Lucas County Canine Care & Control is looking to turn a pilot program aimed at saving more dogs that guard their food into an independent study.
The study, with details that are still being developed, will permit dogs whose food-guarding behavior shows improvement to be adopted out, and the shelter will follow up with adopters at designated intervals to track the dogs’ behavior in homes.
A later step will introduce formal behavior-modification training in the shelter for food guarders.
“We’ll have a lot more specifics later, but we want to do this properly step by step and get some real clean data,” Julie Lyle, director of the shelter, said.
Ms. Lyle presented the idea to the Lucas County commissioners at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday. She said that sometime in the next few weeks, her office would be ready with a proposal and budgetary impact statement for the study.
The details of how the study will be conducted are still being determined and Ms. Lyle is consulting experts in the field to help design it, though it will be conducted independently of other organizations.
“We really want to base what we do at the shelter on scientific evidence,” said Carol Contrada, president of the board of commissioners.
“We want to do it in a way that is measurable.”
In the meantime, the county shelter is continuing to run the pilot program that began in early March. It provides constant access to food, a technique called free-feeding, for dogs that freeze or growl over a food bowl, but who do well in all other areas of their behavior evaluations.
“Pit bull”-type dogs that show concerning signs such as eating faster, having a stiff body, or refusing to lift their heads from the bowl during the test also are included in the program.
Previously, dogs of any breed that froze, growled, or bit over a food bowl and “pit bulls” with concerning behavior were killed instead of being made available for transfer or adoption. That meant more than 200 dogs were killed in 2013 because they did poorly on the food-guarding assessment.
Not all food guarders are accepted into the pilot program. Dogs that try to bite a fake hand, which is used during the assessment to pull a food bowl away and push the dog’s head out of the bowl while it is eating, are killed.
After the initial evaluation, dogs in the pilot program are offered to rescues where they are free-fed for a week before being reassessed.
If the dog improves, it gets a second week in the program to find a transfer before it is killed, as the shelter is not yet adopting out any of the dogs in the program. If it does not improve or gets worse, the dog is killed without a second week of free-feeding.
Additionally, the shelter waives the usual $50 transfer fee and rescues are offered a $100 incentive for each dog they take from the pilot program.
The program has so far had mixed results in terms of dogs’ behavior, and most of the dogs have been killed. As of Tuesday, 27 dogs have been in the program. Six were transferred out to area rescues, and 18 have been killed. Three more are currently in the program at the shelter.
Six of the dogs did worse on their reassessment after a week of free feeding, while six more showed behavior that neither worsened nor improved.
One canine was transferred despite performing more poorly, and 11 were killed.
Six other dogs improved in the program. One was transferred to a rescue and another is still in the program waiting for a transfer. The remaining four were killed because no rescue group could take them. The last one was killed on May 9.
Since those four dogs were killed, shelter officials changed the policy and now will keep any dog that shows improvement, Mrs. Contrada said.
"That was very troubling and once we realized we didn't have transfer partners, we decided that as long as a dog was improving, we would keep it at the shelter until we could find a rescue that would take it," she said.
Mrs. Contrada said she didn't know exactly when this policy changed, though it was after the inital free-feeding study period. It is unclear how many dogs at the shelter now fit this description.
Nine dogs were not given a second evaluation. Four of those were transferred before they could be reassessed. Two bit people and were killed after a quarantine period.
Another dog became aggressive toward people and was deemed unsafe to handle, so it was killed. The remaining two canines are in their first week of the program.
“We didn’t know what kind of results we would get, and we got varied behavior,” Ms. Lyle said. “We need a more in-depth look at dealing with these dogs that are showing food-guarding behavior in the shelter.”
The shelter will also track the dogs’ body condition to see if that plays a role in their food-guarding behavior.
A common belief is that underweight dogs are more likely than those of good weight to be aggressive around food.
“Let’s take a look and see if their body condition is affecting whether or not they’re going to guard food in the shelter,” Ms. Lyle said.
Ms. Lyle said to be a part of the study, dogs likely will have to meet the same set of qualifications that were used for the pilot program, though that hasn’t been finalized.
How the study is to be structured and conducted is still being worked out, but it will involve adopting out dogs whose food guarding behavior improves enough to meet the county’s requirements.
Ms. Lyle said she is excited about the study, and noted this will be the first study to be conducted at the shelter.
The results could be shared with shelters across the country.
“If we can gather some real good, clean scientific data, we can share that information and be helping dogs throughout the nation rather than dogs just in our community,” she said.
Mrs. Contrada said the county would support the publication of the study’s results if Ms. Lyle would like to do so.
The possibility of conducting a food-guarding study at the shelter has been in discussion among county officials for about a month, Mrs. Contrada said.
“I’ve discussed it at some length with [Ms. Lyle] about how to expand the pilot program and enhance it, basically build it so we could really have some solid data,” she said. “The more data we can have, the better the outcome for the dogs will be.”
Mrs. Contrada said that to her knowledge, all of the discussions have been positive and encouraging.
“What we got from the pilot program is that, yes, free-feeding helps some dogs in a shelter setting,” she said. “Now we’re looking to find out what else we can do, and if combining free-feeding with things like behavior modification helps even more.”