By Dot Baisly and Mara Velez
The concept of socially conscious sheltering (SCS) as an approach to sheltering was developed in Colorado by shelter leaders Apryl Steele, DVM, Jan McHugh-Smith, Lisa Pederson, and Judy Calhoun. Three of these shelter leaders co-authored an article, “Crisis in Animal Welfare,” published in the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association newsletter The Voice in 2018.1 Steele, McHugh-Smith, and Pederson outlined the tenets of SCS in that publication, which we will explore further in this article and in subsequent writings as part of a three-article series on socially conscious sheltering. In this first article of the series, we will provide an overview on socially conscious sheltering. In the second, we will explore how to move from concept to operations, and in the last installment we will explore some case studies of shelters who have implemented SCS in part or in whole.
According to Marissa Martino, former behavior manager at Dumb Friends League (DFL) in Denver, “The original goal behind this concept was to bring a common language and aspirational focus for animal welfare organizations to achieve.” Marissa is currently a community liaison at DFL who provides technical support to shelters across Colorado and was close to the center of the socially conscious sheltering concept when it emerged. Marissa also noted that our industry has experienced a great deal of change in the past few years, and these leaders wanted to celebrate and focus on the positive ways in which animal shelters have become members of their communities. They wanted to highlight how not only are we a community in our own right working together to improve the lives of animals, but we can also partner with the veterinary community, human service agencies, pet stores, animal trainers, behavior professionals, and other industries in order to move toward a model of sheltering that is cooperative. Gone are the days in which animal shelters hid their operations and decision-making processes. SCS aims to bring the industry forward and concentrate on how we can work together and celebrate our collective strength.
In the few years since the socially conscious sheltering model was first conceptualized in 2018, it has been adopted by a number of animal welfare organizations across the United States. When we compare SCS to the no kill movement, the Asilomar Accords, and the Five Freedoms, we find some similar themes, as well as some stark contrasts. What is absent, however, are statistics that have created some adverse effects over the years. Over-reliance on one statistic in particular, live release rate (LRR), to measure success of animal welfare organizations has too often led to warehousing animals in less than desirable conditions as well as the placement of animals who pose a risk to public safety. This has been done in order to achieve a live release rate of 90% or greater that aligns with the core interpretation of the definition of “no-kill.” While we all aspire to achieve as high of a live release rate as possible, reality has led many of us to come to the conclusion that there is no way to find adequate shelter for every animal or safe placement for very ill or behaviorally dangerous animals.
Those shelters striving to incorporate SCS into their mission and operations may have different approaches, depending upon the population of animals in their care and the community they serve. Despite those differences, we find many similarities across shelters who adopt the socially conscious sheltering model. The model allows for different implementations of the basic tenets, which we will explore herein.
The first tenant of SCS is “ensuring every unwanted or homeless animal has a safe place to go for shelter and food” (Socially Conscious Animal Community, 2020). This means that in every community, every pet in need should have a shelter that will be there in a crisis, 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Stray animals are found at all times, day and night, and a socially conscious community will find a way to address that reality. To implement this tenet, limited-admission, open-admission, and local rescues and organizations will need to work together to make this a reality. This does not mean that all rescues and shelters need to open their doors to any pet at any time, but it does mean that they will partner with the other shelters or services in their area to achieve this goal. For example, one shelter in a community may be open to strays and another is not, but the limited-admission shelter has partnered with a domestic violence shelter, ensuring that people fleeing from dangerous living situations have a safe harbor for their pets. The limited-admission shelter works with the domestic violence shelter to set up temporary housing for the animals until they are transferred to the open admissions shelter. Once in this shelter’s care, those owned animals will be held and cared for by shelter staff until such time that the victim of domestic violence and their pets have safe residence. Both shelters are meeting the needs of their community and providing different services. Together they have made strides toward creating a socially conscious community.
SCS also places an emphasis on placing every healthy animal. This means not making euthanasia decisions based solely on time and space. On the other hand, it also means that animals adopted have not displayed behavior that is likely to cause significant bodily harm or death to any person or other animal. Far too often, we have seen animals who are not safe with people, other dogs, or other animals placed in homes, with severe and undesired consequences. Socially conscious communities and shelters consider the impact of each placement and ensure that it will add a benefit to the adopter’s life and not place any community member, human or other animal, at risk of emotional or physical harm.
SCS also addresses the need to assess the medical and behavioral needs of homeless pets and ensure these needs are thoughtfully addressed. In order to achieve this goal, shelters will ensure each animal in their care receives timely and appropriate veterinary and behavioral care. This tenant of socially conscious sheltering, which focuses on behavioral health, is a key difference between the no kill movement and SCS. No kill prioritizes physical well-being, but this is often at the expense of animals’ behavioral well-being.
