It is well known that dogs, and other companion animals, can provide a great deal of solace to humans in need of calming, constancy, and contact. The scientific evidence for the physical and mental calming effects of appropriately behaved dogs is now overwhelming, and includes both physical and psychological effects across short and long time frames. Wells (2009) provides an excellent review.
Dogs have been purpose-bred, reared under controlled conditions, and trained to standardized criterion for use as assistance dogs for many years. Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is one such well-known organization with which I am familiar. These dogs are used in what I refer to as mission-critical situations: situations in which the dogs will be placed in environments which frequently cannot be controlled, where the dog will be exposed to a wide range of stimuli (e.g., darkness, loud children, other dogs of a wide and unpredictable range of socialization and behavior, close quarters, loud sounds, humans acting or smelling “strangely,” perhaps ill or with mental illnesses) and in which the dog must perform its function without fail and more importantly, without exhibiting negative reactions of any kind, including barking, growling, snapping, or biting. The consequences of a failure of dog in these highly stressful and frequently novel situations would be disastrous, to the targeted individuals, to the assistance or therapy program or organization, to the efforts to use dogs in such situations, and in many cases, to the dog itself.
Widely accepted and highly experienced organizations, like CCI and others, take extreme measures to make sure that these dogs are as “bulletproof” as we can possibly make them, given that ultimately, they are still living, breathing animals. The behavior, or reaction to stimuli, of all animals, including humans, is at some level, difficult to predict: animals can be quixotic, can learn (to our mind) strange relationships between stimuli and rewarded responses, and experience changes in their responses with age. Behavior is a result of genetic influences and learned contingencies, all influenced by their internal and external environment of hormones, nervous systems, diseases, aging, new environmental stimuli, and the continuous integration of the behaviors and responses of animals, especially other dogs and humans, around them.
And yet, we ask these animals, these dogs, to go into these “mission-critical” situations, like assisting the blind to cross the street, calming a mentally-ill patient, or minimizing the stress experienced by a child in a forensic interview or court interview. They must behave “politely”, must not disrupt the courtroom or snap at someone who smells wrong, must not growl in anxiety when forced into close proximity to strangers on a bus, must not be distracted by anxiety when leading a blind person across the street. They need to be “rock-solid”, “bullet-proof”.
This is possible: CCI and others have done so for decades. How can it be done? It requires multiple measures to rear a dog to an adult, working age that is as consistent and predictable in its responses as possible. These include: working with one pure-bred lineage of low innate reactivity (or in the case of CCI, creating a new breed combining low reactivity and high trainability to create a purpose-bred dog); managing the pedigree to maintain low genetic inbreeding; rearing puppies to an age at which their adult behavior (temperament) can be validly evaluated (two years old, see below) in a common, standardized way to maximize positive learning in a multitude of experiences and exposures; evaluating dogs at or after two years old for temperament, especially reactivity and rejecting the large proportion of dogs who don’t meet a high standard; and finally, placing the dogs into a lengthy training program, including training for appropriate behavior in a wide range of real-life situations. There are a number of organizations which do so.
What’s the issue? My issue here is a major concern of mine: there is an increasing movement to recruit dogs from adoption shelters for use in therapy situations. Now, I agree that (most of) these dogs need and deserve homes, and I agree that dogs can be used very positively in therapy situations. BUT I DON’T agree that the vast majority of, if any, shelter dogs should be placed into mission-critical therapy situations, with the mentally-ill, in court rooms, or assisting people-in-need in public situations.
Why is this? Think about the factors that I listed above that contribute to the highly successful programs in place, like CCI (and I pick CCI only because I am most familiar with their work: there are other organizations following similar processes to similar positive results). Let’s walk through them:
- Working with one pure-bred lineage of low innate reactivity: genetics are a critical component to behavior and to temperament. Temperament is defined as animal’s consistent individual behavioral pattern: whether an animal is reactive, aggressive, shy or bold, curious, or social. These are quantifiable temperament traits which help to predict how an animal will react in a novel situation, and genetics explains anywhere from 20-50% of the variability in temperament across individuals. CCI, and others, have carefully bred for a low-reactivity and low-aggression dog, and maintained that breeding without the (often behaviorally) harmful effects of inbreeding. With dogs from a shelter, genetics are unknown.
- Rearing puppies to an age at which their adult behavior (temperament) can be validly evaluated (two years old, see below) in a common, standardized way to maximize positive learning in a multitude of experiences and exposures: Sam Gosling in his review of canine temperament studies (Jones and Gosling 2005) finds that there are no studies which indicate that assessments of dogs less than two years old predict anything about their later temperament or behavior. I am completing a manuscript for publication in which we assessed puppies of several breeds, and then reassessed them at two years old: we find a few predictors of later outcomes but they were minor and not powerful, much as others have found. So to take a dog out of a shelter and “assess” it, and believe that you are predicting how it will behave in other, potentially stressful situations, is not scientifically supportable.
- Evaluating dogs at or after two years old for temperament, especially reactivity and rejecting the large proportion of dogs who don’t meet a high standard: if organizations like CCI can purpose-breed a dog, foster-rear it under very stringent protocols, and STILL reject 60% of the candidates for further assistance dog training, imagine what proportion of shelter dogs, of unknown genetic history, unknown and often quite negative early rearing, and at least 6-8 months of post-shelter recovery and stabilization, are truly qualified to act as mission-critical companions. Shelter experience and their early, usually negative, rearing environments are a major risk factor for moderate to severe anxiety-related behavioral issues later in life. These animals should NOT be placed into what I refer to as mission-critical situations: it is simply asking too much of them, and risking an incident that could have very bad outcomes all around.
- Placing the dogs into a lengthy training program: training cannot entirely overcome temperament, because training, even the thorough years of training into which organizations like CCI place their qualified dogs cannot provide a stimulus-response experience to every possible situation. This is where temperament steps in: temperament is the default reaction of an animal to a novel or unfamiliar situation, where it DOESN’T have a learned, experiential response. Dogs from shelters, from poor early rearing environments, dogs exposed to high-risk situations during critical sensitive periods for the formation of temperament, and who therefore develop more anxious, aggressive, or reactive later personalities cannot, and should not, be placed in to mission-critical situations.
In summary, shelter dogs deserve good homes and good health care and much better behavior management than most get, and after a lengthy evaluation, many can act as less-mission-critical Emotional Support Animals, or may be wonderful when placed into very narrow specific, controlled situations. But I would argue that, for mission critical situations, in support of humans in public places, in emotionally-tense court rooms, with the less-predictable mentally ill, or in situations in which the health and even life of the dog and its human are at risk (e.g., the blind), dogs from shelters should not be used.