Having worked in an animal shelter for just over a year now, I’ve had a good amount of time to try new things: programs, initiatives and protocols. Some have failed, some have succeeded, some are on-going works in progress. I’ve had time to think about and plan the most effective ways to do things and sometimes, not enough time. I don’t believe in winging it, so I develop strategies and try to get as many people on board with things as possible. Keeping dogs sane and adoptable is not a one person job. It takes a village- it takes cooperation, it takes buy-in from staff and volunteers, and for me, at least, it takes introspection, trouble-shooting, re-assessing methods and progress and it takes always considering what’s best for a particular dog.
I’ve started programs specifically related to training shelter dogs and found that more informal training works best for us, unless we are working on things like Canine Good Citizen training, loose leash walking, jumping or assessing and treating reactivity, and in those cases, it’s long term residents working with volunteers who are either more skilled or naturally curious about training. Rather than scheduled weekly sessions for groups of shelter dogs and humans who are often at different levels and having varying degrees of tolerance for other dogs, stress, and structure, volunteers work on simple behaviors with the dogs when they are out in the yards with them. The dogs get some time to let loose and burn off some steam by running and playing for a bit and the volunteers will intersperse mini-sessions of sit, touch, watch, paw and sometimes some other fun tricks. Volunteers have training plans for sit, touch and watch and often practice at home with their own dogs before starting with ours. Whenever I spend time with a dog that I previously hadn’t, I am always super pleased when that dog targets my palm with his nose or sits with rapt attention to my eyes when given the cues. I am also super pleased to know that the volunteers are engaging the dogs in this way. It’s not compulsory for either, and becomes a nice extra component of their time together.
I have cultivated a small group of students of The Academy for Dog Trainers who gather on Fridays to spend some time with dogs, doing playdates, helping shy or fearful dogs feel more comfortable, practicing loose leash walking with increasing distractions, working on some CGC items and generally helping expand their worlds. Friday is my favorite day at work, because I get to spend time with like-minded trainers who recognize that helping shelter dogs means more than training them: it means making sure all of their time out of their kennels is quality time.
In this past year, that’s probably my biggest take-away: quality time (both in and out of their kennels) is probably the biggest key to keeping dogs adoptable. Our current long term residents have been with us for about six months- which is not a long time according to some standards, but too long for mine and I feel a responsibility to make sure all of our dogs, and these kids in particular, have very enriched lives. Shelter life is stressful for dogs and personally, I have come to value keeping them happy over teaching them a down-stay, though that happens for many of these dogs, too. It’s just not my #1 priority these days. My #1 priority comes from The Five Freedoms: The freedom to express normal behaviors. And I use the rest of them as my guide for each interaction I have, each decision I make and each approach I take with the dogs, but that particular one has become of utmost importance to me: I want our dogs to go home and settle into their new lives having to shake off the least amount of stress possible.
For me, this means time to play, time to sniff, time to explore, time to be social with people or other dogs and time to rest comfortably. I often have dogs at my desk, where they have an abundance of toys to play with, lots of people to interact with if they choose and a comfortable place to snooze, without the noise and distractions of the kennels. It’s the dog at my desk who most resembles the dog he/she will be in a home. It’s at my desk that I can often start working on things that are difficult for the dog: like not recoiling from a harness like it’s a snake, like approaching bald men without fear, like gaining the confidence to go from under my desk and to start checking out the rest of the surroundings. It’s at my desk that I start to work on Leave It, down-stays, trash can diving and attempted lunch thievery. But, those things only come after a dog has settled, feels safe and is not so stressed, he/she can’t learn. If that’s not the case, we use management techniques- trash can off the ground, hanging with another staff member while I eat lunch, items on my desk pushed back far enough that inquiring minds, paws and mouths can’t grab them, etc. I don’t take a dog out of his her kennel to work on things like crate-training. Why would I take a dog who’s pent up in a kennel 20 or so hours a day and stick him/her in an even smaller kennel to see how he/she does? I have handouts for crate-training and a resource page on the shelter website for that sort of stuff and am always happy to talk to adopters who need some help. That’s not a valuable way to spend time with a shelter dog to me, in fact, I think it’s cruel.
I want every interaction the dogs I work with have with people to be positive. I want every interaction they have with other dogs to be positive. This means I don’t throw the dog with a fear of men (and bald men, even more so) into a room with a bald man and hope for the best, because if it goes poorly, it could mean that dog’s life. It means making a plan to gradually help the dog feel comfortable with a man, and then another, and then a few more well before introducing bald men. It means gradually increasing the intensity, so at first the dog just sees delicious food dropped in his kennel by a man before we even think of holding it out for him to take from that person’s hand, it means building in lots of padding and practice meeting men (who are always the bearer of good things, like chicken and cheese) before introducing the “scariest” ones. It means being thrilled beyond words because you did everything you could to help that dog be successful and then watching him walk out the door the next day with his new family.
This also means that when I introduce dogs to each other, I do it systematically. First, we sniff and circle, then we walk, then we play. We add other dogs into the mix after they’ve first all met as dyads. Knowing each dogs play style before having them play is crucial to making sure play is safe, beneficial and enjoyable. I’m much less concerned about how many dogs get to play at a time than I am the quality of that play.
The leashes are a security measure that will be dropped soon if these dogs are still not adopted. I am somewhat risk-averse myself, and the shelter I work for didn’t adopt pit bulls out until about 4 years ago, so the idea of letting them play has not come easily for us. It’s huge success is impossible to ignore, however, and it’s one more thing we get to add to the list of “Things we know about this dog”, which is a super helpful side benefit when they’re getting adopted.
My Academy peers are skilled handlers and play is an important component of our time with the dogs and we enjoy it as much as the dogs do. And if a dog doesn’t enjoy it, it’s perfectly fine. It is in no way a requirement. Play is, and should be a way to offset stress, never add to it. We play, even us humans, because it feels good. For shelter dogs, there’s an added bonus when play is executed with their well-being being first and foremost in our minds: they get the freedom to express normal behaviors. By setting the stage so they can be successful they get to do more of it and with more dogs.
engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
“the children were playing outside”
synonyms: amuse oneself, entertain oneself, enjoy oneself, have fun;
engage in (a game or activity) for enjoyment.
I am always so thrilled when I am able to identify a dog as a good player, because it means that I will have the opportunity to introduce more dogs to him/her and more of them will have playdates as a way to offset the stress of the shelter.
I guess the point of this blog is that I think about what’s important for shelter dogs differently than I did a year ago. Now, I think it’s more important for them to be happy than it is for them to do a down-stay while I leave the room. I love to build down-stays, but they don’t matter if a dog is at risk behaviorally because he’s a mess in his kennel while in the shelter. Training is part of an enrichment program. Like play and Kongs and toys, it’s meant to add good things to their stay.
If I leave this planet knowing that I helped some shelter dogs be happier and less stressed while waiting for their families, I’ll know that all my planning, strategizing, researching and work has paid off. And I am sure that I’ll discover new things in the coming year.
A few dogs are featured heavily in this post: Calvin (full brindle), Sweetheart (blonde), Petunia (black) and Buster (brindle with white face). Calvin, Sweetheart and Petunia are still waiting for their forever homes. In the meantime, we try to make sure they’re having a darn good time.