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Shelter dogs in Australia: public perceptions and assessment of behaviour for adoption suitability
thesisposted on 26.02.2017, 23:29 by Mornement, Kate Mary
Dog ownership remains popular in Australia and the Western world, where most dogs fulfil their modern role, as companion, successfully. Historically, however, dogs were bred to perform specific tasks for humans, such as hunting, guarding and retrieving. Although most dogs are no longer required to perform traditional roles, breed standards continue to focus on these traits rather than those specific to being a successful companion. This, combined with busy modern lifestyles and, often, unrealistic expectations of canine behaviour, leads to the annual surrender of millions of dogs to animal shelters the world over. Undesired behaviour is one of the most commonly cited reasons for a break down in the owner-dog bond and the subsequent relinquishment of dogs. Unfortunately, many shelters are unable to find homes for all the dogs in their care and many are euthanized as a result. It is not known whether the Australian public hold negative beliefs and attitudes towards shelter dogs or are aware of common shelter practices, including health and behaviour assessments, which aim to remove unsuitable companion dogs from the adoption pool. It is also possible that the public are aware of, but lack confidence in the accuracy of, behaviour assessments currently in use and prefer to acquire a companion dog from an alternative source. On this basis there were several aims in this thesis: to investigate public perceptions towards shelter dogs and shelter practices; to review behaviour assessment protocols currently used to determine adoption suitability, and; to develop a standardized and scientifically informed shelter dog behaviour assessment and then evaluate the reliability and predictive validity of the tool. The development and subsequent administration of the Public Attitudes towards Animal Welfare Shelter-Dogs (PAAWS-D) survey established that current and potential Australian dog owners are aware of common shelter practices and generally hold positive attitudes towards shelter dogs. Most participants said they would adopt a shelter dog in the future. Despite this, however, many believed shelter dogs often have behaviour problems. They also believed that methods used to assess behaviour, to determine adoption suitability, should be scientifically valid. The extent to which shelters utilise scientifically valid protocols to assess behaviour was not known so we conducted a review of protocols currently used by Australian animals shelters to assess adoption suitability and interviewed staff responsible for assessing dogs. The review revealed several important and concerning findings: a lack of standardization in the content and methodology of protocols being used; none had been validated in the scientific literature, and; staff lacked confidence in their ability to accurately assess dogs and in the tool they currently used. This finding led to the development of the Behavioural Assessment for Re-homing K9’s (B.A.R.K.) protocol to attempt to meet this need. The B.A.R.K., a scientifically informed tool, was then implemented into a working Australian shelter and evaluated for its reliability and predictive validity; via a post adoption telephone survey completed by each assessed dog’s adoptive owner. Although the results revealed B.A.R.K. was able to elicit behaviours, which could be reliably rated by two experienced raters, the test-retest reliability, over a 24 hour period, was relatively poor. The ability of the tool to predict future behaviour was also disappointing. Although B.A.R.K. successfully predicted fearful and friendly behaviour post adoption, it failed to predict aggression and a range of other problem behaviours. Although several possibilities exist which may explain these findings, it was suggested that the stressful and dynamic shelter environment might cause canine behaviour to become unstable, rendering any assessment of behaviour, the purpose of which is to predict future behaviour, ineffective. Despite some limitations, and the need for further research, this project makes an important contribution to the scientific literature in its field. Shelters in Australia and elsewhere can utilize the results of the PAAWS-D survey to improve marketing and education campaigns to potentially increase adoptions. In addition, with further development and refinement, the B.A.R.K. protocol may become a useful tool to assist in the collection of behavioural information to inform adoption suitability and matching dogs to appropriate homes.