Ethology and veterinary practice: Transport behavior-related trends
Thursday, March 02, 2017
Thoughts about the status of contemporary dog behavior elicits thoughts of Janus, the mythological two-headed god. Among his many duties, he stood in doorways with one face keeping an eye on what went on inside the home and the other focused on the world outside.
Depending on where veterinarians practice, they may experience a similarly two-faced canine population quite different from the more uniform one they or their predecessors served several decades ago. One canine population is more outwardly predisposed and the other more attuned to home and hearth.
Until relatively recently, most practitioners saw dogs that belonged to populations of mixes and purebreds with long-established local roots. This conferred some distinct advantages.
Area veterinarians, animal control and shelter folks knew which local canine sources did a good job and which ones didn't. Even when this information wasn't readily available for some reason, practitioners knew the diseases, parasites and toxins in their areas to which these animals may have been exposed.
Such no longer holds true in many areas. Successful spay and neuter campaigns that inadvertently eliminated many of the most successful pet dogs from the gene pool also greatly limited the number of local puppies available for adoption.
This spawned programs that would transport dogs to those individuals and shelters in dog-deprived areas. Originally, only carefully selected healthy animals demonstrating the qualities that would ensure their success in a pet dog setting were transported.
However, Hurricane Katrina changed that. During the post-storm period, a need for shelters in affected areas to clear their cages to make room for owned pets displaced by the storm replaced the desire to identify and ship only pet-quality animals.
The magnitude of the disaster and numbers of people who volunteered laid the foundation for the national and international canine transport industry that persists today. As many veterinarians and their clients have discovered, some of these groups and the animals they ship are better than others.
The following are some trends that may affect canine behavior that I've noticed in my work with transports and their owners over the years.
Lack of uniform standards and procedures
Upon arrival, some transports go to shelters where veterinarians and behavioral professionals evaluate the animals' health and behavior before putting them up for adoption. Other times, trucks or vans filled with crated dogs with minimal paperwork rendezvous with new owners in parking lots of shopping malls or big box stores.
Both processes are stressful. But the latter introduces many more unknowns into the process for the adopter.
Decline in the quality of the transport population
This most likely represents the law of diminishing returns at work. Those dogs with the greatest affinity for humans were the easiest to capture. As that population declined, less social animals were captured and shipped.
Consequently, some current transports may be semi-solitary and even solitary. Those in the former group may tolerate the presence of others (including people), but they don't want to be their best friends or play with them.
Strongly solitary dogs may view others as competitors at best, and find their presence intolerable at worst. Dogs from long-established free-roaming canine roots who have never been confined also may find confinement in the average companion dog home extremely stressful.
Further complicating matters for adopters, some of these animals may show evidence of this while within the capture-and-transport system and even for several weeks in their new homes. Then, one day the owners come home from work and find their furnishings destroyed.
Greater emotional charge by rescuers
The more emphasis clients place on the dog's rescue status, the more emotion-based the relationship with the dog is apt to be. When this occurs, these people may feel betrayed when the dog displays any kind of problem behavior. As one client put it, "How can he be so ungrateful after I saved him from his horrible life?"
Others will dismiss treatable behavioral problems based on a real or imagined history of abuse; they perceive their acceptance of these problems as validation of their rescuer identity. Still others perceive "forever home" documents they signed as legally binding and may vacillate between anger and guilt when the dog doesn't meet their expectations.
All three orientations can further sabotage canine behavior and the resolution of canine behavioral problems.
Lack of a reliable history
When this this occurs, evaluating what the dog is doing now in hopes of gaining insights into the animal's past may be the only option. However, if the dog's behavior is destructive or poses a danger to others, the resultant lack of a quality human-canine bond may preclude this potentially time-consuming clinical process.
Many transport groups will assign purebred roots to their dogs for marketing reasons. Floppy-eared black dogs become Labradors or Labrador mixes. Even if rescued from long-established meat markets in remote Asian villages, fluffy little white dogs may be labeled poodle, bichon or Maltese crosses. Smaller, smooth-coated prick-eared dogs from Mexico are christened Chihuahuas.
Nor is it uncommon for canine breed labels to change as the dogs move from their places of origin through no-kill facilities to final shelter, depending on area breed preferences.
Does this matter? Not if adopters don't expect these dogs to display behaviors common to those purebreds. But if adopters chose these dogs with expectations that their new pets will display the same behaviors as the purebred or purebred mix they remember from their childhood, problems may arise if the transport doesn't measure up.
Bottom line: Without DNA testing, they're unknown mixes until proven otherwise.
From a sensory standpoint, the rescue process is brutal. It may include capture, maternal separation, housing with unknown animals, vaccination, worming, spaying or neutering, fostering and shipping — all within a matter of a weeks. Regardless of age, transport animals must process all the effects of this plus adapt to an adopter's environment in which everything is new.
The more novel experiences their new owners throw at them, the more likely these animals will exceed their stimulus threshold. That, in turn, can undermine the dog's trust of those people. In the long run, this isn't a good trade-off. Consequently, recommendations to socialize these animals as much as possible as soon as possible can backfire.
In an interesting variation on this theme, sometimes transport puppies shine in socialization activities and early classes, which leads their owners to believe the pups are fully integrated. But then when these animals hit adolescence, some of them completely fall to pieces.
Admittedly, dogs from strong companion dog breeding will do the same thing. However, the aggressive behaviors of these transports has more of an edge to it.
Some transport dogs' survival precapture depended on their predatory skills. But even people whose pet dogs regularly engaged in high-energy squirrel pursuits may feel horror when their new rescue calmly kills the neighbor's cat and drags the body off in what seems like mere seconds. Those with infants or young children in the family naturally find these behaviors even more distressing.
These and other transport dog-related trends create a good news/bad news scenario for practitioners who enjoy behavioral challenges. Some transports may display behaviors rarely seen in a local, established pet dog population.
And individual dogs from all transport backgrounds can become good pets given a patient, knowledgeable and committed owner with a strong bond with his/her animals. On the downside, when those human qualities are lacking, those same canine behaviors may undermine client willingness to resolve them.
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