It takes a lot of hard work to successfully rehome dogs who have been abused.
Posted Mar 21, 2019
Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
When researchers say they're going to try to rehome dogs it has to be more than a "feel good" move because it takes a lot of hard work and resources
Recently, many people learned about a horrific experiment in which beagles were force-fed a pesticide to see how they would react to it. It was being conducted in a laboratory in Michigan for a company in Brazil. These sorts of studies were deemed unnecessary by the EPA, but they're still required in Brazil. (See "Why Are Beagles Being Poisoned and Killed?") Many people worldwide were offended and on March 18 the Michigan company terminated them and released a statement indicating that the dogs would be rehomed. Part of it read, "We've been working to refine, reduce, & replace animal tests for years. Today we’re pleased to announce our efforts resulted in a waiver & we can stop the study. We’ll make every effort to rehome the animals."
Immediately after I posted this information, Vivian Zottola, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Certified Behavior Consultant, contacted me because she was deeply concerned that many people might not be aware of how much dedication and money it can take to rehome a former research dog. While we both are extremely glad that this experiment has ended and that the company "will make every effort to rehome the animals," these dogs and other nonhuman animals (animals) who are subjected to horrifically cruel treatment are most likely going to need a lot of care when they finally find what we hope will be a "forever home." Vivian runs a private practice as a canine behavior consultant and training professional. She collaborates with DVMs and DVM Behaviorists in the Boston area working with reactive dogs due to fear, anxiety, and stress. Vivian also is a research assistant for the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and enrolled in the Anthrozoology graduate program at Canisius College. I wanted to know more about the details of rehoming former research dogs, so I asked Vivian if she could answer a few questions about her concerns Gladly she said she could. Our interview went as follows.
In your first note to me you wrote, "While I am happy to learn this news, I’m hopeful they will pay for each dog to have a proper behavior evaluation and any behavior modification training including, if necessary,medication to help reduce the risk of future suffering." Can you please tell readers more about what these beagles are going to need based on your experience working with animals who have been previously abused?
There is this preconceived notion the act of rehoming an abused nonhuman animal in and of itself equates to improved welfare when, in fact, it’s really only marginally improved, if at all, for these individuals. We need to consider the experience from their perspective and adhere to long term welfare considerations if we truly wish to help these dogs. Consider, for example, that these dogs have been psychologically and physically traumatized and will require mental health rehabilitation. Love, trust, and care are important, however, this is not enough. We don’t know the history of the dogs, for example, if they were born in captivity in a laboratory and living isolated lives, born in commercial breeding establishments, or if they are rescues. The first few months are critical for canine brain development and unnatural conditions do affect behavior. Regardless of where these dogs were sourced from, they endured physical and psychological abuse. Yes, dogs are resilient, however, some may have developed pathologies from the experience or been predisposed to develop them. I don’t know enough about how these dogs were bred or about how long they were tortured. However, the fact is they were abused, suffered, and most likely have cPTSD from this experience.
Certainly, getting these animals out of that horrific environment is an improvement, however, the message I’m trying to convey is while a loving, safe and patient human home is extremely essential, it is not nearly enough. I’ve worked with many rescue dogs over the years and while some are able to habituate, others don’t. Many people rehome these (and shelter) dogs without having them evaluated by the right professionals only to have them continue to suffer from fear/anxiety/stress all the while thinking they will get better over time. In reality, unknowingly the dogs' suffering is prolonged. We need to question animal welfare post-adoption. The act of rehoming is not enough.
Can you provide some specific details about what a person who rehomes dogs like this will have to do and endure? And, what should they be told when they make this wonderful decision?
Sure, I’ll start with making the decision. Making the decision is the most important part of adopting one of these special dogs. And, while reasons vary for each new human caretaker, careful consideration of a few key points will impact long term improved welfare for both the dog and the human in the relationship. Acquiring a dog is an important responsibility and always a two-way street, so to speak. Often people jump in with good intentions only to find months later they are overwhelmed because of unforeseen and sometimes debilitating behavior challenges. So, while intentions to help one of these amazing individuals is good, it’s best to be realistic about expectations upfront so as to avoid potential emotional harm to either dogs or humans. It's important to understand the full scope of considerations starting with why it is that you wish to rehome one of these dogs (go beyond the obvious). It's also important to evaluate your schedule, lifestyle, and home environment. For example, will you have time, patience, and emotional and financial ability to care for the dog(s)?
