Module 4: The Case of the Barking Dog

Monitoring Behavior and Welfare

With training and experience, caregivers can ascertain a great deal about an animal’s emotional health by observing their behavior. In fact, the best way to surmise how an animal is feeling is by carefully watching what the animal DOES and what he/she DOES NOT do. Through careful observation, skilled caregivers can deduce what an individual dog or cat is experiencing emotionally through accurate interpretation of their behavior and signaling (body language and vocalizations) and by recognizing more passive forms of communication such as withdrawal from normal behavior (i.e., not eating, grooming, or withdrawing from other healthy activities or social interactions). Recognizing both normal and abnormal behavior is crucial.

  • Staff should be trained to evaluate animals beginning at intake and to recognize and respond to indicators of fear, stress, and frustration, including both active and passive signs.
  • Daily monitoring for signs of fear, stress and other negative emotional states should be performed, and staff should record their findings daily, noting trends and making adjustments in the care of individuals and the population as indicated.
  • When signs of emotional distress are noted, immediate action is warranted to alleviate suffering and protect animals’ emotional health and welfare. In the case of feral cats, every effort should be made to neuter and return them to their original site of capture as soon as possible.
  • Staff must also be trained in providing a healthy emotional environment as well as enrichment aimed at reducing stress and promoting displays of normal behavior and positive emotional states.

Making the Rounds… DAILY rounds!

Daily observations of behavior during an animal’s stay are necessary and allow for prompt attention to any concerns. Early interventions can prevent serious behavior problems from emerging. The most common behavior problems that shelter animals develop stem from the fear, anxiety, stress and/or frustration that they may experience as a result of their shelter confinement and experiences. Keep this in mind as you take a look at the three photos below. Each photo provides an example of a common shelter-acquired behavior problem. Thinking about shelter life, what problems do you see, how do you think they might have developed in the shelter, and how might you prevent or respond to them?


a cat flattens her ears, hisses, and raises her paw in defensive aggression
A fearful cat might become highly defensive and difficult to handle. Simply moving her to a quiet ward with a nice hiding place and a consistent caregiver could potentially enable her to cope and accept handling in short order. Her welfare and adoptability would then be much improved! Keep in mind that most cats in shelters that hiss and hide are not feral: they are simply fearful and reactive. With a little time and a healthy emotional environment away from the sounds of barking dogs, most will relax and adapt to the shelter setting.


a dog jumps on a person who is trying to dodge his advances
A high energy dog that is not provided with adequate exercise and social contact could easily develop obnoxious attention seeking behavior such as repetitively jumping on and nipping anyone who attempts to interact with him. Potential adopters won’t like this, which will likely make placing this dog very difficult. Yet, a regular routine of social play and activity could prevent such behavior from developing in the first place! In addition, consistent, positive handling that avoids the undesired behavior, while rewarding appropriate behavior would go a long way towards helping the dog learn appropriate greeting behavior.


a wide-eyed dog with pinned back ears barks at the front of his run
A dog that repeatedly experiences other dogs lunging and barking at him when he is in his kennel may develop aggression to other dogs. The solution is simple here: don’t let this happen to him in the shelter! Move him to a quieter, low traffic area of the shelter and provide him with a “privacy curtain” on the front of his run—and of course, be sure he has a healthy emotional environment and plenty of enrichment!

According to the ASV Guidelines

“Long-term confinement of any animal who cannot be provided with basic care without inducing stress or compromising safety is unacceptable. Basic care includes daily enrichment and exercise. Feral animals, as well as those with persistent fear or aggressive behavior toward people, cannot be safely handled on a routine basis without inducing significant distress. These animals are unable to express natural and rewarding behavior, engage in play, or form social bonds in the shelter. Euthanasia is the humane option when live outcome (e.g. return-to-field) is not possible in a timely manner.”



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Integrating Veterinary Medicine with Shelter Systems Copyright © 2020 by University of Florida is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.