March 15, 2018
Categories: Animal Behavior
dog eating

Research published last month suggests evaluating shelter dogs for food guarding doesn’t increase safety or reduce bites, and may result in lower adoption rates and increased euthanasia of dogs who are defined as “food guarders.”

The behavior a dog shows in an animal shelter may not match the behavior she’ll show once in a home. One of the most common examples of this is food guarding; however, earlier research found only half the dogs who demonstrated this behavior in the shelter continued it in the home. For those who did, it was a behavior easy to modify, as well as to manage in most homes, and these dogs actually had a lower return rate than other dogs adopted from the shelter.

In “The Impact of Excluding Food Guarding from a Standardized Behavioral Canine Assessment in Animal Shelters,” published Feb. 8, 2018, in the peer-reviewed journal Animals, researchers worked in nine shelters for four months. During the first two months, they established a baseline for assessing the dogs for food guarding. During this period, dogs who exhibited food guarding:

  • Were less likely to be adopted
  • Had a longer shelter stay
  • Were more likely to be euthanized
  • Were associated with a low number of injuries to staff, volunteers, and adopters low (104 incidents from a total of 14,180 dogs, or 0.73 percent)

Next, they implemented a a two-month period without such assessment. They found:

  • There was no change to number of injuries, including all bites and injuries, not just those involving food.
  • Severe food guarding was seen in only 17 percent of the dogs, and was easily identified by shelter staff without a formal assessment.

The authors concluded:

Previous research suggested that many dogs exhibiting FG in the shelter can be safely placed into homes because FG is often not exhibited in the home nor was it a problem for adopters when it was seen. In light of the current results, the authors recommend that shelters need not conduct the FG item of a standardized assessment because it results in a longer stay in the shelter, increased likelihood of euthanasia, and the incidence of false positives is likely unacceptably high. FG was not prevalent in the participating nine shelters and, of the dogs that did exhibit the behavior, most showed only mild FG behavior. Once the FG item was omitted, more of those dogs were adopted and fewer were euthanized. Severe FG behavior was found regardless of the assessment. Discontinuing the FG assessment item did not result in an increase in injuries to shelter staff or adopters, and there was no meaningful change in returns post-adoption.

They additionally made the following recommendations:

  • Do not conduct formal assessments for food guarding
  • Get as much behavior information as possible from owners surrendering dogs, as well as from staff observations while dog in the shelter
  • Use information gathered to help find the best possible home for the individual dog
  • Make sure staff has procedures to follow for dogs who show guarding behavior in the shelter
  • Don’t assume dogs who guard food in the shelter will guard it in the home
  • Make sure shelter is fully transparent with adopters about food guarding behavior that is observed, explaining food guarding “is a normal behavior for dogs, it has a low occurrence, and if seen, they should contact the shelter promptly for assistance.”

The open-access study is available in its entirety at the link below.

Heather Mohan-Gibbons, Emily D. Dolan, Pamela Reid, Margaret R. Slater, Hugh Mulligan, Emily Weiss; The Impact of Excluding Food Guarding from a Standardized Behavioral Canine Assessment in Animal Shelters, Animals 2018, 8(2), 27; doi:10.3390/ani8020027