October 16, 2018
Categories: Research, Adoption, Foster Programs

Is there anything you haven’t tried to save your long-stay dogs who are getting kennel-stressed? Read Kathy’s story and see if what helped her will work for your dogs, too.

As Kathy’s stay at Louisville Metro Animal Services (LMAS) crept beyond 80 days, multiple signs of kennel stress began to appear: jumping, frantic barking at anyone who walked by, and even climbing the kennel door. Due to anxiety, she appeared to be a high-energy dog, and she had become difficult for staff and volunteers to handle. Her behavior put her life in immediate danger.

Smart-thinking foster coordinator Stephanie Jackson flew into action. She knew that Kathy was past the point where simple kennel enrichment could reduce her stress enough to change her behavior, and the shelter wasn’t able to host daily playgroups yet. There was only one option: Get Kathy out of the shelter to give her a break from the stress or she wasn’t going to make it.

With a fledgling long-term foster program for adult dogs, it was unlikely that she could find a foster to keep Kathy until adoption, but Jackson asked anyway. She had a promising backup plan: The field trip foster program she had just started was already wildly successful. She was sure her community could do the next best thing and fill Kathy’s days at the shelter with short-term foster outings.

Jackson sent multiple pleas for foster caregivers for Kathy. Any length would be helpful, she told her fosters, from a few hours to a few weeks. “Kathy needs someone to help advocate for her and help her find a foster or forever home,” she wrote to the fosters. “Kathy is one of the most at-risk dogs at the shelter right now because she is deteriorating in her kennel. Every day she gets to leave the shelter is a positive impact on her life. Who can commit to taking Kathy out tomorrow? Let me know!”

And the fosters? They committed in droves. One took Kathy into foster for the weekend and others lined up to take her on back-to-back day outings.

Kathy’s behavior changed course as soon as she left the building. Foster caregivers came to know her as a snuggly pup who loved to meet new people. “She is already acting like a completely different dog,” one posted to the shelter’s internal social media group. Another mentioned that Kathy’s leash manners improved greatly outside of the shelter.

Kathy was adopted on day number 114. Short-term foster saved her life.

New research may shed some light on how this happened. About a year ago, through a larger study on foster care based out of Austin Animal Center, Maddie’s Fund® gave a grant to LMAS in order to investigate whether field trips outside the shelter improved welfare in dogs. Fifty-one of their dogs, including Kathy, were taken off the shelter grounds on field trips lasting an average of three hours. Before each outing, shelter staff completed a survey assessing dog welfare and behavior. The foster caregiver completed the same survey while on the field trip, and the results of the surveys were compared.

On field trips, significant improvements were shown on 15 of the 21 survey items studied. Dogs were perceived as happier, better able to handle stress, more confident and more relaxed. Significant decreases were found in dogs’ nervousness, barking, fearfulness, insecurity, noisiness and repetitive behaviors such as circling and jumping.

“Common sense tells us even the nicest shelter is a noisy, unfamiliar, unnatural and downright scary place for most dogs,” said project consultant Kristen Auerbach, Director of Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson, Arizona. “Time and time again, we see dogs’ demeanors transform almost the second they step a paw off of shelter grounds.”

Other exciting findings have been uncovered by the research. Less than a year after the field trip program began, LMAS has tripled their total number of foster caregivers and has cut behavioral euthanasia for big dogs in half. Hundreds of dogs have been taken on field trips, and over 70 dogs have been adopted as a direct result of the program.

“The foster program has grown because people fall in love with these dogs,” says Jackson. “It’s hard not to. They see them in their kennels, jumping, barking… and they realize how vital they are in saving their lives.”

More research is needed in order to know for certain whether a dog’s behavior actually improves while it’s outside the shelter on a field trip, or if the fosters themselves perceive dogs’ behavior as improved simply because they’re outside the shelter. However, both are important when it comes to finding homes for dogs.

“One of our very favorite things is seeing pictures of dogs in the car on their way to have adventures with their short term foster caregiver,” said Auerbach. “The gratitude in their eyes and giant, open-mouth grins are their way of saying, ‘Thanks for giving me a break!’”