For anyone not familiar with Aimee's work, essentially, she is, in my opinion (and the opinion of many others) one of the foremost experts in the country at creating playgroups for shelter dogs as a way to burn off extra energy, increase socialization, and reduce the stress of kennel life for shelter dogs.
Shelter playgroups are different than your standard dog park experience. Dogs at the shelter come from a variety of different backgrounds: some good, some pretty bad. And it's often tough to predict how dogs that come out of the shelter environment will behave around each other in a playgroup format. So understanding how to read and match dogs is essential for success. But when done well, the outcome is great.
Before I get into the playgroups experience a bit more, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a bit about the shelter experience for the dogs.
Shelter life can be tough for dogs -- and depending on the shelter construct, it can be a very tough environment for them, even under the best circumstances. Our shelter is like many urban shelters. It's 40 years old. It has one main housing area where all the dogs are kept. In many of the rows, kennels are stacked -- with smaller dogs on the top, larger dogs on the bottom. And every time a dog gets let out by a staff person, or volunteer, the dog and handler go down the row and the dogs on both levels bark: most because dogs are social creatures and they want to meet the other dog and are frustrated because they can't. Over time, this frustration builds until dog=frustration. The more the dogs get out, the better it is, but even under the best circumstances the dogs are in their kennel for 23 hours a day. While some handle this environment fine, it is very stressful for others, even under the best of circumstances.
Over the past 6 months, thanks to some volunteers and supporters, we've been able to build multiple playyards for our dogs (pictured).
Some other volunteers have instituted weekend playgroups for some of the dogs, which has been great. But with Aimee's visit, playgroups are becoming a regular occurrance, and the benefits are telling.
Because of the shelter environment, over time, many dogs develop "barrier reactivity" -- which would be a negative reaction toward other dogs when separated by a barrier (whether that barrier be a fence, a kennel, or a leash). In many shelters, it's easy for dogs that show barrier aggression to be kept separate from other dogs and be labeled as "not good with other dogs". This not only enhances the problem for the dogs, it also makes it harder for them to be adopted -- which at best makes their kennel stay longer, at worst, a candidate for euthanasia.
One such dog for us was a dog named Lucy. She is a Dogue de Boudeaux at our shelter. She was surrendered for having issues with other dogs, and after some time at the shelter, had developed a fair amount of barrier reactivity. She seemed uncertain meeting a dog through the fence, so Aimee muzzled her so she could interact with the dog, but everything would be safe. After analyzing the body language of both dogs, she opted to take off her muzzle. And Lucy....played.
Here's a video of Lucy on her second day of playgroups:
This is the power of playgroups for an open intake shelter like ours -- that dogs can get the socialization they need -- and that they WANT -- as well as much needed exercise. Aimee says that she believes 30 minutes in playgroups is about the equivelent of a 2 hour walk -- and I believe it. It also provides proper mental stimulation and socialization. And the tired dogs also create a quieter/less stressful environment inside the shelter. We also learn a LOT about the dogs, which helps our staff make better recommendations for adopters. And all of this leads to helping make the dogs more adoptable -- which decreases their time at the shelter, and overall, reduces stress. It's a huge win.
There is a lot about Aimee's playgroup model -- in handling play-types, when to interrupt play, how to handle corrections, etc. I think some of this is easily misunderstood if you don't get to hear the 3 hour presentation she gives before going into playgroups that helps define the why's. She is also very big on letting dogs communicate and work out their differences -- some of which she explains in this clip:
Overall, we're working on modifying some things to fit our particular staff and situation, but as a whole, I think playgroups will continue to make life better for the dogs at KC Pet Project. I think our staff and volunteers had a great time with it and are really enjoying seeing the dogs be, well, dogs. And it's also fun to watch stereo-types be bunked as we watch pit bulls playing with Labs, unneutered male dogs interacting well with other male dogs, etc. As would be expected when you start semi-randomly throwing 120 dogs with unknown backgrounds together, but most ended quickly, with a lot of ruckus but not much more than that. Break it up. Play on.
I'm excited about this being added to the curriculum at KC Pet Project. Over the past 9 months we've been able to maintain a 90+% live release rate by instituting programs that have proven themselves to be successful in other shelters across the country. This, is one of those programs.
This video is a few months old at this point, but I just saw it last week and absolutely want to highlight it.
