A very common issue seen in shelter dogs is reactivity toward the other dogs in the shelter. Some people might describe this as "aggression" because it can look aggressive, but it is actually not the same thing.
Reactivity triggers can be complicated, but a common reason in shelters is fear. Many dogs are afraid, especially in a shelter environment that is unnatural, frustrating, and full of other barking dogs. These dogs may put on a big, fierce show around other dogs, hoping to get a reputation as a tough dog and thus, not get chosen as a target from the other dogs (who are also not aggressive, but are probably reacting out of fear as well). Unfortunately, that often also means they don't get chosen as a new family member by adopters.
Many dogs show reactivity when on a leash, but don't show any reactivity when off-leash. This is often the build-up of frustration at either not being able to go over and meet the other dog they're seeing or being afraid and not being able to get away.
True dog aggression, when the dog does really want to harm other dogs is actually quite rare and is usually quieter than reactivity.
APA takes in lots of reactive dogs and our behavior team works with them to get them more adoptable. Their goal is to get the dogs comfortable in the presence of the other dogs, so they can show off their true natures when meeting potential adopters in the shelter.
With the help of professional dog behaviorists, the team determines the cause of the dog's reactivity. The team then uses the BAT techniques to help the dog overcome his issues.
In the case of the fearful dog, his top goal is getting more distance from the dog he sees. The trainers teach him that by giving appropriate signals (looking away, sniffing on the ground, yawning, "shaking it off", etc.), he'll get that space.
Let's say the fearful dog is ok with other dogs who are 30 feet away, but when he gets within 25 feet of another dog, he starts barking, lunging, or doing something inappropriately reactive. "25 feet" becomes that dog's threshold.
The trainer will start out with exposing the dog in training to another dog who is more than 25 feet away. As soon as the dog in training gives an appropriate signal, after noticing the dog over 25 feet away, the handler will praise and move the dog farther away. By reacting toward the other dog in a dog-appropriate way, the dog in training gets what he wants - more distance.
Treats aren't even needed because what the dog really wants - more space - is much more of a reward than a treat. Treats can be used to reinforce the good behavior even more, though.
Once the dog gets comfortable, his trainers will start trying to decrease his threshold and expose him to other dogs at increasingly shorter distances. The dog becomes more and more confident that when he gives appropriate signals, he'll get the extra distance he wants.
There are non-aggressive, reactive dogs in Austin who are still not making it out of the city shelter alive. They take a lot more resources to be made ready for adoption. This year, APA wants to save all of these dogs, but we need the help of the community. Can you donate $25/month to pay for one hour of a professional behaviorist's time? You can sign up for recurring donations here.
Can't donate now, but want to help? Become a volunteer and join our dog behavior team or follow the team on facebook.