Welfare considerations may include long term veterinary care and behavior modification training that may necessitate the use of medications. Many people have biases about using medications and this only serves to prolong the animals' suffering. I have seen it happen far too many times. Other considerations include grooming, feeding, providing a stimulating or calm environment depending on the individual dog, participating in mental and physical exercise, having the time to do these and other things a dog might need, and giving them a lot of focused attention. Asking yourself really tough questions upfront is especially important for any rescue dog, since it will reduce the risk of potential injury (psychological and physical), suffering, and most important recidivism, the risk of surrendering back to a shelter.
There is ample evidence the mental health of dogs formally used in commercial breeding establishments, laboratories, and shelters are compromised to some degree. No longitudinal observational studies have been conducted for dogs housed in laboratories, however, there are short term studies. Dogs rehomed from rescues, laboratories, and commercial breeding typically present fearfulness, hyper-vigilance, sound sensitivity, and separation anxiety. These dogs have also demonstrated trouble learning and present learned helplessness that is often interpreted by owners as boredom or laziness. (Learned helplessness is "behavior that occurs when the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape from or avoid. After such experiences, the organism often fails to learn or accept 'escape' or 'avoidance' in new situations where such behavior is likely to be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless.") Dogs, like us, experience emotions and moods and unfortunately moods are more difficult to detect in individuals such as dogs who don’t use words to communicate. So, expect some level of behavior challenges and reach out for help sooner rather than later. [This is another reason why it's essential for humans who choose to live with dogs become fluent in dog, or dog literate.]
If you decide to pursue acquisition of a former research dog, make sure to hire a kind and qualified professional who doesn't use pain, fear, or intimidation when engaging with your dog. This goes for veterinarians, trainers, groomers, dog walkers, and daycare facilities. Rescue dogs (and of course all dogs) need to engage with humans who will be kind and patient. Your job is to ensure excellent welfare for the animal now under your care, and this means all humans should engage in ways that are free of pain, force, and intimidation of any type, including verbal discipline and equipment (electronic shock, prong, choke collars). Ample studies show the use of aversive equipment and methods increases phobias and aggressive behaviors in dogs, and its best to stay clear of any type of aversive discipline when teaching.
It's also important to make an appointment for a physical and psychological evaluation when you first acquire the dog, and through your first year of living together, periodically meet with this professional to ensure you’re on track. Most dog owners are not versed in identifying potential behavior challenges early on and may not be aware of prevention strategies. The more you understand canine ethology the better your relationship. Also, hire a qualified behavior consultant (advanced training certification) to evaluate your dog in your home and teach you how to hone your observational skills that will help manage expectations for both you and your dog. Meet with them early on in the relationship, surely during the first few months of acquisition. These specially trained individuals will teach you about the “world of the dog” including husbandry; canine ethology, including canine stress signals and body language; canine psychological, physiological, and social development; antecedent management and desensitization/counter conditioning strategies. They will work with you outside your home and counsel you on walking equipment as well as environmental enrichment strategies. To find qualified professionals see the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers and the Internation Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. While these individuals have signed ethical statements, gone through vigorous testing, and approach training using the least intrusive methods with nonhuman animal, remember that dog training is still an unregulated profession. Also, note that while Dr. Google is convenient, there is a lot of bad information out there. Stick with information from canine scientists, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs), and DVM behaviorists.
On average, dog owners report unwanted behaviors and seek professional help anywhere between the first day and up to six months from acquisition. In addition to seeking a kind behavior modification trainer, you’ll want to meet with a veterinarian to ensure there are no health risks. The dog may experience underlying pain from the laboratory housing that may manifest into behavior challenges as well. If possible, seek out a veterinary practice in your area that is American Animal Hospital Association(AAHA) approved, or better yet, an AAHA approved Fear Free Clinic. These practices are staffed with specially trained veterinary technicians and veterinarians who can identify small behavior challenges. They will be able to flag potential problems and most importantly provide consent-based diagnostic testing instead of forcing procedures on the animals. If they identify potentially challenging behaviors, depending on the severity they will direct you to the right mental health professional for assistance including someone like myself, a Canine Behavior Consultant who helps with behavior modification training, or if medication is necessary, a DVM Behaviorist. The current trend is for canine behavior consultants to collaborate with DVM behaviorists. Also, more and more DVMs are taking courses in animal behavior and becoming versed in using behavior medication combined with behavior training for more expedient and successful results. Ask your veterinarian first if they can help because if they don’t have the experience they may be interested in learning and improving their practice. Be aware and prepared that in some cases medication is necessary to reduce stress and aid the individual in learning during behavior modification training.
Are you hopeful that more and more research facilities will stop conducting horrifically abusive studies and opt for more humane non-animal alternatives?
