After the Webinar: Assessing Dog Behavior in Shelter Settings. Q&A with the Presenters

Webinar presenters Trish McMillan and Dr. Diana Rayment answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Assessing Dog Behavior in Shelter Settings.  Here are just a few of their responses.


Audience Question: Is there any pushback from shelters in having entry-level volunteers walk dogs who have not yet received their “official” behavior evaluation. She goes on to mention that this particularly pertains to minimizing the risk to the dog walkers who may not necessarily be great at reading body language just yet. What are your thoughts about that? 

Trish McMillan: Sure. I think this is where fast-tracking can be really great. In the bit of the presentation, we’re Di was showing the dogs at the vets. One of the dogs was hugging the vet while they were doing invasive things to him. And those dogs who are just like, Oh, my goodness, I love everybody. I love everybody. I think would be safer to put up for walks by normal people. If there have been no red flags up till then, maybe pop them in Playgroup first to make sure that they’re not going to hurt other dogs. But a lot of you are not doing formal evaluations, and a lot of you are doing the assessments over time. What about you Di? What would you do with it?

Diana Rayment:  I absolutely agree that if you get them in and they are fine then just go ahead and let volunteers walk them. Where I am in the world in Victoria, it’s actually legislated that all of our dogs have to have that vet check within the first 24 to 48 hours. So, for me, as long as I’m getting good information from the vets at that point in time, that informs what we can do with that dog from that point. Pending everything else being positive about that dog, then go ahead and walk. This is definitely a concern I’ve come across often, probably a little bit less during the last 12 months. But by and large, I think people are putting a lot more faith in battery style tests than what they should. Honestly, for me, it was rammed home to me when I had dogs arrive with their owners for my Ph.D. work. We had dogs that I walked them in and the owners were probably 50 meters away, just outside of a different building, so not close to where we were.  They would behave a certain way and then when owner is right there, within the space of a few minutes, they were a completely different dog. And so, we’ve got dogs who were like, “Oh, I’m stressing out and freaking out and can’t cope or play“. Then I walked them back outside and said to the owners ‘he didn’t engage in any play behaviours and was quite stressed’. You then pull out the tennis ball with the owner present and the dog runs until it can’t breathe anymore. And so, I think we’ve developed this false sense of security around doing these battery-style assessments as the be-all and end-all. There’s a bunch of information available when you bring a dog in. Somebody’s handled it to bring it into your shelter. Somebody’s handled it to do its entry admin and to scan it for microchips, then to do its medical assessment. By the time you’ve got 48 hours in you know if that dog is going to be a problem for Joe average to handle. So if it’s not a problem then let them go, and if it is, look into it.

Trish McMillan: I was at a shelter recently doing some consulting, where they were 15 days behind on assessments, and none of these dogs had been out of the kennels in 15 days. And I think that as far more risky than at least fast-tracking some of them.


Audience Question: Diana, how do you gather information from the staff and volunteers as they’re providing assessing kinds of information? Do you have an online form that the volunteer uses when they check the dog back in after a walk? How of you operationalize this? 

Diana Rayment: I’ve never worked in an organization that’s lucky enough to have the tech to be able to have people put information on to Shelterbuddy, or whatever system we were using at the time. So, we have generally relied on paper-based stuff. So, having a well-designed form is important. You’ve got your general kind of day-to-day care and then a section with some leading questions about what the dog’s personality is like. And then, a section which asks, how did the dog respond in specific situations? Or, do you have any concerns about this a behavior? If yes, write them here, and then go flag it with the appropriate staff member. And so, what I’ve generally found is that having that process where we’re recording information all the time with a system in place where 2 to 3 times a week somebody can come, collect that information, and get it onto the shelter management system. And also, making sure all of your staff know what to do and feel comfortable doing it. So, if they see something that concerns them and flag it on the spot, right then and there. Write it down, make sure it’s written so we can refer to it later. Then also doing whatever your system you have for flagging it in person with your behavior staff, whether you put it up on a closed Facebook group that your staff use or just flag it with those people right there and then verbally and then follow up in writing as well. And so, we’ve got the information that’s on the system, which at worst will be a couple of days behind, and then we’ve got the information that’s on that dog’s kennel card, with initials from who wrote it down with a date and with enough information there about context of what you’re seeing, what was what was actually happening around that dog at the time, and what did the dog do? That gives the behavior staff a chance to come back, talk to that person, get as much information as  they need and then review what’s on file, and then make a decision from there. But it’s tricky. It can be very, very tricky because staff are busy and trying to get them to take the time to write down information, to watch the dog, and write something down each day takes time. You need to ask questions that work for the staff. I think I went through six to eight iterations getting the right information in my previous job before we settled on a system. And, some of that really came down to actually looking at what the animal care staff are required to do and how their day is actually set up. So, that they had the opportunity to write the information down and that was part of the expectation of their job and they were allowed time to do it.


Audience Question: Are there any additional training or mentoring or programs that you would recommend for shelter behavior assessments? 

Diana Rayment: Definitely! There are some good online resources freely available, which are similar to the style of this webinar. But, you can mentally understand something without actually being able to physically do it. And sometimes, you need someone to help as you think you understand something and are OK until somebody else comes along and points out the bits you need to work on, which is where a mentor or mentorship-style situation, like what Trish does, is really super useful. I’ll let Trish talk about it her stuff though!

Trish McMillan: Yeah, and there’s lots of great free stuff there’s ASPCA Pro, there’s Maddie’s Fund, there’s Justice Clearinghouse. My mentorship is a six-month program, where, there is a topic every two weeks, and there’s a meeting every two weeks, and there’s homework, and webinars, and written material, and research reviews. And we, actually do spend one whole chunk on actually developing behavior adoptability criteria for your facility, which is one of the main things that every facility should have for pathway planning. So, there’s lots of good stuff out there. I love the free programs. I think everybody should keep learning. I am still learning. I’ve gone to more conferences this year than any others here, because they’re all online now. It’s, yeah. Get employees who love to learn and your department will get better every year.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Assessing Dog Behavior in Shelter Settings


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