How to Save Shelter Dogs with Behavior Analysis

Tatum Winslow with her dogs.

By Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Darius, Lillie and Dexter all had one major thing in common: they were shelter dogs who weren’t being adopted. To be fair, they had many circumstances against them. They were full-sized dogs, common shelter breeds (Boxer, Bull Terrier and a Lab) and had some problem behaviors that turned off potential adopters. Of course, there isn’t much one can do about a dog’s age and breed.  However, it was possible to give this trio some etiquette lessons using the power of behavioral science—and one such person did just that. Tatum Winslow, a student of Behavior Analysis at Fresno State University decided to use her newly learned powers of behaviorism to try to give these dogs a chance at life (a project that she carried out as her Master’s Thesis, which you can read here).

The Scope of the Problem

What a great way to save the world with ABA! Did you know that 6-8 million animals are surrendered to shelters every year and only half of them are adopted? The more unsettling number is that 2.7 million of them are euthanized EACH YEAR. How many of these dogs are like Darius, Lillie or Dexter? Nevertheless, rather than allowing these statistics to discourage us, what if we used them to motivate us to action? What if we could volunteer our time at local shelters, like Tatum did, to save a few dogs a year?

After Tatum’s interventions, the dogs’ problem behaviors (e.g. kennel aggression and leash pulling) decreased and desirable behaviors (e.g. sitting) increased. Their adoptability scores (the dependent variable used in the study) also increased.  Most importantly, after she finished her project, Darius, Lillie and Dexter were adopted.

The purpose of this article is to lay out the steps that can be used in the hopes that it can be replicated by others who are looking for ways to utilize behavioral science for doing good in their own communities. (I should mention that Tatum was under the direction of Dr. Steven Payne at Cal State University Fresno and her project was approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), basically the IRB for non-human animals. Dr. Payne has experience with shelters and their dogs and understands the risks and dangers to both volunteers and the animals. He was able to provide Tatum training and direction. It’s highly recommended that if you don’t have experience working and training dogs, you should approach this new area with caution and seek out individuals who can provide training.)

  1. Establish a relationship with a local shelter.

First, reach out to shelters in your area and ask them about volunteer opportunities. They may have something along the lines of dog interaction that could be easily morphed into a behavior-change project. One idea: show up at a shelter with a donation of old towels (shelters always need towels) and then ask if you can set up a meeting with the director and/or managers to talk about a volunteer project idea you have. In your meeting, explain what you want to do and what problem you are looking to solve in layman’s terms. Keep in mind that some shelters have animal trainers so you will want to collaborate with this person. Be sensitive to their role so that they don’t feel like you are encroaching on their turf.

  1. Identify a problem to solve.

You may want to start by asking the shelter staff which dogs they are most concerned about and what behaviors they display that may be preventing them from being adopted. Common behaviors include leash pulling, excessive barking, jumping up on people and kennel aggression. For Tatum’s dogs, kennel aggression was the target behavior for both Darius and Lillian. Kennel aggression can be defined as episodes of jumping up and down, excessive barking, jumping at the gate, and spinning around. Once you have identified a dog you’d like to work with, observe them in the kennel (this is where they make their first impressions).  Take A-B-C (Antecedent- Behavior- Consequence) data and use the data to identify patterns and create a hypothesis of what purpose the behavior(s) are serving. Is it getting them attention? Do they get access to food or items? Are they avoiding other dogs? In the process of observation, you will also learn more about their personality, their history and other conditions that may affect behavior. Learn more about what they like and what they don’t like (preference assessments). All of this information will be used to create a behavior reduction plan. (Does all of this sound familiar?)

  1. Verify your hypothesis with a Functional Analysis of the target behaviors.

Doesn’t it sound intriguing to do a Functional Analysis with a dog?! For a quick review, Functional Analysis (FA) is the manipulation of the environment in order to analyze the purposes (functions) of problem behavior. The assessor sets up a number of conditions (e.g. attention, escape, ignore, tangible) where the consequences for the animal’s behavior are controlled and isolated. This allows the assessor to take data on the rate of behavior in each condition. If the rates increase in one condition, then the assessor can hypothesize that is the purpose of the animal’s behavior. For example, if the animal barks significantly more when a person gives it attention for barking (i.e. the attention—even negative attention–is given after the bark), then it can be assumed that excessive barking is attention-seeking. See the reference section for some published articles on FAs with dogs that would be important to review before implementing this yourself.


Tatum set up five, pretty basic conditions in her project.

Ignore: Person ignores all of the dog’s behavior. Be outside of the kennel and try your best not to be seen. No attention or tangibles.

Attention: Person gives attention to the dog contingent on the occurrence of the target behavior.

Escape: The person gives the dog a command already in their repertoire and then only removes the demand upon the occurrence of the target behavior. (Remove the demand for 30 seconds)

Tangible: The dog is allowed 20 seconds access to preferred toy upon occurrence of the target behavior.

Play (control condition): The dog receives non-contingent attention, free access to toys and no demands are placed on the dog.

