Laura Simmons, left, and Julie Lyle, director of Lucas County Canine Care & Control, let a dog sniff food before they perform a SAFER test that determines whether a dog is a ‘food guarder.’
In Lucas County, hundreds of dogs are killed each year for food guarding, a behavior that experts say and that research shows is easily and quickly corrected in the vast majority of cases.
Last year, more than 200 dogs were killed at the Lucas County Canine Care & Control facility near downtown for food guarding, with the approval of Director Julie Lyle.
After questions were raised by The Blade last week, Carol Contrada, president of the Lucas County commissioners, said Friday that changes will be made soon at the county shelter to save more dogs from being killed for food guarding.
Ms. Lyle’s repeated statements in defense of killing dogs for food guarding, some made as recently as last week, have revolved around public safety and lack of space and resources to conduct any behavior modification training at the shelter. If a dog with behavioral concerns isn’t transferred to an area rescue group, it is killed by injection.
“Dogs that we see exhibiting unsafe behavior cannot go up for adoption here,” she said. “We are a public safety agency, first and foremost, and we do not have the facility or the resources to be able to modify behavior at this point.”
But Mrs. Contrada said, after reading a study about food guarding published by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in August, 2012, that new policies will be put in place as soon as possible at the Lucas County Canine Care Center to help dogs who display food-guarding behavior.
Though the study had “a limited sampling, it does provide an opportunity to further evaluate how that portion of the SAFER test is used to determine if a dog is adoptable,” she said. “Those changes can be made fairly quickly.”
Emily Weiss, PhD, is the senior director of research and development for the ASPCA. As a certified applied animal behaviorist, she created the Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming, a standard dog behavior assessment commonly known as SAFER, that includes a food-aggression assessment and is used by the county shelter. She was also one of three authors for the study called “Preliminary Investigation of Food Guarding Behavior in Shelter Dogs in the United States.”
In the study conducted at the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee, 96 dogs that showed food aggression in the SAFER evaluations were adopted out to families who were also given a procedure to follow to help the dog. Only one dog was reported to have guarded its food bowl in the home in the three-month follow-up period, but that behavior did not last.
Six of the dogs in the study were returned to the shelter, though they were returned for reasons other than food guarding.
The study actually states that decisions to kill dogs for food guarding “may no longer be appropriate.” Additionally, many dogs that show potential food aggression in a shelter environment “can be adopted and guarding is seldom seen in the home.”
Ms. Weiss said guarding food, a resource crucial for survival, is a natural and normal behavior for canines. But because humans and canines do not generally act the same way when it comes to protecting food, it can cause conflict.
“The dog is displaying an aggressive behavior; it’s not that the dog is aggressive,” Ms. Weiss said.
Except for a select few canines that are deemed “more adoptable” because of their age, breed, or size and can be transferred to a rescue group, Ms. Lyle said dogs that freeze, growl, or try to bite over a food bowl during the SAFER evaluation are most often killed. She said the decision is made out of a concern for public safety.
Dogs that show concerning behavior like gulping the food, refusing to lift their heads, or following the bowl with stiff body posture may be adopted or transferred to a rescue group, but “pit bull”-type dogs that show any concerning behaviors on any part of the SAFER evaluation are frequently killed, according to county policy backed by Ms. Lyle.
Ms. Weiss said, “SAFER alone should never be the decision-making tool” used to determine whether a dog lives or dies. Instead, the assessment should be used to gather information about a dog’s behavior and all other available information about an animal should also be taken into account when a euthanasia decision is made.
A death sentence
On Dec. 31, a 1-year-old black Labrador retriever mix named Malysh was surrendered to the Lucas County Canine Care center by his owners, who said they couldn’t take him with them to Chicago where they’d be living in an apartment.
Aizahmad Kochorova, formerly of Burgess Street in Sylvania, told The Blade that Malysh was friendly and very active.
After spending 20 days in the shelter, part of that time recovering from an illness, Malysh was given a SAFER evaluation. He scored well in several areas, including body handling and play, but tried to bite during the food portion of the test. He wasn’t offered up for possible transfer and was promptly killed on Jan. 21.
“He was not something a rescue group is likely to take when we have a lot of other Lab mixes here,” Ms. Lyle said.
Ms. Weiss said that in a high-stress shelter environment such as the Lucas County Canine Care center where dogs often have limited opportunities for enrichment and interaction, food and mealtimes become even more important and valuable to dogs.
“That resource goes from being an important resource to an incredibly valuable resource,” she said. “We hypothesize that we might see an increase in the level or intensity of food guarding in shelter environments.”
The ASPCA has developed an in-shelter behavior-modification protocol for dogs with food guarding that involves desensitization to people being around their food by adding higher-value food to their bowls while they are eating.
“It’s incredibly treatable,” Ms. Weiss said.
