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Helping behaviorally challenged dogs is a top priority at many animal shelters, but not every shelter has the resources to hire a team of experts or the time to manage a program on their own. At the East Bay SPCA in California, we created a canine behavior modification program where volunteers help our shelter dogs overcome certain behavioral issues so they can be adopted into new, loving homes.
In 2011, the East Bay SPCA found loving homes for nearly 2,500 dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens. These animals are transferred in from local municipal shelters, surrendered by their owners, or come to the EBSPCA as strays. Of the cats and dogs we adopted out in 2011, 1,099 (or 44 percent) were dogs and puppies. Of those, about 20 percent needed some form of behavior modification.
It Takes a Volunteer Village
The East Bay SPCA behavior and training department consists of just two full-time employees, so we reached out to our base of volunteers to help with the task of managing behaviorally challenged dogs. Through this partnership, volunteers are given additional education, hands-on training, and an opportunity to make a difference, while our shelter dogs receive personalized attention, mental stimulation, and instruction in basic manners—all of which helps lower their stress while at the shelter.
Canine Behavior Modification Program: The Genesis
As the behavior and training manager, part of my role is to develop individual training plans for shelter dogs who display common behavioral issues: fear, lack of impulse control, high arousal, or deterioration from kennel stress. I turned to longtime volunteer dog socializer and mentor Marti Zuckrowv for input. Together, we worked out a plan on how to use volunteer dog socializers to help these dogs in need.
We started by working with the volunteer department to identify volunteers who had been serving as dog socializers for at least eight hours each month. Once the selected volunteers were on board, we enlisted them in a pilot program at our shelters in Oakland and Dublin, Calif.
Next, we met with our shelter management team to discuss protocols. Each dog in our care goes through an initial evaluation to determine the dog’s behavioral needs. We observe kennel presentation, dog-to-dog skills, handling, and reactions to the removal of resources (such as food, rawhide, and toys), as well as the dog’s ability to settle down during a human play interaction.
After looking through many of our dog evaluations, I found that I could separate sets of behaviors into three main categories; the team then chose names for those categories, each representing the goal for the respective dogs. For example, fearful dogs are enrolled in the “Courageous Canine” program; dogs exhibiting high arousal and lack of impulse control join the “Polite Pooch” program; and all long-term dogs and those suffering from kennel stress are enrolled in the “Enriched Einstein” program.
There were two options for dogs enrolled in the program: Those who scored well on their initial evaluation would enter the adoption center right away but get extra training to increase their adoptability. Those who didn’t do so well would start the behavior modification program with the goal of passing the evaluation at a later date.
The foundation was laid. We had developed specific training protocols for three behavior-based programs, had eager volunteers on standby, support from the organization, and plenty of dogs to benefit!Volunteers were expected to provide at least two hours per week of service, and provide feedback through our online listserv following each dog training session. They were also encouraged to contact the behavior and training department immediately if they experienced any “red flag” behaviors, including growling, snapping, or attempting to bite.
We officially launched the East Bay SPCA canine behavior modification program with a kickoff orientation in February 2012. The orientation included discussion of our expectations of the volunteers, dog body language, and an introduction to our behavior assessments, followed by the types of behaviors a dog within the program might exhibit.
Orientation and Workshops
After they completed the orientation, volunteers attended two three-hour, hands-on workshops. The workshops covered learning theory, training tools, behavior modification, and dog body language in great detail. In each workshop session, we split the volunteers into groups of three and assigned a shelter dog to each group. Behavior and training staff worked with each group to enact training concepts such as luring dogs into specific positions, correct use of a clicker, and reward identification. Once the volunteers acquired these necessary skills, we began introducing the specific training protocols for the Courageous Canine, Polite Pooch and Enriched Einstein programs.
Approach: The most important concept I taught the volunteers when working with a Courageous Canine is allowing the dog to make his or her own choices. The necessary skills for success included reading the dog’s body language and making decisions on how to handle the dog based on the dog’s response. During the training, the volunteers and I would visit a fearful dog’s kennel and narrate the body language we observed. Then we discussed how to appropriately handle the dog, and whether or not we were going to remove the dog for a walk at that time.
Techniques: The dogs aiming to become Courageous Canines typically enter the shelter very fearful and then completely shut down. A typical training session might consist of a volunteer sitting at the kennel door, tossing treats for about five minutes, without making eye contact. During that time, the volunteer was expected to observe if the dog solicited any social attention and ate the treats offered.