Naturally, shelter dogs have a unique set of conditions that may also be evaluated. If needed, you can add other conditions such as escaping from the kennel, escaping from human attention, escaping from other dogs, or access to other dogs.

The FA is going to take at least 3 visits. You can probably fit in two sets of conditions per day with 5 minutes per condition. Also, keep in mind that it might take longer for dogs to differentiate the conditions. To differentiate each condition, take a short break between the presentation of each condition. You could also try exaggerating each condition in the following ways:

Attention: Make attention over-exaggerated (i.e. loud, high pitched voice, lots of physical contact with over-the-top praise).

Escape: Present high levels of demands in a low tone of voice using a large gesture to signal the demand (e.g. “Sit” lowering both hands with palms down).

Tangible: Have favorite items (toys, treats, leash) obviously visible during this condition. Make your interaction more neutral and don’t give any demands or gestures that could be interpreted as demands.

Ignore: Make sure there is no attention given in this condition. Even try to observe from a place he can’t see you.

  1. Design a function-based intervention.

Based on FA data, you should have a clear understanding of the purpose the behavior is serving.

  • High rates of behavior in Demand/Escape condition= to escape/avoidance of demands
  • High rates of behavior in Attention condition= to access attention
  • High rates of behavior in Ignore/Alone condition= automatic/behavior is reinforcing in and of itself
  • High rates of behavior in Tangible condition= access to toys, walk or tangibles (treats)

In the case of Darius, he was engaging in kennel aggression to get access to treats or a walk; Lillie displayed kennel aggression to escape other dogs; and Dexter engaged in leash pulling during all of the conditions. This was interpreted as being automatically reinforcing or, in other words, leash pulling was reinforcing in and of itself or got him access to “all of the above”.

  1. Execute the intervention.

Designing an intervention that is feasible in a shelter setting can be a challenge. Access to certain areas and treats may or may not be available. There are limitations to the changes you can make in the environment so most antecedent interventions will not be feasible. Don’t fret; we can’t underestimate the power of consequence interventions!

Extinction and DRA

For all three of the dogs that Tatum worked with, she used the powerful combination of extinction (removing the reinforcer) and Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behavior (DRA) (rewarding a desirable behavior such as sitting).

Remember, the reinforcer for each dog was different. For Darius it was leash and treats, for Lillie it was escape from other dogs and for Dexter it was a combination of toys, attention, and escape.

Tatum’s sessions ran like this:

  1. Deliver your sessions in the area where the potential adopters will be initially interacting with them.
  2. Start by pairing yourself with reinforcement to warm up for the day.
  3. During your interactions, remove “the reinforcer” after the target behavior occurs. For example, in the case of Darius, when he engaged in kennel aggression, leash and treats were witheld.
  4. Prompt alternate behavior and provide “the reinforcer” contingent upon the desirable behavior. In the case of Darius, the leash and treats were pulled out when Darius was sitting. In most cases, lots of praise and ear scratches are a good idea too!
  5. Try to take some data. To make it easy on yourself, use a counter. We all have a few of these hanging around 😉

A plug for Clicker Training.

It may be useful to do clicker training during sessions. Use a clicker device to create an auditory signal that the dog is engaging in a desired behavior. Of course, you will have to pair the sound of the clicker with reinforcers such a praise/food/toys, but after a while, the sound of the clicker acts as a conditioned reinforcer. It just makes your job easier. Here is a great video of Karen Pryor on clicker training.

How much time will this take and for how long?

Tatum volunteered as much as she could but she was a student and had a full-time job. Most of the time she was able to get there 2-3 times a week for about 2 hours. Overall, she probably spent about 2 hours per dog per week. The interventions started showing promise sometimes after a month and for one of the dogs, she had to switch up the interventions a couple times and it took up to 4 months.

If you’ve read the article this far, I’d say you have some motivation to make a difference in the lives of shelter dogs. Now you have the steps to take, and some tools to use to make it happen. You may ask yourself, “With the number of dogs in need, how can your effort make much difference?” If you can’t adopt any more dogs, helping them become adopted is the next best thing. Saving one animal won’t change the world, but it will change the world for that one animal. (cue the Sarah McLachlan music).


Dorey, N.R., Tobias, J., Udell, M.A.R. & Wynne, C.D.L. (2012). Decreasing dog problem behavior with functional analysis: Linking diagnoses to treatment. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Treatment, 7, 276-282.

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2016) Application of functional analysis methods to assess human-dog interactions, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 49: 1-5.

Protopopova, A., Brandifino, M., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2016) Preference assessments and structured potential adopter-dog interactions increase adoptions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 176, 87–95.


Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC in  2008, and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. Relias Learning is the premier provider of online health care training for Health and Human Services, Senior Care and Public Safety. Emaley is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has served in the field of ABA for over 18 years and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents. Emaley’s passion is elearning, staff training, dissemination of evidenced-based interventions, research, film and videography and using technology in the field of behavior analysis and special education.  You can contact her at [email protected].

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