Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's That Mean?

Deciphering the Adoption Application

“What’s that mean?” It’s probably the most commonly asked question we hear when working with a potential adopter—aside from, of course “Do you have any puppies?” Let’s face it—some of the terminology that may be commonplace for Animal Friends’ staff and volunteers may not be regular vocabulary for the average pet owner. When we try to find the best home possible for a cat, dog or rabbit, there are certain terms we are frequently asked to clarify.

Prey Drive 
We’ve all seen the dog that chases squirrels and the cat that stalks its fuzzy mouse toy, right? Those animals are exhibiting prey drive. When we say a dog or cat has a very strong prey drive, that indicates that small animals would be in danger of becoming “prey” around that animal. High prey drive can be found in any dog, but it appears most frequently in hunting dogs like terriers and hounds. While any breed of dog may chase cats, there’s a big difference between a dog chasing a cat because it wants to play and a dog chasing a cat because it sees the feline as prey.

So, at Animal Friends, we evaluate a pet’s prey drive when it is admitted to us. This is where our behavior team calls upon the trusty “Robo Rat.” Naturally, we don’t want to put any real animals in harm’s way, especially if we’re dealing with a dog with an unknown history. So, we give our animals a chance to react to and chase our ‘Bot, which isn’t a real animal, but can give us a foundation to either recommend “no small animals” or to go ahead and test with a real cat.

When our behavior team makes the decision to recommend a household without cats or small animals, it is most often because they see a predatory response in the dog. The dog may pick the rat up in its mouth and vigorously shake its head from side to side. Some dogs will do this with towels or stuffed animals in the home. They’re not trying to give themselves whiplash or see what happens when they hit their owners in the knees. It’s simply an instinctive reaction to “kill the prey,” even if that prey is full of stuffing. Often, these dogs are not suitable for a home with co-habitants like cats, bunnies, ferrets or free-roaming hamsters.

When the behavior team or adoption staff talk about guarding, it is most often in reference to food or toys, although some dogs will guard whatever they consider theirs, including people, yards or a favorite chair.  Food guarding and item guarding (known as resource guarding) can be scary, and it’s difficult to determine whether a dog will guard based on its appearance. On top of that, there are degrees of guarding behavior.

Guarding is an important topic to discuss when potential adopters have children at home.  All kids have their favorite toys, right?  The ones that even their closest friends aren’t allowed to play with? Dogs can have that same type of behavior, and occasionally, they’ll claim a child’s stuffed animal, sneaker or Superman action figure and decide it belongs to them. Naturally, the child then wants his toy back, and a conflict can erupt.

Play Arousal 

This is another one of those terms that can often confuse potential adopters. A dog with high arousal simply means that the dog does not know when enough is enough. In play, many dogs become more and more enthusiastic as play progresses.  Think of the average six-year-old at Disney World. Their excitement level can easily become overwhelming, leading to fits of running in circles and jumping up and down.  Dogs can also become overstimulated in this way.

A play aroused dog may have difficulty following commands or settling down when play is over. He may be more likely to put his mouth on your hands when you try to pet him or put his leash on. On the up side, when the dog does finally settle down, it’s usually time for a nice long nap.

Mouthy…does that mean a dog barks a lot?  When we say a dog is “mouthy,” we don’t mean it likes to hear itself talk. A mouthy dog simply uses its mouth during play more frequently than the average dog.  Most dogs are not inherently aggressive, and there is a big difference between mouthing and biting.  Puppies mouth during play all the time. That is, they use their mouths (and teeth) to explore their surroundings, whether those surroundings are toys, other puppies or people.  Puppy play looks, and sometimes sounds, a lot like fighting, but by playing roughly when they’re young, puppies learn what hurts and what doesn’t and can adjust their mouthing accordingly.

Mouthing can be intimidating to inexperienced (and even some experienced) dog owners.  A mouthy dog does not often differentiate between his chew toy and the owner’s hand that’s holding his chew toy.  The dog will inappropriately use its mouth and teeth during play, not because the dog is “mean” but because it simply hasn’t been taught not to.  While mouthing is more common in puppies and adolescent dogs (between six months and two years of age), adult dogs can also be mouthy.

When looking for a dog, these are all things to take into account.  While your six-year-old might not mind being chased around, he might not appreciate a mouthy puppy’s pointy teeth. While your adult household may be able to manage a resource guarder, your cats might not be quite as thrilled to be banished from the food bowl area.  Many of these terms are often misinterpreted by potential adopters, and misunderstandings may lead to a bad experience in the home.

“What’s that mean?” may be one of the most important questions adopters can ask while speaking with an adoption counselor. Don’t worry; we don’t mind.


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