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“Help! My new cat is peeing outside his litter box!”

In March 2000, Oregon Humane Society behavior/training specialist Tanya Roberts and volunteer Lori Kirby traveled to The HSUS’s Pets for Life National Training Center at the Dumb Friends League in Denver, Colorado. Upon returning home, Roberts took what she learned and, with the help of Kirby and other volunteers, set up a behavior helpline in her Portland shelter. In a recent interview with Animal Sheltering, she talked about the logistics of the program and its many successes. Even though Roberts has only three volunteers on the helpline and splits her own time between the behavior and adoptions departments, she and her staff have been able to assist as many as 25 callers per week.

How does the helpline work—do you have one person at a time handling the calls?

We basically have an extension set up so callers dial the main number and then they dial the extension to get to the helpline. And everyone is asked to leave their name and address and a brief description of the problem behavior they’re calling about. And then the volunteers or myself pick up those messages, and from that information that they’ve left, we send out written information that we hope is pertinent to the problem, which has reasons to explain the behavior on it and then lots of solutions. So that’s been the most effective part of the program up to now.

And do you also follow up with phone calls?

Yes, if we have time to do it right there and then, we call immediately to get more information, and if the people are in, great, we can take care of the whole thing in one go. Or sometimes we can’t get through, so we leave messages. And then when we do get through, usually they’ve already received the [written] information and then they’re like, “That was fabulous, thanks a lot—it really helped!” or “That was helpful but we still need information on this.” So ultimately we do try and speak to everybody, but it depends on randomness of the numbers of calls coming in and how many volunteers come in that particular week, so it’s not really structured 100 percent yet.

How many calls do you typically get?

We’ve been getting—I would say it would average out to about five calls a day. And then occasionally we go two or three days without any calls, and then we’ll get 12 on another day, so I imagine it averages out to about four to five calls a day.

Wow. So what are some of the more interesting calls you’ve gotten, or some of the more successful ones?

Well, a lot of the successful ones are people who’ve adopted pets from the shelter and are having problems with that settling-in period.

Oh, so they actually take advantage of that—you tell them about the helpline at the time of adoption?

Yep, and they’ll take advantage of calling to say, “We’re having problems with this specific thing.” Or they’re feeling a little frustrated with thinking, “Did we choose the right pet?”

And what do you tell them in those cases?

Well, in those cases, normally it’s a matter of realizing that it’s normal behavior, that it’s normal for a dog to be pacing or jumping or for a cat to be hiding when they first go home. They often see a different personality than the one they saw in the shelter because the pet’s trying to adjust to the new environment, so I think a lot of the time it’s helpful for them to have reassurance. And the other thing actually that we’ve just started is a program where the adoption counselors are actually doing callbacks between two to five days after adoption. That’s because of the feedback we were getting [with the helpline].

That’s great! And how many of your calls on the helpline are from adopters?

I would say probably about 50/50. And probably in that 50 percent are people who just adopted dogs from other shelters and called here looking for behavior advice because maybe the shelter they adopted from didn’t have time or, you know, some people don’t even think about calling that shelter back again.

And have you seen a decline in your return rate?

We are still tracking the returns to see if the ones coming back are ones that have already called. But just from what we’ve seen on the helpline, of the people who have actually left a message to say, “We’re going to be bringing the dog back unless we can figure this out” or “We think we’ve made a mistake,” there’ve been only 1 or 2 percent of the cases at the most where it’s been the right thing for them to bring the animal back. And sometimes that’s helpful too, because people need to know, “Hey, we did make a mistake” ... and a couple of times we’ve talked people into returning a pet because it’s been a bad match.

In what kinds of situations?

A couple of times we’ve had animals go home to multiple-animal households, and it’s just not been a good match once they’ve settled in. It was nothing the adopters could see at the shelter. A lot of the time it’s the existing pet who doesn’t like the new one coming in. And again, you’ve got to weigh up the ability of the pet owner to handle the situation and try and decide what’s right with the entire family involved. Because a couple of times, I’ve thought, “If it was our house, we could certainly make that work,” but hearing what the people are saying, you’re like, “These guys are just not going to be able to make this gel.” It’s just different levels of dog-handling skills. And a couple of other instances have been perhaps when we’ve had no background about the pet prior to its going home, and we wanted to try, and we’ve learned a lot about that particular pet but it turns out not to be the right match for that household.

