Unconditional love: Dog aggression surprisingly increases after leaving shelters — but owners don’t regret adopting

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Over six million animals enter shelters on an annual basis, but only about half end up being adopted. Shelter animals, dogs specifically, often get the reputation that they’re mangy and hard to control. While there may be some truth to these canine stereotypes, new research indicates most households that decide to adopt a shelter dog end up feeling very happy about the decision.

Scientists at The Ohio State University report that while shelter dogs did indeed display more stranger aggression or training problems while researchers tracked them for six months at their new homes, owner satisfaction still remained high. In fact, 94 percent characterized their new pup’s behavior as either excellent or good.

Despite Americans adopting approximately two million dogs from shelters on an annual basis, very few studies have been conducted focusing on shelter dog behavior after placement into a home. So, the research team decided to survey the owners of 99 adopted dogs from five local Ohio shelters between October 2020 and May 2021. Study authors periodically checked in with the families, seven, 30, 90, and 180 days after adoption.

For each version of the survey, using a scale of zero to four, dog owners reported on the following problem behaviors among their pets: excitability, stranger-directed aggression, owner-directed aggression, dog-directed aggression, familiar dog aggression, stranger-directed fear, nonsocial fear, dog-directed fear, touch sensitivity, separation-related behavior, attachment and attention-seeking, training difficulty, chasing, and energy levels.

While the first survey covered basic demographic information and whether or not the owner owned a dog before, each of the four questionnaires asked participants about their overall satisfaction with their dog’s behavior, any household changes since the adoption, and (importantly) if they still owned the dog.

shelter dog
(Credit: Helena Lopes from Pexels)

Significantly, owners reported an increase from the initial survey in stranger-directed aggression behavior at every subsequent check-in. More specifically, 62 percent of dogs displayed stranger aggression at the 10-day mark while 77 percent did the same at 180 days. Researchers say this may be because as dogs become more comfortable in their household, their protective and territorial behaviors tend to increase.

Then, over the next six months of the project, owners reported more excitability, touch sensitivity, training difficulty, and chasing behaviors in comparison to the baseline. Reports of separation-related behaviors and attachment and attention-seeking behaviors decreased, presumably because the dogs became more and more assured their owners would consistently return home. Also, another seven people returned their adopted dogs during the assessment period.

However, despite these ratings suggesting a big uptick in undesirable behavior like stranger aggression and training problems in the dogs, the final survey saw 100 percent of responding owners report that their dog was adjusting to their new home extremely or moderately well. Another 94 percent rated their dog’s overall behavior as excellent or good, six percent as fair, and not a single owner reported poor or terrible behavior. Three in four (75%) said they believed their dog’s behavior had improved over time.

Researchers note that sampling bias may have been present in the results, as participating dog owners opted willingly into the study (gift cards were offered for completion of the first and final surveys). There may have also been behaviors the surveys did not capture but were still strongly valued by owners, thus perhaps partially explaining the high satisfaction ratings seen in the final survey.

“This is one of the most comprehensive studies, using multiple timepoints, to investigate post-adoption behavior in dogs. The findings help shelters counsel new dog guardians with more accurate information on what behavior changes to expect after adoption. This information will hopefully allow people to get help sooner for their dog’s behavior problems and keep more dogs in their adoptive homes,” the study authors conclude in a media release.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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