Preliminary investigation of food guarding behavior in shelter dogs in the United States

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Article Citation:

Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., & Slater, M. (2012). Preliminary investigation of food guarding behavior in shelter dogs in the United States. Animals, 2, 331-346. doi:10.3390/ani2030331

National Canine Research Council Summary and Analysis:

The 2012 study by Mohan-Gibbons, Weiss, and Slater focused specifically on the food guarding subtest of the Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming (SAFER) behavior evaluation, which is commonly used in shelters. The primary goals of their study were to identify adult shelter dogs who exhibited food guarding behavior, adopt them out and provide a modification program for the owners (but without formal training), and assess subsequent levels of food guarding in the adoptive home. The ultimate objective was to better inform shelters of food guarding dogs’ behaviors and to help implement procedures that could reduce euthanasia rates and increase adoptions. Similar to the results of the 2013 Marder et al. study, Mohan-Gibbons et al. (2012) found that even dogs who showed food guarding behavior during their shelter evaluations did not reliably exhibit these behaviors in their adoptive homes, and owners still readily developed strong attachments to their dogs. In fact, relinquishment rates were lower for the study population than for the shelter at large.

The study spanned 2.5 years, from April 2004 to September 2006, and included 96 dogs over 6 months of age as subjects. The dogs were given the seven-item SAFER assessment which purports to evaluate aggression in a variety of contexts including food- and toy-guarding. Dogs were rated on a 5-point Likert scale, with low scores (1 and 2) indicating “highly adoptable” non-aggressive behavior, and higher scores (3, 4, and 5) indicating progressively more aggressive behaviors from stiff body language (3) to growling and attempting to bite (4 and 5). With the intention of limiting the scope to food guarding behavior, only dogs who scored a 3, 4, or 5 on the food bowl subtest and a 1 or 2 on all other subtests were included.

Prior to adoption, participants were notified that the dog they were interested in had shown signs of food aggression. Researchers gave participants instructions for how to interact with their new dog during feeding time (e.g., not to make it into an exciting event, to make the dog sit before receiving its food, and to administer the food slowly, putting half in a food-dispensing toy) as well as specific training procedures (teaching the dog to “trade” an item it has for something more desirable). Follow-up measures (i.e., data collection) occurred 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months post-adoption via telephone surveys. The scripted questionnaire asked a series of questions pertaining to general in-home behaviors, feeding rituals, food guarding behavior (e.g., are you able to pick up the dog’s bowl?), and bonding levels.

When conducting this study, the researchers also surveyed 350 shelters nation-wide to gain information about their behavior evaluation processes and consequences for dogs who fail such evaluations. Seventy-seven shelters responded (response rate = 22%) to the online survey, and the data showed that most (89%) used a behavior assessment prior to adopting out dogs, and 92% specifically tested for food guarding. Forty-six percent reported using some version of the SAFER evaluation, which bolsters the current study’s external and ecological validity. Guarding behavior (for food or non-food items) was the number one reported reason for why dogs were deemed unadoptable by shelter staff. Moreover, 51% of the shelters surveyed stated that they would not attempt to adopt a dog who had shown any food guarding behavior. In light of the results from the food guarding program aspect of this study, these statistics are particularly troublesome.

There was a 69% response rate among participating adopters for at least one telephone follow-up (60 owners / dogs). Thirty-one percent of the adopters could not be reached post-adoption. Between the three follow-ups, a total of 6 of the 60 dogs had shown some degree of guarding behavior in the home (e.g., growling when a rawhide, toy, or food bowl was taken away), though 3 of the 6 had ceased guarding behavior by the three-month mark.

The overall rate of return for all adult dogs at this shelter during the time of the study was 9%. Of the 96 dogs in this study identified in the shelter as having food guarding behavior and later adopted out, 6 (6.25%) were returned (5 within the first week). Two of the six were returned for guarding behavior. Thus, the return rate for the food guarding dogs was actually lower than the overall rate. Moreover, the majority of adopters reported high attachment (8, 9, or 10 on a scale of 1-10) between themselves and their adopted dogs.

With respect to adopters following the guidelines provided by the researchers, despite being instructed to not remove the dog’s bowl while it was eating, over half of those surveyed reported doing so by day three, and the majority reported so at the three-month mark.

The data revealed three importing findings: 1) guarding behavior in the home was infrequent despite the dogs having failed the food guarding assessment, 2) relatively few of the dogs in this sample were returned, and 3) a vast majority of the adopters formed strong attachments with their dogs after only three months. In conjunction with the findings by Marder et al. (2013), these data do not support the use of food guarding evaluations as an instrument to determine a dog’s adoptability, particularly in predicting food guarding as an issue leading to surrender.

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