Erica Feuerbacher, assistant professor of companion animal welfare at Virginia Tech, has received a $1.7 million grant from Maddie’s Fund to continue her research on shelter dogs for the next three-and-a-half years. Feuerbacher, along with Lisa Gunter, a Maddie’s research fellow at Arizona State University and co-founder of Institute for Shelter Dogs, will be looking at the structure of existing fostering programs in dog shelters across the United States and whether a change to that structure can help humans and dogs alike.
Feuerbacher’s research study came out of internal discussions among herself and her peers about the structure of the fostering program at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. Best Friends differs from traditional shelters in a couple of key ways. First, they rely heavily on volunteers and fostering to find homes for dogs. Best Friends also make it significantly easier to volunteer than a traditional shelter does. A traditional shelter might check prospective helpers’ background or in the case of shelters tied to police stations, helpers might also be subject to a polygraph.
Best Friends allows people to stop in and volunteer as much of their time as they would like, and even provides housing for those willing to volunteer. A volunteer spending more than four hours of their time is eligible to foster an animal at their on-site housing or take them around Kanab for the day.
“These animals are going out overnight with people and coming back the next day. Some thought it was really great that dogs got a break from the shelter, that we learned some info about them in a place other than the shelter,” Feuerbacher said. “Other people thought they were likely getting more stressed when they came back.”
Feuerbacher and Gunter sought to provide an answer to that question. To do so, they tested the urine of dogs in Best Friends foster program for cortisol levels before they left, while they were away and when they returned. The results were promising.
“What we found is that the cortisol levels significantly dropped while they were out on their sleepover, and when they returned to the shelter they did go back up, but not above baseline,” Feuerbacher said. “So they were not getting more stressed when they got back to the shelter.”
Maddie's Fund,a national family foundation established by Dave and Cheryl Duffield to revolutionize the status and well-being of companion animals, funded this initial study. Interested in the test results, Maddie’s Fund granted Feuerbacher and Gunter with more funding to continue researching the Best Friends fostering model and “see if the same thing applied to big, municipal shelters,” Feuerbacher said.
From Best Friends, the team expanded their study to shelters in Montana, Arizona, Texas and Georgia. This time around, they increased the fostering period to two nights and measured dogs’ cortisol levels before, during and after fostering. Additionally, the activity of the dogs was measured. The results were the same as the first study across all four states, and showed that “the dogs most uninterrupted sleep occurred during the foster time,” according to Feuerbacher.
Feuerbacher and Gunter will once again team up with this most recent grant from Maddie’s Fund, this time focusing on the structure of fostering programs in shelters across the United States. Shelters enrolled in the program will be assigned one of three forms of fostering: two-to-four hour checkouts, two-night sleepovers or long-term fostering of a week or more. They are also looking at demographic information provided by the shelters including how many volunteers they have before and after the program is implemented, and how many dogs get sent out to fosters before and after.
The researchers seek to enroll between 100 and 120 shelters over the three-and-a-half years of the study, and have thus far exceeded that number in interested shelters. According to Feuerbacher, “as of a few weeks ago we already had 180 shelters that had expressed interest.”
There is a public awareness component to trying out new methods of fostering dogs. Feuerbacher hopes that shelters will be more trusting of people who want to help, and that the shelter dogs will see more interaction with the public.
“We hope that all the shelters that are enrolling are moving towards a more progressive model where they see themselves as more of a resource for the community rather than adversaries,” Feuerbacher said. “So we need to trust that (people) will step up to the plate and often times they do. And if people see the shelters as more of a resource rather than (a source of judgement or condemnation), then when you have problems, you’ll come back to them.”
If you run or work with a shelter that is interested in participating, you can find information on how to enroll here.