On Dog Aggression

One of the most misunderstood dog characteristics is dog aggression, especially in shelters.

The shelter that I volunteer for is recovering from a hoarding situation – teetering on the brink of dissolution, they were taken over a year and a half ago by Pets Alive who have since worked mightily to get as many animals out as possible. One of the major impediments to any dog’s adoptability is their social ability with other dogs – many animal lovers have multi-dog households, and even those that don’t usually desire a dog who can have some exposure to other animals. It’s very important that dogs be fairly and correctly evaluated by shelters for dog aggression. Previously the shelter had used the SAFER test (an industry standard), which has some glaring flaws when it comes to evaluating dog aggression – it attempts to judge a dog’s attitude towards other dogs through brief exposure to a single dog of the same sex and watching the body language of the dog under test. Some of these dogs have lived in a shelter environment and have not had normal social contact with other dogs for a decade or more and are tremendously frustrated, and their responses are not entirely normal!

The new Director of Behavior and Training, Misa Martin, knew that every dog in the shelter needed to be re-evaluated for dog aggression and that having dogs who are appropriate playmates play with each other would be excellent and needed enrichment activity for them, as well as enhancing their adoptability – so we came up with a plan.

Ginger meets a pit bull seized from a dogfighter.

Over the years Ginger (my 15 lb cocker spaniel) has become my test dog, she has met hundreds of rescue dogs at this point. She has the advantages of being small, female, and generally inoffensive. She is extremely tolerant of other dogs with poor greeting skills and has excellent greeting skills herself – it’s not unusual to see her turn to another dog who is not sure about her, offer her butt for sniffing, and raise her leg so the other dog can get their snout under her for a good sniff. She is also no pushover and will set boundaries for other dogs and enforce them, but she really has to be pushed very hard in order to go beyond a warning and bite. If a dog acts very aggressively towards her, she will typically move away from them.

Because I know her well, I can do intros with her and other dogs where she is off-leash and the dog she is meeting is on (this is for safety). This allows me to really focus on the body language of the dog she is meeting and not worry about de-tangling leashes!

A successful meeting with Ginger doesn’t mean that a dog will necessarily get along with all other dogs, but it does indicate that they have the potential to interact with at least some other dogs. It also gives an indication of their greeting “style” and maybe if they’re interested in play. Similarly, an unsuccessful meeting with Ginger does not necessarily mean that a dog is dog aggressive (I always have to keep this in mind when I’m intro’ing a dog that I have reason to think may have a high prey drive), but her track record as an indicator is excellent overall.

After a dog meets Ginger we brainstorm for other dogs that we think would be compatible with their play style and introduce those dogs. The results have been astounding – dogs who have lived in isolation for years after being judged “dog aggressive” are participating in play groups and having fun playing with other dogs. We’ve just started to put together some larger groups with 3 dogs and may expand even more. Every single long term canine resident (approximately 150) of Pets Alive Westchester will be re-evaluated and, if appropriate, allowed to play with other dogs. For those dogs for whom it is not appropriate we hope to explore if they have the ability to develop socially with other dogs in controlled situations, and some of them undoubtedly will.

“Dog aggressive” is a label that has historically been overused in most shelters – and many shelters kill dogs that fail tests of dog aggression. This BAD RAP page gives what I think is a decent overview and explanation of terms used to describe dog tolerance, the page is specific to pit bulls but the terminology and information is the same for all dogs. The way in which dogs interact with other dogs is a fluid trait that can change throughout their lifetime and can be improved through positive social experiences with other dogs. The number of dogs I have met at Pets Alive Westchester whom I would consider genuinely dog aggressive is quite small.

Each of the following videos features dogs who had been labeled “dog aggressive”:



Thanks to Pets Alive Westchester for allowing me to help with this project. Some of their long term resident dogs (about 150) have been in the shelter living in concrete runs for YEARS. Many are wonderful, incredible dogs who just need a chance to blossom in a home. If you are in the Westchester County, NY area, please consider giving a home to a dog from PAW who really deserves it – you can keep an eye on the PAW Play Groups YouTube channel, maybe you’ll spot the ideal playmate for your dog!

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  • Hi John, Thomas Cole here. Jack Carone in L.A. sent me the lnk to your post. He wondered if you guys might want to talk about this issue. It doesn’t seem appropriate since you are not asking for help in this post, but is just informative. Let me know if you’d like to talk to someone who has solutions to this gigantic problem in our country, okay?

    As the leading voice in the world for large-group presentation of homeless dogs (and cats), this issue you present is a primary concern of mine. I see a few progressive, but not innovative nor experienced, groups moving in this direction. On Nov. 29, Maddie’s Fund sent out a newsletter about articles in their medical section of their resource library. One, Seeing Dogs as Individuals Key to Managing Behavior Problems, is a little fluff piece which highlights the research work of Boston’s leading animal scientist, Dr. Amy Marder. She is the director of Boston Animal Rescue League’s newest effort, Center For Shelter Dogs. Here’s the link to the article = http://www.maddiesfund.org/Resource_Library/Seeing_Dogs_as_Individuals.html

    It was fun to read the struggle she had getting any response at all from Dr. Emily Weiss, ASPCA’s designer of the SAFER and Meet Your Match evaluation programs. I have had that same struggle getting no response from Dr. Marder, by the way!

    The basic premise of all current and ongoing research, including Dr. Marder’s, is 100% flawed: it presumes that how a dog reacts/behaves in a shelter is predictive of how that dog will behave once s(he) is in a home. Any experienced rehabber will laugh at that notion. It’s absurd!

