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Presentation of Study: Fostering Dogs with Behavioral Challenges: Results and Outcomes
November 3, 2015 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer Kristen Auerbach will share the study she’ll be presenting on at the upcoming Society of Animal Welfare Administrators annual conference. Kristen recently came to Austin Animal Center from the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax, Virginia. This study is relevant for any shelter or animal welfare professionals and to anyone who has ever wanted to foster a pet to save its life!
We’ll be recruiting new foster families at this talk, so come ready to meet some of the shetler’s available pets!
Here is Kristen’s recent blog post about how the study came about and what they found. Hint: More than 90% of the dogs in the study found permanent, adoptive homes!
Placing Medium and Large Breed Shelter Dogs with Behavioral Challenges in Foster Homes: Results and Outcomes
Over the past several years, a big change has taken place for animals in Fairfax County, Virginia, a community just outside Washington DC covering 400 square miles and serving 1.2 million people. In a two-year period, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, an open-access, municipal organization that falls under a police department, took a series of measures to increase lifesaving. Between 2012 and 2015, we doubled annual adoption numbers and cut euthanasia in half.
These changes included overturning ‘pit bull’ adoption restrictions, starting a robust social media program, implementing play groups and a comprehensive enrichment program for shelter dogs as well as expanding our foster program to include behavioral fostering for cats and dogs. Because medium and large dogs were at the highest risk of euthanasia for behavioral reasons and because we had no in-house behavior program, we developed a foster program specifically targeted to help medium and large dogs that may have otherwise faced euthanasia because of their behavior in the shelter.
The idea for the study all started with a black and white, mixed-breed dog named Patty who was highly barrier reactive and would stand at the front of her kennel barking aggressively at any person or dog that walked by. She was also extremely hard to handle in the shelter, jumping up and biting on her leash, jumping on her handler and nipping at people’s hands and feet when they tried to get her in and out of the kennel. Because of these behaviors, we couldn’t place her on the adoption floor and because of her behavior and appearance, we were unsuccessful in securing her a rescue placement. Euthanasia seemed like it might be the only option.
That is until a savvy staff member, reading back through her notes, noticed she had been brought in by animal control officers after they had to break her out of a hot car where she had been left with the windows up. Patty was within minutes of dying when officers rescued her. This staff member speculated that perhaps Patty had anxiety about being confined after her traumatic experience and she asked if she could take Patty home for a night to see how she did outside of the shelter. The director approved the overnight foster and off Patty went.
The transformation was striking. Within ten minutes of leaving the shelter, Patty was a different dog. She was laid-back and relaxed and even fell asleep on her first car ride to her foster home. After the staff person was able to see how calm and easygoing Patty was in her home, and how well she got along with the other dogs living in the home, we arranged for Patty to go to one of our regular foster families, where Patty stayed until she was adopted. Patty’s behavior in the shelter, which was severe enough we couldn’t put her on our adoption floor, virtually disappeared as soon as she stepped out of the shelter. Patty was later adopted into a home where she remains today, a happy, beloved member of her family.
While we had sent several dogs with behavioral issues to foster previously, all with positive results, it was Patty’s story that compelled us to do an actual study. We knew many of the dogs who were still being euthanized in our shelter were medium and large dogs with behavioral issues, some of which seemed related to kennel stress. Without a behaviorist or team on staff, we were often left with no viable placement options for these dogs, whose behavior would usually grow worse, not better, the more time they spent in the shelter. We wanted to find out if by sending some of these dogs to foster homes, we might see a different side of them which could open up a pathway for them to eventually find permanent homes. We wanted to see if we could save more dogs just by sending them to foster homes. Also, and just as importantly, we wanted to know if we could do all of this while ensuring the safety of our dogs, the foster families and our community.
Over a nearly two-year period, we sent 52 such dogs to foster homes, with 16 foster families participating. We looked at the entire process the dogs went through from the time the behavioral challenges were identified to their time in the foster home to their eventual outcome. We also tracked the length of stay in foster home, whether the dogs were returned to the shelter to be adopted or adopted directly from the foster home and whether the adopters returned the dogs after adoption. Out of the original 52 dogs, 47 were placed in permanent homes and five were euthanized.
My talk will focus on what we learned from the study and the possible implications for animal shelters that lack adequate behavioral support and may not have any other placement options for medium and large dogs with behavioral challenges. I will show how foster placement may be a safe and effective alternative to euthanasia for some dogs in our shelters.
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