Habitat Prototype May Help Shelter Dogs Exhibit Natural Behaviors

Mary Tan

The traditional model for housing dogs is a familiar sight in animal shelters across the nation – dogs in rows of individual kennels.

Shelters have housed cats together in colony rooms for years, but fear of fighting and disease has led shelter managers to keep dogs sequestered from one another. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if dogs could live in groups during their shelter stay?

Group Housing for Dogs: Can It Work?

In May 2018, Animal Humane Society (AHS) renovated space in its Golden Valley, Minnesota, shelter to create a dog habitat prototype that features a shared living space (play area) for up to six dogs and individual dens for meals and rest.

The prototype is the brainchild of AHS’s chief executive officer Janelle Dixon, who wants to transform the way shelters care for canines.  “Dogs are social animals. It’s very stressful for them to hear and smell other dogs without being able to see or interact with them. I know we can do better.”

Dr. Graham Brayshaw, director of animal services and chief veterinarian at AHS, believes the benefits of group housing far outweighs the risks. “The best place for any dog or cat is in a home. But while they’re in our care, enriched housing like the habitat or a colony room is the next best thing. It’s especially important for shy and fearful animals and those who have a longer stay in shelter.”

Over the past year AHS staff have documented the behavior of the habitat dogs, and researchers from the Arizona State University Canine Science Collaboratory are studying how the new space affects the dogs’ wellbeing in shelter. Their research includes measuring stress through analysis of cortisol levels in the dogs’ feces. So far the results have been positive — after each play session dogs show less stress and undesirable behavior.

Making It Work

While the habitat can house up to six dogs, the actual number at any time depends on their size and personalities. A team led by shelter behavior services manager Liv Hagen has been training staff and volunteers to recognize dog body language, teaching them what’s appropriate behavior and what isn’t. Time is also spent on bite prevention and intervention techniques. “Recognizing when a dog needs a play break can help prevent inappropriate or unsafe dog-to-dog interactions,” says Hagen. Dogs spend breaks in their individual dens, where they receive enrichment through puzzles, games, and one-on-one time with volunteers.

Fear Free Certified Professionals Margaret Duxbury, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, and Helen Jurchisin, DVM, are private-practice veterinarians who have spent time in the habitat. They assessed the prototype and compared animals housed there to those in individual kennels. “The differences in expressions are night and day. The dogs in the kennels looked far more stressed and fearful than the ones in the habitat,” says Dr. Jurchisin.

Dr. Duxbury agrees with that assessment, and notes other positive effects for dogs and visitors alike. “I saw families and children of all sizes. You can tell people loved the opportunity to interact with several dogs at once and I saw lots of these dogs getting adopted.” But she also wants to stress the importance of proper safety measures to protect people interacting with dogs in this setting. “Dog bites can happen. What are the precautions AHS is taking to ensure safety, especially with children?”

Play It Safe

Safety has been a focus in developing the habitat prototype. A staff member and volunteer are in the room whenever dogs are interacting. AHS limits the number of visitors who can be in the space at any one time. Children must be accompanied by an adult, and toddlers and babies must be carried.

AHS will use what it learns from this prototype to guide the design of housing in its new shelter. Dixon knows there are no guarantees for success but believes this is an approach worth trying. “We’re making no assumptions. We’re taking each day as a learning opportunity. If it helps shy and fearful dogs come out of their shell, then the resources put into this project are well worth it.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Mary Tan is public relations manager at Animal Humane Society, just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. When not promoting homeless animals, she studies, researches, and indulges in everything related to cats. She is a freelance writer and blogger who has a firm belief that all felines should be fearless and fancy, which just happens to be the focus of her blog, Whisker Fabulous.