Ask the Ethics Committee

Written by IAABC Ethics Committee

The IAABC Ethics Committee is a team of volunteers that adjudicate on ethical matters for the IAABC. Their role is to evaluate complaints about violations of our Professional Code of Ethics, as well as offer original thought and guidance for the future of our industry. In this column, members of the Ethics Committee answer questions submitted by IAABC Foundation Journal readers.

Dear Ethics Committee,

In our shelter we have three dogs who, for various reasons, either haven’t been adopted or have been returned more than once. None of them are showing any declining behavior — no increase in behaviors that we’d usually associate with stress, like vocalizations, barrier frustration, changes is eating or eliminating. They all seem to be doing fine, and a couple of them have bonded with some particular volunteers. My question is, are there ethical concerns with keeping dogs like this in shelters? Is there some way this is harmful for them even though they seem fine?

Dear Reader,

Thank you for this thoughtful question! When thinking about dogs in these situations, it’s important to evaluate each individual animal’s experiences. If the individual dog is doing well and meeting health and behavioral benchmarks that are conducive to living a good life, then there may not be harm or wrongness in keeping dogs for long periods in shelters.One underlying ethical question is whether the dog is missing out on some good or goods that are associated with living in a home, and how we might ethically weigh the absence of those experiences in the dog’s life.

Dogs in shelters do not have access to the various benefits of living in a home, however, those benefits may be provided or simulated, to some degree, in a shelter environment. For example, providing dogs with regular exercise and enrichment, connection with specific human companions, and more, are features of a homed life that dogs can experience in a shelter environment. Whether these experiences are somehow deficient by virtue of their temporary or transient nature is up for debate.

There is a big picture ethical issue here, as well. An argument could be made that sheltering dogs long term (however we define “long term”) is not the best use of limited resources, and that more dogs could be placed in the time that a long-term shelter resident occupies a space. This is an issue of weighing the benefits of possible outcomes to specific individuals against the benefits of possible outcomes to a hypothetical many. These issues are complex and charged, to be sure. Ethical reasoning in these situations requires us to look at many different features that are particular to each situation, and there may be justifiable reasons for supporting different actions in different situations. However, while this “big picture” problem is usually framed as a one vs. many issue, the one and the many are not necessarily in opposition with each other.

It’s also important to consider the human element in our reasoning around these issues, too. While we tend to focus on evaluating outcomes for dogs in these situations, the morale, retention, and well-being of shelter professionals and volunteers ought to be features of ethical concern as well. So, as long as your shelter is continually assessing these dogs’ welfare and working to place them in a home, I’d say their resilience and ability to adapt to the place they’re living now is a benefit for them.

Dear Ethics Committee,

Is it ok to give the treats my client supplies to an obese dog during behavior work, especially if I suspect that a contributing factor to their behavior problem is discomfort due to excess weight?

Dear Reader,

Balancing advocacy for the pet and service of the client can be challenging. It can be made easier by clearly identifying our own role and responsibilities. In a pet-sitting scenario, we may be asked to provide interim care that we would not choose if they were our own pet. Fulfilling this role may mean following instructions as-is but suggesting additional care or a professional consultation.

When looking at the ethics of our participation, consider the larger context. Take the obese dog with a high calorie enrichment protocol as an example, is a short term reduction or increase in calories likely to have a significant impact on this pet’s body condition score? What impact on stress level might we have if we change this pet’s established routine? Is the issue emergent or is there time for a thoughtful discussion once you’ve established a good working relationship?

Ultimately we each have to decide what we are and are not comfortable with. If a client is asking for services that you are not comfortable providing, be honest and offer options. Give the client the opportunity to reflect on how important that particular task is to them and whether to adjust or move on.

“I am not personally comfortable doing that for Fluffy, if you’d like we can talk about alternatives or I can refer you to a colleague/resource/organization listing/etc that might be a better fit.”

We can and should raise quality of care concerns within the scope of our expertise and recommend referral to other professionals as needed. That can feel much easier when we are hired as a behavior consultant, a explicitly advisory role, versus as a sitter. When you have not been asked for an opinion, ask before giving one.

“Can I share some observations I made while caring for Fluffy?”

“I have some concerns regarding Fluffy’s care, can we set some time aside to discuss them?”

Regardless of our role, it is important to avoid making assumptions or value judgements. There may be complicating factors or limitations that are not readily apparent.

Do you have an ethics question for the IAABC Ethics Committee? Share it anonymously using this form, and we’ll consider including it in the next edition of Ask The Ethics Committee in The IAABC Foundation Journal.

Past entries in Ask The Ethics Committee:

Issue 3

Issue 5

Issue 13