Less than a week after Lucas County Board of Commissioners’ President Carol Contrada said changes would be made at the county dog shelter to save more dogs from being killed for food guarding, shelter Director Julie Lyle authorized the killing of a 1-year-old German shepherd that tried to bite when his food bowl was pulled away.
Mrs. Contrada, who faces a Democratic primary challenger before taking on two potential Republican opponents, told The Blade earlier this month that after reading a study about food guarding published by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, new policies will be put in place as soon as possible at the Lucas County Canine Care & Control Center to help dogs who display food-guarding behavior.
“Those changes can be made fairly quickly," Mrs. Contrada said.
But Ms. Lyle said Monday she is still studying the issue and the food-guarding policy at the county pound is still in place, meaning more dogs likely will be killed for growling or attempting to bite when shelter workers pull their dog dishes away while they are eating.
Ms. Lyle said she has been examining records of what types of dogs were killed for food guarding last year and if they presented any other behavioral issues as well. She said the data are to be used to help the county determine what kinds of behavior-modification programs might be applicable.
“We can’t talk intelligently about modifying behavior until we know who we’re talking about and what the population is,” Ms. Lyle said.
A Blade review of shelter kill records shows that more than 200 dogs who displayed food-guarding behavior were killed in 2013, with 27 more killed as of last week.
The Lucas County commissioners are expected today to discuss potential changes in policy at the county dog shelter concerning food-guarding.
Mrs. Contrada said Monday the topic of food guarding would be brought up. She noted the commissioners set all county policies at the Lucas County Canine Care and Control Center, not Ms. Lyle.
Under the current policy, dogs who display aggressive behavior such as freezing, growling, or trying to bite a fake hand to protect a food bowl during a behavior evaluation are typically killed. Additionally, any “pit bull”-type dog that shows concerning behavior like gulping the food, refusing to lift their heads from the bowl, or following the bowl with stiff body posture are killed.
Ms. Lyle said she also has been looking over the records of dogs with food aggression who were offered for transfer to determine what types of dogs were taken in by rescue groups and what types ultimately were killed because they were not claimed by transfer partners.
“I have reached out to transfer partners to see if they will be able to take dogs with food issues or if we were to modify them and then they were to take them,” she said.
But while a new policy is discussed, the old policy remains in place, Ms. Lyle said.
That means dogs with potential food aggression who go into the shelter before the policy is changed likely face a death sentence. The 1-year-old German shepherd who entered the shelter as a stray Feb. 11 was killed for food guarding on Feb. 20 after he tried to bite over a food bowl during his behavior evaluation the day before.
The unlicensed dog, hardly older than a puppy, was found running at large on Hawthorn Street near Detroit Avenue and Bancroft Street on one of the coldest days of the year, with the temperature dipping below zero that morning. After being out in the cold without an adequate supply of food, the dog objected to someone trying to take his food bowl. No attempt was made by Ms. Lyle or shelter workers to alter his food-guarding behavior before he was killed.
“Right now, our policy has not changed,” Ms. Lyle said. “We are investigating behavior modification [for food guarding], but don’t have it going right now."
Mrs. Contrada said the county does not change policies without appropriate discussion.
“We really don’t want to sit on this, but we want to make sure we do it right,” she said.
The 2012 study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals states that decisions to kill dogs for food guarding “may no longer be appropriate” as many dogs that show potential food aggression in a shelter environment “can be adopted and guarding is seldom seen in the home.”
Emily Weiss, PhD, is the ASPCA’s senior director of research and development who developed the behavior-evaluation protocol the county shelter uses and is one of three authors of the study. She called food guarding an “incredibly treatable” behavior. She said a technique called free feeding, where large amounts of food are available to a dog at all times, is most often all that is needed to correct the behavior in just a few days.
Mrs. Contrada said she has met with Ms. Lyle and discussed the current policy “in great detail,” and one of the changes that will be recommended will involve a shift to free feeding for those dogs that display potential food aggression in their initial assessments.
“We know we can do free feeding, but that’s probably not enough," she said, adding that the county is examining whether the shelter has the capacity to introduce any formal behavior-modification training for food guarders. “Julie is going to come to the board with her recommendations as soon as she has them prepared, and she has committed to doing that.”
Ms. Lyle said that as of Monday afternoon, she did not plan to be at today’s commissioners meeting.