Yes, I have hope in humanity that our moral compass will point us in the right direction, however, nothing will change when incentives are skewed and unless we consumers demand change. The more we continue to turn a blind eye, not asking questions or looking under the covers, the more research facilities will continue to use dogs and other animals to test them. We are allowing the behavior to precipitate. Why should they change what they're doing if they're making money and no one complains? Many products (cosmetics, shampoos, and perfumes, for example) are still tested on nonhuman animals (for example, dogs, rats, and rabbits) using methods that are not only inhumane but also unnecessary. We have the technology to perform tests using alternative methods that do not involve harming living beings. Consumers are willing to pay more for a product they really don’t need if they know a nonhuman animal wasn’t used in its manufacture. It's important to recognize nonhuman animals are living and sentient individuals and, like us, they want to live their lives free of pain and suffering. They are not unfeeling objects without emotions, but rather sentient and feeling beings. Our objectification and commodification of nonhuman animals have got to change or nothing else will.
I was recently reading a study conducted in Germany where funding was provided by a pharmaceutical company in which they were looking for evidence to essentially justify the use of dogs as test subjects. It was concluded that laboratory raised dogs fair better than commercially raised dogs during testing because they are trained to be handled by staff. They also concluded their laboratory dogs were successful candidates to be rehomed because they showed fewer behavioral challenges. They suggested this is a better and more humane alternative than killing the dogs after testing was concluded. However, evidence actually showed that the dogs were less trainable and suffered from fearfulness.
Perhaps the decision for these conglomerates to release their test dogs is a sign of moral integrity? Or, perhaps, it is fear of consumer retribution? It isn’t just one person in a company acting cruelly to these living beings behind closed doors, it is a team of them from manager to staff worker. And, while their action is admirable, will the public trust them to be truthful going forward? Science and animal ethics/welfare are inseparable and certainly, when people become of aware of the horrific ways in which laboratory dogs and other animals are treated, many feel moral outrage. It most likely was public moral outrage that forced the Michigan company to end their experiments. Isn’t that saying something important? I am hopeful the decision to release the dogs will give scientists and others pause to listen to their heart and find what renowned philosopher, the late Mary Midgley, called the “yuck factor again." We need to find our humanity and respect for all life, human and nonhuman.
Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?
We need to take a 30,000 foot step back and really evaluate underlying systemic problems that result from our poor decisions and behaviors. An excellent case in point centers on the laboratory beagles who were force-fed poisonous pesticides. We overlook the fact that legally dogs are a commodity, basically objects or products we can legally buy and sell. Is buying and selling dogs the right thing to do? Of course not.
Thank you Vivian for a very important interview and explaining to readers what it really takes to rehome a dog who has been abused. We both hope that the company's decision to stop the project and to try to rehome the dogs will help give them pause and motivate researchers to listen to their hearts and find the “yuck factor" as Mary Midgley called it. And, we hope they will never do research like this again and other research facilities and researchers will follow suit. Science and animal ethics/welfare are inseparable, and seeing the horrific treatment that these beagles endured is what caused moral outrage that in turn most likely affected the company's decision. There's a lot at stake for research facilities in which dogs and other animals are abused when what they're doing goes public.
As the late Gretchen Wyler aptly said, "Cruelty can't stand the spotlight." In the United States there are approximately 90 million dogs living in 68% of all households. If even a small fraction of these people who are offended by dog (animal) abuse made their voices heard in one way or another, it would make a huge difference for other animals who are used in abusive research, including projects that don't generate useful information such as the one from which these beagles were rescued. Of course, the end goal is to stop abusive research using dogs and other animals altogether. There still is much work to be done.
An important comment was sent to me by Barbara Dwyer, a research associate at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and Certified Behavior Counselor. "These kinds of cases just infuriate me, first for the poor dog who is still suffering from fear and anxiety and secondly because the adopter is traumatized. With experiences like this, many people would give up on rescue for fear of a repeat experience, and they'll tell their friends. We need to do a better job of working with serious cases before they go into a typical pet home. Placement does not assure that a dog will have a good life. Unsuccessful placements increase stress to the dog, returns to shelters/rescues and even euthanasia. Lastly, hearing about the bad experience of friends or family can result in fewer folks being willing to take the risk of adopting. Severely fearful, anxious and/or aggressive dogs need time and specialists who with slow, careful behavior modification and possibly medication can teach them to trust us. Dogs deserve a chance at rehabilitation and should not be tossed into a new home to sink or swim. We need to find effective ways to rehabilitate and give them a reasonable chance at a good quality of life. If we can't, we fail to meet basic welfare needs like freedom from pain and fear."
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