The video below shows a young toddler (maybe 1 1/2 years old), who repeatedly jumps onto a Rottweiler, hugs him, jumps on him, bounces on him, etc. The dog in this case is definitely NOT enjoying the experience and is giving a whole host of warning signals that the child can't identify and the adults in the room ignore (or can't identify) while they laugh and cheer the child on in his antics.
There is not horrific ending to this video. Like so many dogs in this country, the dog removed himself from the situation and avoided biting the child, but I want you to watch the video and ask yourself, if the dog had bitten the child, what would the reaction be?
Would it have bitten because it was a Rottweiler and Rottweilers are aggressive?
Would it have been irresponsible parenting for putting the dog in this situation?
Would the parents have said "the dog had never shown signs of aggression before, we don't know what happened?"
How would the media have treated the bite?
How would the local authorities have treated the dog?
Would the city council have met to discuss the need to ban Rottweilers? Or would they have instead created ownership education training so people would be better equipped to recognize warning signals like the dog was giving?
This 2 minute video is an excellent demonstration of why it's so important for people to understand canine behavior, warning signals, and why owner education is so important. And it's also a reminder of just how tolerant so many dogs (including most of the ones from breeds that often carry certain stigmas) are with the situations we put them in. And this dog is ROCK SOLID. Thankfully.
Earlier today, a new study from Maddies Fund was released about how perceptions of dog handlers affected how people viewed an individual dog's behavior.
In the study, people were show pictures of 3 dogs and asked to rate them on a 6 point Likert scale their perceived friendliness, adoptability, approachability, intelligence, aggressiveness and difficulty to train.
People were also shown the same three dogs with different human handlers -- one with a rough looking adult male, one with a young boy and one with an elderly woman.
Not surprisingly, the results showed that people viewed the pit bull less favorably than they viewed the Labrador Retriever and the Border Collie -- giving it lower scores for friendliness, adoptability, approachability and intelligence -- and higher scores for aggressiveness and difficulty to train.
However, the scores for the pit bull jumped considerably when shown with the young boy and the elderly woman. From the study:
"The elderly woman and male child activated positive handler stereotypes, motivating participants to perceive the pit bull type dog as friendlier, more adoptable, more approachable and less aggressive while the rough male reinforced the dog's negative stereotype. These results suggest that a handler can serve as a primer for perceptions about a dog's characteristics."
The study results probably won't surprise most people much, but it does reinforce that overwhelmingly when people discuss ideas about restricting particular breeds of dogs, they are often talking about laws in place that target the types of people they PERCEIVE to be the typical owners of those types of dogs -- not necessarily the dogs themselves. This is why those that advocate for such laws are inclined to try to convince people that 'pit bulls' are the dog of choice for 'paraplegic drug dealers' and "gangbanger wannabe's." It's very much about racism and stereotyping owners, and not focusing on the dogs, and the reality that most commonly owned by respected members of society.
While it should be about judging the dogs for what they are, I'm actually fine with people basing their predisposition off of the owners as well -- as long as they use the real owners and not the ones rooted in their fear-mongering imagination.
Over the weekend, I got the opportunity to attend, and present at, Best Friends' No More Homeless Pets Conference in Las Vegas. I'll be posting some thoughts from the conference later in the week as I work through articulating the stream of thoughts that have come from the conference.
I had the pleasure of meeting Foster about 5 years ago -- when he was on tour for his book "The Dogs Who Found Me, what I've learned from the pets who were left behind". In the book, Foster lays out sometimes humorous, and sometimes sad, stories about the dogs that have found him in life. Over time, Foster has become a founder of the Sula Foundation, a pit bull advocacy (and sometimes rescue) group in New Orleans.
So, I was thrilled to be able to pick up a copy of Foster's new work. And it didn't disappoint.
The book is a short read as it's only about 140 pages long and contains more than 80 photos. But I think the impact of the book will be pretty significant.
The book is broken into four chapters -- with many outstanding images along the way and often interupted with stories of pit bulls owned by celebrities, or in pop culture, or those that have influenced other advocates throughout the country.
In Chapter 1, Foster makes an attempt to define 'pit bull' -- not the easiest task in the world. Foster acknowledges that the definition changes depending on who you ask: from very narrow definitions from breed enthusiasts that refer to "pit bulls' as only purebred American Pit Bull Terriers to broader definitions that include 3 or four breeds of dogs and then on to very broad definitions, sometimes even used in a legal tense, of any dog that physically resembles a pit bull. He attempts to give the history of the breeds (again, something that has variable answers depending on your source) to help define the dogs.