And do those people sometimes come and try to adopt another animal?

Yes, they do, and then usually it gives us a heads-up to be able to work with them more in depth to try to get the right match the second time around. The public does seem to like that, that there are people here who care and want to help them find the right pet for their family.

And is it mostly dog-related calls?

You know, it seems to come in waves. We do receive more dog calls than cat calls, and I would say it’s probably 70 percent dogs.

Huh! And why do you think that is?

I think cats are less in your face about it, about doing things wrong. People tend to say, “Oh, it’s a cat, she just needs more time.” They can control it a little better. And then by the time that’s happened, the animal’s settled in and things are going OK. But the majority of cat calls are inappropriate elimination, cause then it’s in your face.

And up your nose ...

Yes. People call with what they consider to be immediate problems that are very frustrating.

In those kinds of calls, how successful are you in helping the callers solve that problem? That can be a tough one.

Well, it can be, coming from the position of already having a lot of knowledge of cat behavior. But the majority of the public doesn’t have a lot of information when they first get their pet, so it could be as simple as moving the litter box or getting a different kind of litter. Once we talk to them for a little bit, we find out that maybe they put the litter box in the laundry room next to where the dog eats, and the cat is like, “There’s no way I’m going to squat in a bathroom where the dog comes in all the time.” It can be simple things that they don’t think about. They may put the food right next to the litter box. So a lot of the time it’s just very basic stuff that we give them information on and they think it’s rocket science—“Yay! I never thought of that! I’ll try that!”

And I think people appreciate being given those simple options, and then if the problem is worse than that, then we can direct them to the veterinarian. In a lot of cases with urination, we send them to the veterinarian anyway, in the beginning. But if they have limited resources and limited funds and can’t go to a behaviorist or pay to have the veterinarian go more in depth with what the issue is, and if it’s something very mild, we might be able to solve it within a few trial and errors of simple things. So the helpline is really set up to deal with the very basic issues.

If there’s the potential for some aggressive issues, then that’s when the caller gets referred straight to a behaviorist?

Right, right. We don’t deal with any type of aggression over the phone. We don’t deal with any type of phobic or anxiety behaviors, because a) it would take too long and b) we’re not skilled enough to handle that. But what we can do is try and listen to someone because I think that helps. People just like to get it off their chests sometimes and share it with someone who really is interested in what they’re saying, and then once that happens I think they feel better and then they realize, “Oh, there are options out there, I don’t just have to bring the cat back, or I don’t have to have my cat euthanized—there is help out there.” And we do have handouts that cover aggression—like dog-to-dog, cat-to-cat. And basically those handouts are limited to safety—how to stay safe in the meantime while professional help should be sought at this juncture.

When you were actually setting this up, how did you train the volunteers you had picked?

OK, we had a couple of brainstorming sessions where I told them all about the idea of the helpline that we’d gotten from Denver, and gave them booklets of the information that we’d gotten from Denver about the type of information they’d be dealing with and the sort of answers we would be giving. And then we got back together the month later and sat at the behavior desk and worked our way through practicing phantom calls. We just role-played, really. But the people I was dealing with were people who were already 90 percent there.

And they’re not trainers professionally or by background, but they just had learned a lot through volunteering?

Right. To be honest with you, the people I chose had communications skills, because to me that was more important. You have to have people who are so patient and who can communicate efficiently and politely and also people who know when to stop. So I actually chose more mature people who had a wide variety of experiences through volunteering and different experiences in their life rather than people who were just good at training animals.

Isn’t the idea that eventually you will train other shelters in your area?

We certainly will be, down the line, set up to do that. But it is taking a while longer—we always knew it would take a while because it’s a big venture.

It sounds like you’ve done a lot already.

Yes, it’s been slow, I think, but I guess we have done pretty good, and it’s better to go slow and be steady than go really fast and have it all fall apart. And trying to maintain the quality of the service is really important, rather than just picking random people and not training them properly.

Would you recommend the Pets for Life National Training Center to other shelters?

Oh absolutely, it was fabulous. It just sets a seed to start thinking about opportunities, and the differences in the shelters that were there was amazing. Some shelters were so tiny that they hadn’t even gotten programs going that we’ve had forever, and to have them inspired to start something even on a small level is just so fabulous. And then there were some shelters there that already had all of this set up, and they learned new things too, so it was helpful all across the board.


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