As a result of adopting SCS, a shelter will provide adequate daily enrichment, consider the mental well-being of the animals in their care, and ensure each individual animal’s behavioral health is addressed by staff that has some basic knowledge of behavioral care. This translates to a facility that provides individualized behavioral care to all animals, addressing not only species-typical needs, such as perches for cats, but individuals’ needs, such hiding spaces for fearful animals. Exercise, play, toys, and other types of enrichment are also provided on a daily basis. When an animal’s individual behavioral welfare needs exceed that of a typical animal, an SCS organization will seek out the guidance of a qualified and certified behavior professional for guidance and support, for example an individual who has obtained IAABC’s shelter certification, a CDBC, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, or CTC. The end goal is to minimize mental suffering by ensuring that animals do not become shut down, show extreme signs of fear or anxiety, or behaviorally deteriorate while in the shelter’s care. If all resources are exhausted, yet the animal continues to demonstrate behaviors that indicate poor behavioral health, euthanasia should be considered. It is also an imperative to ensure that dangerous animals, or potentially dangerous animals, are not placed into our communities.
Shelters adopting SCS will also strive to prevent unnecessary suffering and make appropriate and timely euthanasia decisions based on all of the available information regarding that animal, both historically and through individual assessment. Important and related concepts to making appropriate euthanasia decisions include communicating directly, intentionally, and transparently with the community that the shelter serves to both identify what behavior and medical challenges adopters are willing to assume, and to provide transparent information about euthanasia decisions. One of the goals of euthanasia decisions is to make decisions similar to that of pet owners who seek to alleviate emotional or physical suffering.
Traditional shelters are often focused on driving animal adoptions. In addition to this traditional approach, shelters adopting the SCS framework attempt to enhance the human-animal bond through safe, thoughtful placement of animals. This means that through the adoption, promotion, and animal assessment process every attempt is made to understand the lifestyle of the adopter and the needs and traits of the pet to make the best match possible. This is not to dismiss the concept of open adoptions, however. When adopting out behaviorally healthy dogs and cats, the open adoptions concept can still hold true. However, if adopting out animals who need more behavioral or medical support, for example a fearful dog, more careful adoption counseling, clear and honest expectation setting, and post-adoption support will be necessary. This does not mean stricter adoption criteria, but enhancing the human-animal bond does mean supporting new owners and pets after adoption through follow-ups or low- or no-cost training support, as well as in-depth disclosure of behavior. It is important to emphasize here that under no circumstances should a new adopter be coerced to keep a pet that does not fit their lifestyle, is ill, or poses a risk to their physical or mental well-being.
One challenge that we see for shelters today is how to ethically transfer animals into and from other communities. We can find a balance between supporting both communities’ needs for medically and behaviorally healthy animals. This can occur as a result of improved communication and reducing, managing, and disclosing risks for animals and people. This is an important feature of socially conscious sheltering. Interstate transfer is now a common practice in the industry and a daily reality for many shelters in the U.S. In receiving areas where pet populations are lower, the tendency can result in the transfer of fearful, reactive, and under-socialized animals. A socially conscious model will ensure that behaviorally and medically sound animals are brought into a community and can be adopted. This can only be achieved through a focus on education and communication between the sending and receiving organizations.
Ultimately, shelters who adopt socially conscious sheltering will strive to foster a culture of transparency, ethical decision-making, mutual respect, continual learning, and collaboration. Since animal welfare is constantly evolving, it is integral that we maintain impeccable accountability and integrity. By understanding that we are all working toward the same goal and toward one another’s success, we will create the best outcomes for all animals and those who care for them.
- Steele, A., McHugh-Smith, J., and Pederson, L. (2018). Crisis in Animal Welfare, The Voice 2, 9-11, Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.
Dot Baisly, is a certified professional dog trainer (through CCPDT), a certified dog behavior counselor, certified cat behavior consultant and certified shelter behavior professional (through IAABC). She also holds a Master’s degree in Animal Behavior from Tufts University. She has been working in animal welfare and behavior for over 20 years, both in animal welfare and rescue organizations in New York and New England, and with private clients as a consultant for dogs and cats. Currently she works as the Director of Behavior for Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, MA. Dot also works with many shelters and rescues as a consultant, evaluating dogs and educating staff and volunteers on a wide variety of subjects.
When not working with shelter animals she also works with service dogs as a field representative for Paws With A Cause. She shares her home with her “demo” dog for Paws With A Cause, Angus and her pocket pitbull, Porkchop. Dot is dedicated to helping professionalize shelter animal behavior through her work with IAABC and other animal welfare and behavior organizations.
Mara Velez is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in training fearful dogs; helping families with dogs recently adopted from a shelter; managing and training leash reactive dogs; and modifying fear-based aggression behaviors. Mara has spent more than a decade in sheltering at both open-admission and limited-admission facilities.. She is now the Executive Director for the Shelter Playgroup Alliance (SPA), a shelter enrichment organization that helps shelters implement enrichment programs, including playgroups. Mara is also the Executive Director of Humane Dog Training Advocates (HDTA), an owner-education focused non-profit.
Mara holds both a bachelors and masters degree in psychology and completed all of the course work for a doctorate in education. Mara is also a learning and development consultant to corporations across a variety of industries, where she advises and works on projects related to leadership development, process improvement, and learning program management.