociability and social cognitive capacity. Methods such as open field assessment, ability to utilize human pointing gesture, and reinforcer efficacy of human social contact have shed light on the complexities of the human-canine bond. In this presentation, I’ll present key findings from each of these assessments, note their methodological differences, and discuss their implications for our interactions with dogs.

Reframing adoption as dating: Connecting marketing and social psychology to animal sheltering

Adopting a dog from the shelter is adding a family member into the family. Can we use research and ideas taken from the psychology of dating to help us increase match-making? This talk will explore how classic and novel research in social and marketing psychology relate and enhance our adoption counseling programs at animal shelters.

How explanatory fictions & summary labels get in the way of better understanding our dogs

In this presentation, we will discuss the common ways of describing behavior and its causes. I’ll delve into the concepts of summary labels and explanatory fictions, using "dominance" as our primary example. We'll also discuss the utility of behavioralizing, not just when describing dog behavior but our own behavior as well.

Correspondence of canine social behaviors across various assessments in an animal shelter

Dogs living in an animal shelter served as subjects in a multi-experiment study on canine social behaviors. We assessed the effects of minor procedural differences on canine behavior, as well as the correspondence of behavior across assessment types. Finally, new methods were introduced to tease apart the role of learning in canine sociability.

Sealing the deal: Adoption event best practices 

What do we know about the best-practices of off-site adoption events? As it turns out, not much! By hosting 1 year of experimental adoption events in the community, we answered several questions about how to best conduct such events. We also provide data on the behavior of adopters during events and assess how the behavior of the dogs alters the behavior of adopters. These data will be used to establish best-practices for off-site adoption events and to identify target behaviors for the training of dogs housed at shelters.

Loose language sinks dogs: Behavioralizing what we do to better serve our clients & our field

From the basic understanding of summary labels and explanatory fictions that were developed in our morning presentation, we will now delve into a number of terms that even we, as good behaviorists, use loosely and suss them out into their behavioral pieces. We will take examples from the loose language ever=present in dog training (think of words like “energy” or “respect”) and illustrate how they do not serve the needs of our clients and ultimately the dogs we’re training.

Breaking down barriers: Understanding the challenges of accessibility in obtaining veterinary care

Pets are important family members for many of America’s pet-owning households. It is estimated that 29 million dogs and cats live with families that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Due to the circumstances of these families, it is likely that most of these pets have limited access to veterinary care, including behavioral support. During this plenary session, we’ll discuss the results of a national study which aimed to understand more about the financial, geographical, educational, and cultural barriers, as well as physical limitations of the pet owner and transportation difficulties, that impact owners’ ability to access care for their pets. We’ll also discuss current practices among veterinary care providers that are delivering care to these underserved pet owners.

Exploring the role of smell in the lives of dogs

Anyone interested in the cognition of dogs must reckon with the priority of olfaction in their perceptual experience. In this plenary talk, I will highlight what we know about how dogs smell the world, the challenges of studying olfaction, and discuss our studies conducted at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College that look into the role of odor in dogs' lives.

Recent advances in canine detection science

The science of canine olfaction is constantly evolving as we develop deeper understanding of olfactory processes and canine capabilities. This talk will provide a general overview of the neurophysiology of olfaction and what we have learned about canine olfactory capabilities. We will also discuss interesting perceptual phenomena in olfaction and how experience influences perceiving. We will synthesize this information to help the audience members better understand the olfactory world their dog is experiencing.

What is canine welfare & how do we measure it in the animal shelter?

Considerable efforts have been made to improve the outcomes for dogs in animal shelters, resulting in substantial increases in the number of dogs adopted and returned to their owners as well as reductions in euthanasia. As the role of the animal shelter changes from one of temporary holding to longer lengths of stay, it is imperative we decide how best to measure welfare and how to use those outcomes to test evidence-based interventions intended to improve the conditions of shelter-living dogs. In this talk, I’ll discuss promising measures found across the literature that can help us better understand dogs’ experiences in the shelter as they await adoption.

The science of dog-dog play and why play matters for improving human-canine interactions

Scientists and industry professionals alike are recognizing the importance of play in an animal’s repertoire. As play is actively being used practically in training and in enrichment across a wide range of species (including canines) it is important to understand how environmental and lifetime factors as well influence play dynamics between dogs themselves. Findings will be presented on how different environmental (e.g., size of play area) and social factors (e.g., human discouragement, owner encouragement, the behavior of another dog) influence dog-dog play with pet dogs in owner’s homes, public dog parks, and animal shelters. In addition, we will see how dog-dog play interactions - as opposed to human-dog interactions - influences adoptability and welfare perceptions of shelter dogs. The findings presented here will provide attendees with a more comprehensive understanding of the science behind dog-dog play — and give insights as to why it matters for promoting positive human-canine interactions.

Controlling odor and optimizing early training

Having good odor stimulus control is critical to the success of detection training with high accuracy. This deep dive session will provide general guidance on how odorants behave and how they can be best controlled to facilitate your detection training classes. In addition, we will discuss practical procedures to help facilitate the early steps of training, and will show what owners can do at home that will help prepare their dogs for success in classes. There will be time for any questions you have, and time to practice some of the lessons learned during this session. 

From cuddling to coconuts: A review of enrichment interventions in the shelter

The use of behavioral interventions designed to improve the welfare of shelter dogs has become much more commonplace; yet, many interventions have not been empirically tested. Within the literature, animal scientists have explored the use of a wide range of enrichment strategies with sheltered dogs and tested their impacts on physiology and behavior with the goal of improving welfare. In this presentation, I’ll examine these interventions which can be broadly categorized as either social interaction with a human or conspecific; object enrichment; or sensory stimulation. I’ll also discuss the implications of these studies, including which additive interventions show the greatest potential for positively impacting dogs’ lives in the shelter.

Component analysis of dog-dog playgroups in shelters: Impacts on human and canine welfare

The use of playgroups in animal shelters is an increasingly popular intervention in both public and private animal shelters. However, little scientific research to date exists on whether or not playgroups - and furthermore, what components of playgroups make playgroups most effective. This begs the question, “What is the best way to run playgroups?” In this session, Dr. Mehrkam will discuss the effects of different playgroup components (e.g., size of playgroups, use of appetitive and aversive stimuli) on shelter dog physiological (salivary cortisol) and behavioral (in-kennel) welfare. Video demonstrations will be provided. Finally, Dr. Mehrkam will discuss preliminary data on whether shelter staff at shelters that run playgroups vs those that do not run playgroups differ in their risk of compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and workplace perceptions and attitudes.

What are you looking at? Understanding the role of human influence in canine behavioral evaluations

Domestic dogs are exceptionally sensitive to the presence and behavior of social companions. These social tendencies play an important role in dogs’ success and can help facilitate dog-human bonds. However, frequently humans are unaware of the many ways their actions are influencing the behavior of onlooking dogs, including those under their care. In this talk we will explore examples of how human presence and behavior influence canine persistence, exploration and even the outcome of cognitive and behavioral assessments. With this deeper understanding, we will think about how dogs’ social focus influences behavioral evaluations and human-animal interactions in shelter, work and home settings and how we can use this knowledge to the benefit of both species.