Australia has one of the highest incidences of dog ownership in the world and, every year, thousands of stray and surrendered pet dogs are admitted to animal shelters and council pounds. In some Australian states, shelters are required to house dogs in quarantine kennels for eight days post vaccination before being health and temperament tested. This kennel environment is often restricted in size and complexity, dogs are housed singly to limit disease transmission and aggressive encounters between unfamiliar dogs and direct contact with humans is often very limited. These factors can contribute to the novelty and unpredictability of the environment, which can magnify the impact of aversive stimuli and may have negative consequences for dog welfare.
Research in the livestock industries has demonstrated that frequent aversive stockperson behaviours, such as slapping, shouting and rapid, unpredictable movement, can result in farm animals becoming highly fearful of humans. Negative handling of dogs may also invoke generalised fear responses towards humans. Fear typically manifests in dogs as either avoidance behaviour or defensive aggression both of which may become problematic in a shelter environment where the behavioural responses of a dog towards humans in a temperament test may determine whether the dog is adopted or euthanased. Although factors such as genetic predisposition, negative previous experiences and inappropriate owner responses can all contribute to fearful behaviour, it is also possible that the period of time spent in the shelter may affect the dog’s subsequent responses to humans.
Sally Haynes from the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre led a study which examined the relationship between handler behaviour and dog behaviour for 32 handlers and 918 individually housed dogs at four animal shelters during routine pen cleaning. The data showed that dogs become less fearful of humans over time in the shelter. Therefore, the dogs may have habituated to the handlers and the novel environment and/or receive sufficient positive interactions from some handlers to the extent that their fear of humans declined over time. In addition, handlers spent more time in the pen with dogs that displayed more fear behaviours including more initial avoidance. It is possible that handlers choose to spend more time with fearful dogs and/or it takes longer to clean pens when dogs are fearful. Furthermore, increased dog interactions with the handler were associated with increased positive behaviour by the handler.
These correlations, although not conclusive evidence of causal relationships, indicate that opportunities through research may exist to improve dog behaviour and welfare through changes in handler behaviour. Even short periods of positive contact with humans may make dogs more sociable and less fearful towards familiar and unfamiliar humans and this, in turn, may affect ease of handling, potential for adoption, euthanasia decisions and even shelter employee turnover.