In Chapter 2, Foster talks about Pit Bulls as family, and introduces us to several families he's met over the years whose dogs have very much become part of their family. Foster also notes that the ideas of pit bulls as family is not new -- and takes us through many historical photos depicting pit bull type dogs in family photos that would indicate that they were, even 150 years ago, often considered family.
Chapter 3, Foster entitles "The Comeback". Earlier in the book, Foster laments that this is a book he wanted to write many years earlier, but there was no interest from publishers to do so. However, I'm glad he had to wait, because much of this chapter largely wouldn't have existed 5 years ago. The chapter talks about dogs rescued from Hurricane Katrina -- and how the majority of all the animals saved in Katrina were pit bulls. In Foster's opinion (and it's one I tend to agree with), Katrina exposed pit bull typed dogs to rescuers from throughout the country who, up to that time, had had little to no exposure to the breed. He thinks it was then, that perceptions of the dogs among animal advocates began to change.
Then, a short time later, you had the dog fighting bust at Bad Newz Kennels. With Mike Vick's arrest putting the dogs in a higher profile, several organizations reached out to see if authorities would allow the dogs to be temperament tested to possibly allow for their release. The release of the dogs, and the reality that nearly all were allowed to go to rescue and many to re-enter public life, and the media publicity that followed, helped to elevate "pit bulls' back to the roll as a beloved dog in American Culture again.
Throughout the chapter, Foster focuses on several dogs that have been rescued from dog fighting rings across the country over the last 5 years.
In Chapter 4, Foster looks at pit bulls in the community. He discusses pit bulls as working dogs, both now, and historically. He looks at dogs that help children with their reading skills, as therapy dogs, as dogs that help soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Disc Dogs, Agility Dogs, show dogs, celebrity dogs and dogs that simply live in our communities and live their lives mostly on the couch.
For regular readers of this blog, you will probably not see a lot of new information in this book, but you'll likely love the stories he tells, and how he combines those stories into a larger narative of pit bulls. You'll definitely see familiar faces, like Wallace, and Leo, and hear from familiar voices. But while the book may have been written for the many of us that celebrate, and love, pit bulls, I don't know that that is where the book will have its biggest impact.
"Does the fact that people question our pit bull love make it that much more intense? Possibly -- because in the case of Sula, I know that I saved her life, and despite what some people say, saving an animal's life is never a selfless act; there are huge emotional rewards. Like all forbidden love, from Romeo and Juliet on down the line, each time anyone questions or disapproves of our love, we defiantly love each other even more than before." -- Ken Foster -- from the Forward.
So go out and get a copy of the book - and you may think about buying multiple copies as gifts for your pit bull loving friends, or your family that just doesn't understand why you love the dogs so much.
The survey looked at why people won't get both cats and dogs, and both previous pet owners and those who have never owned a pet. The survey included 500 people in each category.
According to the survey, the following are the top reasons why people do not plan to adopt a pet:
Among Previous Owners -- Dogs
-- Veterinary Expenses -- 30%
-- General Expenses - 29%
-- No time - 27%
-- Still Grieving previous pet - 20%
Among Previous Owners - Cats
-- Travel too much - 28%
-- Cleaning up - 25%
-- Veterinary expenses - 25%
-- Still grieving - 17%
Of never-owners - Dogs
-- Lifestyle - 30%
-- Cleaning up - 30%
-- General expenses - 29%
Of never-owners - cats
-- Don't like - 35%
-- Litter box smell - 29%
-- Lifestyle - 22%
The survey also noted that 22% of previous dog owners and 18% of previous cat owners acquired their pet from a shelter or rescue organization and that most respondents over the age of 65 are no longer interested in owning a pet -- noting that "we're done".
The study highlights several key insights that I think are interesting. One is how large a barrier cost is to adoption. This is probably higher now, due to the poor economy, than it may have been several years ago, but the cost of pet ownership is still a very real barrier.
I also find the overall dislike of cats interesting -- as they often get a bad reputation but I think there is a lot of opportunity to educate people on the benefits of cat ownership and letting them realize that it is actually pretty easy to own a cat (although, I do dislike the whole litterbox thing mostly).
I also think it's sad that older people are not as interested in pets, as pets are great companions and often really help people in their later years.
And finally, I think the number who are still grieving over their lost pet is VERY interesting -- as it not only shows how strong the connection between people and their pets can be, but also that there may be some pretty big opportunities in grief counseling for pet owners.
