People who adopt dogs from animal shelters are excited about their new pets. However, when shelter dogs followed at their new homes for six months after they were brought home were studied by researchers at Ohio State University (OSU), it was discovered that the pets showed negative behaviors like stranger aggression or training problems.
Nevertheless, owner satisfaction remained high, with 94% of owners reporting their dog’s behavior as excellent or good, according to the study just published in the prestigious journal PLOS ONE by veterinarian Dr. Kyle Bohland and colleagues at OSU’s Veterinary Medical Center.
At least two million dogs are adopted from shelters in the US every year; many dogs are also brought home by Israeli canine lovers. Confinement in a shelter environment is stressful for dogs, resulting in measurable behavioral and physiologic changes, as they experience a new environment with new scents, sounds, unfamiliar people, and unfamiliar animals.
They are also separated from people in the shelters to whom they were very attached. This stress can make shelter-housed dogs unhappy and contribute to behavior changes. Once adopted, another stressful adjustment period begins. Veterinarians and shelter professionals often refer to this period as the “honeymoon period” that can be a time of dynamic behavior changes. During times of stress and transition, a full picture of a dog’s behavior is not typically apparent until they are fully acclimated and comfortable in their new environment, which may be weeks or months after adoption.
There is much more research on dog behavior while in the shelter compared to their behavior after adoption. Many shelters conduct formal behavior evaluations, but the evidence whether these tools actually predict future behavior after adoption is mixed. “This is particularly concerning because behavior problems have been consistently listed as the top reason for relinquishment of dogs to shelters and contribute to returns after adoption,” the researchers wrote.
Bohland and colleagues surveyed the owners of 99 dogs adopted from five Ohio shelters from October 2020 to May 2021, checking in with owners seven, 30, 90, and 180 days after adoption. The dog owners were asked about the following problem behaviors, scoring each behavior as demonstrated by their dog from 0 to 4: excitability, stranger-directed aggression, owner-directed aggression, dog-directed aggression, familiar dog aggression, stranger-directed fear, nonsocial fear, dog-directed fear, touch sensitivity, separation-related behavior, attachment and attention-seeking, training difficulty, chasing, and energy levels.
Each of the four surveys asked owners about overall satisfaction with their dog’s behavior; any household changes since adoption; and if they still owned the dog. Stranger aggression behaviors were reported in 62% of dogs immediately following adoption, but in 77 % of dogs six months post-adoption
Reports of separation-related behaviors and attachment and attention-seeking behaviors decreased, presumably as the dogs became assured their owners would consistently return home. In addition, seven people returned their adopted dog during the study period. Despite undesirable behavior like stranger aggression and training problems, in the final survey, all of the dog owners reported that their dog adjusted to their new home extremely or moderately well; 94% rated their dog’s overall behavior as excellent or good, 6% as fair, and no owner reported poor/terrible behavior. About 75% of owners said they thought their dog’s behavior had improved over time. “This is one of the most comprehensive studies, using multiple timepoints, to investigate post-adoption behavior in dogs. The findings help shelters counsel new dog guardians with more accurate information on what behavior changes to expect after adoption. This information will hopefully allow people to get help sooner for their dog’s behavior problems and keep more dogs in their adoptive homes,” the authors concluded.