An even simpler treatment option is available through a process known as free feeding, in which a dog has access to food at all times, thereby making it a less valuable resource as it is always readily available.
“Free feeding will resolve the problem in the vast majority of dogs,” Ms. Weiss said. “In most cases, it takes 48 to 72 hours.”
On Jan. 10, an underweight 2-year-old white Great Pyrenees named Sebastian was found running at large on Bancroft Street in Toledo. He was evaluated at the county shelter Jan. 16 and showed food aggression that escalated to growling as the test proceeded. Because of his less-common breed, he was offered for transfer instead of killed.
“We don’t value them more than we would value a Lab, but the ability to move him was greater,” Ms. Lyle said.
Sebastian ended up going to the Toledo Area Humane Society on Jan. 21. He was rehabilitated using the free-feeding method and quickly adopted about a week later.
At the county shelter, dogs have access to food twice a day at regular times. Ms. Lyle said only those dogs that are emaciated are given access to food around the clock, both to improve their physical condition and to help inhibit the development of food-guarding behavior.
The other dogs are relegated to the regular mealtimes, and she does not plan to begin free-feeding more dogs.
“If I’m going to do that, it has other effects,” Ms. Lyle said, noting the cost of providing so much food and more staff time spent cleaning soiled kennels. “Nothing is in a vacuum here. Everything has consequences. Everything has a cost.”
Ms. Lyle said she has read the ASPCA’s food-guarding study but as of last week had not planned to implement any kind of behavior-modification programs.
“If we start treating dogs with food guarding, where am I going to put those dogs?” she said. “Who is going to spend the time to do their modification? It all takes time and money and space.”
The county is required by law to take in all stray dogs from Lucas County. Ms. Lyle said the county shelter also has a policy to accept all owner-surrendered dogs, regardless of where their owners reside, because the county does not want those dogs dumped.
“There are many organizations that refuse dogs if they are full,” she said. “We do not do this as we do not want dogs turned loose due to no resources on the part of the owner and them feeling like there are no other options.”
That further stretches the shelter’s resources, she said.
“All of our problems are compounded by the number of dogs that come in,” Ms. Lyle said.
“If we could pick and choose what dogs we take in, our situation could be different. But we can’t. We have to pick up dogs every day.”
Mrs. Contrada said a thorough discussion of what is possible at the county shelter is necessary before any specific changes in how food-aggressive dogs are handled can be determined. But she said potential changes may include free feeding and allowing dogs that display food guarding in their initial SAFER evaluations more time to adjust to their environment and undergo some behavior modification before being reassessed for a final determination of their fates.
“We’re aware there will be a cost attached,” Mrs. Contrada said. “If there are steps [the facility] can take that are affordable and easily accomplished, then we want to do that. Julie and her staff will be looking at what steps we need to take so we can adopt out more dogs who initially show food guarding. We are going to take steps immediately to address protocols for behavior modification specific to food guarding.”
A sad situation
Jean Keating, executive director of the Lucas County Pit Crew and co-founder of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates, said the number of dogs being put down at the county shelter for food guarding is sad.
“If the only reason that they’re being destroyed is for food guarding, it makes me sad that our community isn’t willing to step up and take these dogs into rescue situations where they could be turned around and adopted out,” she said.
Ms. Keating said she has seen through rescue transport groups that many dogs from places like Indiana, Kentucky, and Georgia are taken in by Toledo-area rescues instead of similar dogs sitting in local county shelters who are facing death by lethal injection.
“We continue to have organizations and facilities in our area that bring dogs in from outside our area and outside our state, the end result being that local dogs that could be rehabilitated will die,” Ms. Keating said.
“Unless as a community we all step up and do our part, this is the reality and it’s going to keep happening.”
Ms. Weiss said the ASPCA does not have any plans to remove or modify the food portion of SAFER, even though the group’s own study indicates food aggression identified during a behavior evaluation at a shelter is not necessarily predictive of potential food guarding behavior in a home.
“We do want to identify this behavior,” she said. “It’s important information to know about a dog” for shelters and for potential adopters.
Ms. Lyle said she considers the SAFER evaluation to be objective and a good tool for predicting a dog’s behavior.
The Pit Crew, however, does not use the food portion of the SAFER evaluation because Ms. Keating believes it is too artificial and results in too many inaccurate results.
She gave an example of a dog the group took in from another rescue group that “basically tore the fake hand to shreds” during its SAFER assessment but never showed any kind of food guarding behavior in a foster home and even allowed people to take food from his mouth.
Ms. Keating said the group prefers to judge a dog’s potential for food aggression by examining the way they behave when given treats or handfuls of kibble. A dog that positions itself between the human and the food, becomes stiff and stares, or gets pushy in its search for more treats is likely to need behavior modification around food.
“Dogs who guard will begin to show that in just 10 or 15 minutes of interacting with them,” she said.