This is part one of a study funded by PetSmart Charities. Future phases will examine the outcomes of pets adopted from shelters after 6 months of being adopted and a final phase will test strategies for owner retention.
October is National Pit Bull Awareness Month -- and in honor of it, the folks over at 1-800-Pet Meds put together a snazzy little info-graphic on the topic of facts and myths about pit bulls. I like the premise of the info-graphic, and it is a visually appealing way of telling a story that needs to be told. I'm not sure I'm buying all the data, but the general premise of this is solid and the story it tells is right.
Tomorrow, several Kansas City Area organziations are partnering for Neighborhood Pit bull Day.
The event will feature opportunities for pit bull owners to have their dogs spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped and licensed with the city. All for free.
Also, dog food samples and treats will be made available, as well as trainers on hand to help folks with their training needs.
Help will be available for both English-speakers and Spanish-speakers.
I'm really excited for the event -- sponsored by Best Friends Animal Society in partnership with Spay & Neuter Kansas City. It's a great opportunity for our animal welfare community to reach out to the pit bull owners in Kansas City and be a part of helping them with their pet ownership needs.
Great program, and great work by both organizations involved.
This month, there was an interesting study by the ASPCA (written by Emily Weiss, Margaret Slater and Linda Ford) in their issue of Animals (HT to Seattle Dog Spot).
The study, performed between September-November 2010, includied 1,015 pet owning households -- 80% of whom owned dogs (817) and 50% (506) owned cats -- 30% (308) owned both a dog and a cat.
According to the reported research:
- 14% of dogs had been lost in the past 5 years, (of which, 95% were recovered) and 15% of cats were lost (of which, 75% were recovered).
-- 50% of dogs and 33% of cats had been lost multiple times
-- 80% of dogs and 88% of cats were spayed or neutered (male dogs were less likely to be altered than female dogs). This would seem to be counter to common thinking that unaltered animals are more likely to run off than altered ones.
-- Not surprisingly, people with higher incomes and more education were MORE likely to alter their pets than people with lower incomes and less education -- further highlighting the need for targeted low-cost spay/neuter services.
-- There was no significant difference in likelihood of a pet being lost based on income or education
-- 49% of found dogs were found by searching their neighborhood, 20% came home on their own, 15% were contacted because they were wearing a tag or had a microchip, 7% were brought home by a neighbor and 6% by contacting animal control
-- 59% of cats were found because they returned home on their own, 30% were found by searching the neighborhood. Only 2% were returned home because they were wearing a tag or mcircochipped, and another 2% via contacting animal control.
-- For people who never found their lost dogs, 75% of searched their neighborhood, 75% visited the shelter, 50% hung posters, 50% put an ad in their paper, 50% posted online and 38% called their veterinarian (I will note that the sample size is very low for this since most people found their pets).
-- For people who never found their cats, 67% searched the neighborhood, 22% visited a shelter, 17% hung posters , 11% put an ad in the paper, 6% posted online and 11% called veterinarians (again, a fairly low sample size). The number of lost cat owners that never visited the shelter to look for the cat (and a verys small percent have any form of identification) is likely a reason that most shelters have strikingly low return-to-owner rates for cats.
-- People who made less than $50,000 a year were less likely to be reunited with their dogs than people in higher income brackets. For cats, low income (less than $30,000 and high income ($100,000+) were more likely to be reunited, where people between $30,000-100,000 were less likely to find them.
-- Women were more likely than men to be reunited with their dogs, but the opposite was true for cats.
-- While the numbers of unfound pets seem fairly low by these numbers, when you compare to the large numbers of owned pets in this country (86 million cats, 78 million dogs), this still means that roughly 2.2 million dogs are lost each year, and 2.6 million cats. Based on this, a large number of the animals that find their way into shelters across the nation are actually owned animals, not strays. And based on numbers of animals that are never found, this accounts for 110,000 dogs and 645,000 cats annually that are owned, but unable to be reunited with their owners.
I think the results of the study are interesting on a lot of levels. They support a lot of reasons for targeted low cost spay/neuter programs and the need for aggressive programs to encourage pet owners to put identifying tags and microchips on their pets (particularly for indoor cats, who do get lost). It also poses a pretty hefty task on shelters to try to be creative to create programs to help reunited cats to cat owners (which includes encouraging cat owners to come to the shelter to look for their lost cats.
There may be some sample bias in this survey, but I thik it does provide some good first data on the frequency of pets becoming lost, and then found again.
Read the study in its entirety and I'd love to get your thoughts.