Podium: Giving rescue dogs extra appeal

From a talk by a psychologist at the Queen's University of Belfast to the British Psychological Society
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The Independent Culture
EVERY YEAR, thousands of dogs end up in the care of their local animal rescue shelter. Unfortunately, most of these animals are destroyed because they cannot be rehoused. The chances of a sheltered dog becoming purchased are highly dependent upon a visitor finding it appealing.

Many factors may determine a dog's appeal and its consequent chances of being purchased (eg its breed or its cage environment), although of interest here is the dog's behaviour, which has been found to influence its desirability.

Research indicates that potential buyers prefer dogs that are at the front rather than the back of the cage, quiet as opposed to barking, and alert, ie standing, sitting or moving, rather than non-alert, ie resting or sleeping.

Unfortunately, very few dogs in rescue shelters exhibit such publicly acceptable behaviours and their chances of being purchased are consequently at risk.

This study examined the behaviour of sheltered dogs in response to three types of environmental change - increased human social stimulation, moving the dog's bed to the front of the cage, suspending a toy from the front of the dog's cage - to determine whether it influenced dog behaviour in ways that could be perceived as desirable to potential dog buyers.

The procedure for recording the dogs' behaviour was exactly the same in all three studies. Twenty-four male and 16 female dogs of different breeds were used as subjects. Dogs were studied on a Sunday, when visitors to the shelter are relatively high in number, and on a weekday, when there are few visitors.

A bone chew was used as the stimulus toy. This was suspended from the front of the cage by a chain. Dogs were studied on a day when the toy was present at the front of the cage (the toy condition) and a day when there was no toy in the cage (the control condition).

Increased social stimulation and the presence of a bed at the front of the cage both significantly influenced the dog's position in the cage. Both these factors encouraged dogs to spend more of their time at the front of the cage and less time at the rear. The dog's position in the cage was not significantly influenced by the presence of a toy at the front of the pen.

Dogs' activity was influenced by social stimulation. They preferred to spend more of their time standing during the social condition than resting, sitting, moving or sleeping.

The presence of neither a bed nor a toy at the front of the pen significantly altered the dog's activity.

Social stimulation exerted the greatest influence on dog behaviour. The presence of visitors to the shelter had a positive effect on the dogs' position in the cage, enticing them to the front of the pen. It also had a positive effect on their activity, encouraging them to spend more time standing.

These are both types of behaviour that potential buyers find appealing in a dog. Dogs showed a slightly greater tendency to bark in the presence of visitors, which may reflect negatively upon potential buyers of the animals.

However, the increase in barking during the condition of social stimulation was only small. The dogs are not necessarily barking at the visitors; they may be barking in response to the "commotion" caused by the presence of a large number of people.

Moving the dogs' beds to the front of their enclosures resulted in the animals spending more of their time at the front of the cage. This cage manipulation may help to promote the welfare of sheltered dogs.

People prefer dogs that have a bed in the cage to those that have no bed in the cage. Since the dogs' beds are normally kept at the rear of the pen, visitors may not notice their presence in the cage. By moving the bed to the front of the enclosure, however, it is made easier for visitors to see the bed, and, hopefully, also the dog, which appears to spend most of its time in the vicinity of its own bed.

Very few of the dogs showed any interest in the addition of a toy to the cage. However, it may still be in a dog's best interests to have such an item present. Potential buyers prefer dogs that have an enrichment item in the cage to dogs that are held in a barren pen, even if the animal is not seen playing with the stimulus. Simply suspending a toy from the front of a dog's cage, so that it is within the view of the visitors, may indirectly improve the dogs' welfare by enhancing public perceptions of canine desirability.

It is thought that by designing cages that encourage dogs to behave in a publicly acceptable manner it may eventually be possible to increase the number of dogs that are purchased from rescue shelters.