    Our brilliant scientists in their bright white lab smocks miss the most fundamental weakness in their research – shelters suck. Even the sweetest disposition when jammed into a cage will degrade within a very short time. All of us who have worked in shelters know this as “kennel crazy.” My point is that instead of spending millions of dollars on trying to do the impossible, link shelter behavior to a prediction model, we would be much better off spending the money to create a facility where the “good” dogs get to live not in cages, but in large groups in harmony until the right customer comes along.

    The key is what to do with all those mean, nasty “bad” dogs? We have to get them out of these prisons and into quiet places like private homes where experienced and skilled rehabbers can work with them. At some point, humans need other dogs in a calm group to finish the rehab work for them. Dogs helping other dogs, is what I mean. Then these “bad” dogs become “good” dogs and are returned to the Adoption Center for placement, now that they’re adoptable.

    This is what I have done for 50 years. Now I’m trying to pass this knowledge and skill set on so it does not die with me. Sadly, the other guy who knows this stuff is off becoming a hollywood and TV star – Cesar Millan. His experience and knowledge is not for the individual as his producers pander to on his TV show. His gift is in working with large groups of extremely reactive dogs. He and I should be opening the world’s first National Rehabbers Training Center to pass on our skills. We need to build an army of trained people to do this work in the future. Alas, he has DVDs to sell and shows to produce.

    To summarize this, prison caging works against that right from the start. No research scientist nor behaviorist can change that fact through some formulaic approach. Animals, especially domesticated dogs, don’t work that way. They are not predictable little machines.

    John, take this for what it’s worth. Pass it on to your group if you choose. My radical and innovative Adoption Center model is built around the premise that no dog is beyond redemption – all can be rehabbed successfully. It ushers in a new era without animal prisons and it redefines the term “shelter.” But at its core is the concept that each animal is different, each animal has value, and each animal will thrive if dealt with respect and care. My intent in rehab is to simply undo the damage done by humans – to wipe clean the slate. Classical training is for later after the adoption.

  • jbsibley

    Your proposition is hugely expensive and impractical in a functioning high-turnover shelter, although it would provide the basis of an interesting foster program. In a place that is severely underfunded, as this shelter is, I don’t see rebuilding the facility as remotely practical at this point in time. They absolutely welcome foster homes.

    I’d like to see a test of the system, I don’t believe anyone has tried that in a high turnover situation as opposed to a more stable population in a sanctuary type situation. There’s a reason for that.

    I rehab dogs myself including reactive dogs, one of mine is an ex-fighter, 4 out of 5 were labeled “dog aggressive”. The care and attention that one can provide in a private home on a sufficient budget simply does not scale in the animal shelter world – the budget involved for facilities, skilled personnel and veterinary care in your system would be so much more expensive than current “best of” shelters – saving 90%+ – that it renders the concept impractical.

    Your comment is also way off topic. 🙂 I realize you want to promote your system, but I don’t know anyone who has any shelter experience who believes it will work, including myself. You haven’t yet created a test facility, I suggest you do.

  • Willie Wonka

    I thought Shelter Revolutions post was right on topic. I am surprised you dismissed it so quickly without taking the time to really read the web site and understand these Adoption Centers will be privately and not run by the government. Thomas is aware of the need to build a model to prove this will work on a large scale. You know of many rescues who do this now , allowing communal living with a lot more than 3 dogs. I would have hoped that you would have more interest in taking this concept a lot further ! The animals would chose to live together. Why not showcase them when they are happy and healthy ? Market them like used cars in nice clean buildings that are fun to visit. Trying to just “reform ” shelters and keeping the same employees and old school attitudes is only polishing a rotten apple. It is still rotten ! Shiny cells do not make them better cages for the animals. I wish you would have taken more time to explore that Adoption Center Model . I would expect Wayne Parcell to just dismiss it but your reply was a surprise. I hope you will reconsider after you read it. You should be part of the revolution !

  • jbsibley

    As much as I hesitate to make a serious reply to someone who hides behind the pseudonym “Willie Wonka”…

    I’ve read the web site extensively, it’s a concept I’m well familiar with and was prior to this post. I consider it unwieldy, unworkable, prohibitively costly, and subject to huge liability issues, as does pretty much everyone who’s looked at it who has any practical shelter experience. The concept does not scale cost effectively. Period. Again, I suggest its acolytes put it into actual practice – there are lots of shelter director positions open, private and public – and then come forth with a more refined and practical idea. If you believe in the idea… go do it!

    Milan’s skill is as a showman and self-promoter, not a rehab expert (or particularly a dog expert). I’ve taken care of rejects from his “Dog Psychology Center” – dogs who fought back against the abusive methods used by his staff. They too were not beyond redemption in the right hands.

    This is now way off topic; I encourage anyone interested in learning more about the Thomas Cole system to visit http://www.shelterrevolution.org and learn about it, but further discussion of it in this comments thread will be deleted. Perhaps I will devote a future post to the current flaws in the theory (and it is right now just theory) and we can discuss it further there.

  • Your comment, “A successful meeting with Ginger doesn’t mean that a dog will necessarily get along with all other dogs, but it does indicate that they have the potential to interact with at least some other dogs. It also gives an indication of their greeting “style” and maybe if they’re interested in play”.
    Sounds so much like the process I take!

    I have four dogs with very different personalities. None of them are actually as good as your Ginger sounds, but they are all different enough, that I haven’t had a foster yet that didn’t get along with at least one of them. It’s really useful to see them interact with other dogs and get an understanding of their personality and what kind of dogs might be suitable for them in their new home.

    I had one bitch come through that was surrendered, and the family were very concerned about my dogs getting damaged! It’s amazing how many owners do not really understand their dog’s behaviours. This bitch was a little ‘bossy’ with her body language, but she didn’t really mean it, she just wasn’t very dog-savvy. She got along swimmingly with my youngest bitch, where they played rough for hours on end. She was rehomed to a home with another dog.

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