January 5, 2016
Categories: Animal Behavior, Foster Programs

Foster homes can provide a valuable safe harbor for stressed, fearful, or anxious shelter pets, as well as a place where they can learn behaviors that will maximize their chances for successful adoption into a permanent home.

For that to happen, however, the foster family must also provide appropriate support for the easing of fears and reinforcement of behaviors that help pets adapt to their new homes. In a presentation to the Indiana Veterinary Medical Association, boarded veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sara Bennett cautioned that one of the tools often used to help pets overcome their fears, desensitization, is often misunderstood and misapplied by well-intentioned foster homes:

Many people want to expose a new pet to many different sights, sounds, environments and experiences early on in order to “socialize” or “desensitize” the pet.

An often neglected factor is the animal’s emotional state in these situations. It is not enough to simply expose the animal to the situation and expect socialization to occur. Each situation must be set up so that the pet is ensured a positive outcome and not put in a situation so uncontrolled or intense it creates a fear response.

When exposed to a full intensity situation, the situation turns from one intended to be systematic desensitization to one of flooding. If the pet is removed from the situation before it has reached a non-reactive, relaxed state, the pet can actually be made more fearful and reactive to that particular stimulus or situation, therefore sensitizing rather than desensitizing the pet to the situation and making the problem worse. There are serious welfare concerns to use flooding as a behavior modification technique, as it can be potentially highly traumatizing and the exposure may take many hours before the pet reaches the relaxed state.

Remember, with the definition of systematic desensitization, the pet must remain in a relaxed state, not just a state of non-reactivity. This is another area where education in body language is imperative to the success of the foster/ volunteer and pet team. There can be a very fine line between systematic desensitization and flooding, and that line can be easily crossed if the foster/ volunteer is not watching the pet’s body language and recognizing cues of increasing fear.

If a pet begins to show fear in a particular situation, rather than continuing to allow the exposure to go on without intervention, remove the pet from the situation. Additionally the foster/volunteer should make a note of what was going on, the triggers that created the fear response, and the intensity/distance of them so that behavior modification can be set up at a later time.

The complete presentation, which includes more details on desensitization as well as many other valuable tips to help foster homes guide pets to positive behaviors, is available at “Volunteers and Foster Parents: Setting shelter pets up for behavioral success in long-term homes.

Also of interest:

Behavioral modification for cats in shelters and foster homes

Shelter Dog Mod Squad: Identifying and Modifying Canine Behavior Problems in Shelters

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