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.
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!