Volunteers reported that it sometimes took three or four kennel visits before the dog would solicit affection. We found that the more space we offered to the dog, the faster the dog would come around, or begin to solicit affection. Any acts of “bravery” such as approaching the volunteer, nosing the leash or harness, or investigating, were rewarded with treats.
Once the volunteer felt safe enough to leash the dog and take him out into the “real world,” they were expected to identify the dog’s fear triggers and play “find it” (tossing treats) whenever the trigger appeared in the dog’s line of sight. The volunteers would also click and treat any coping behaviors the dog offered, such as shake offs, checking in with the handler, or removing themselves from a scary trigger in the environment.
Approach: The Polite Pooch protocol includes a lot of impulse-control exercises. It was most important to teach the volunteers how to interact appropriately with these dogs, since most of the time they are difficult to handle. The most extreme cases would jump up and mouth people out of sheer frustration. These dogs were the most concerning because they were at risk for biting a volunteer, though not intentionally.
The training protocol included teaching the volunteers to give the dog immediate feedback for any positive or negative behaviors. For example, we taught the volunteers to click and treat any polite behavior the dog offered, such as being quiet, standing, sitting, or waiting. In order for the volunteers and the dogs to be successful, we worked on their timing of the clicker and their ability to identify good behavior. The volunteers were also expected to provide a time-out (removing attention from the dog) at any moment that the dog acted inappropriately by jumping or mouthing a volunteer.
Techniques: Getting a Polite Pooch in and out of the kennel was no easy task! However, I wanted to use this daily exercise as a training opportunity for both the volunteers and the dogs. My goal was to teach the volunteers to be preventative when interacting with these dogs. I encouraged them to always expect the dog to jump up and to prepare their training plan before interacting with the dog.
We taught the volunteers to toss treats into the kennel in order to prevent the dog from jumping up when they entered. As the dog was eating the treats, the volunteer could safely enter the kennel. After the dog was leashed, the volunteer would only open the kennel door if the dog was not jumping up. The volunteer would then take the dog to a quiet room and put a no-pull walking harness on him. Once outside, the volunteer was expected to click and treat any polite behavior the dog offered. As time passed, we started observing Polite Pooches walking alongside the volunteers instead of jumping up on them all the way out to the yard.
Approach: The Enriched Einstein protocol is a bit more fun and relaxed than the other two. Volunteers work on training games, tricks, and exposure to agility obstacles.
Techniques: The first technique we taught volunteers was how to shape a dog to perform a desired behavior. For example, we taught the volunteers how to teach the dogs to touch their hands, sit on an agility pause table, or place their paw inside a box. Volunteers would also teach these dogs polite manners, including how to sit and how to lie down on a mat. The goal of the program was to mentally enrich the dogs during their stay in order to relieve emotional stress and help the dogs to relax once they returned to their kennels.
Volunteers get hands-on training and an opportunity to make a difference, while shelter dogs receive personalized attention, mental stimulation, and instruction in basic manners−all of which helps lower their stress while at the shelter.
Once the trainings were complete, the volunteers were given two options. They could either do a follow-up mentoring shift with the behavior and training department to practice their skills, or they could start working with the dogs right away. I decided to give them these options since many people absorb and retain information differently. Some people need additional one-on-one training before trying a new activity, whereas other people were ready to dive in head first and start practicing their new skills. Most of the volunteers started working with the dogs right away and asked questions in person during their volunteer shifts or on our online forum.
Results and Improvements
During the nine-month pilot program between February and October 2012, we worked with more than 170 dogs, utilizing 18 volunteers who served more than 1,300 hours. Thirty-seven of the dogs who required behavior modification work before they could be reassessed for our adoption program would likely have been euthanized if they had not participated in the program.Six months into the pilot program, I met with a few volunteers to learn what areas might need improvement. We discussed the current training model of the orientation, hands-on workshops, and the specific training protocols for each behavior category. We realized that the volunteers wanted more personalized training plans for each dog as well as additional skills that they could use in their training sessions.
With this critical feedback, I retooled the program to include the skills listed above along with additional skills necessary for success. The 12 major skills we identified are resource-guarding prevention; refocusing a leash-reactive dog; implementing time-outs; decreasing mouthy behavior; teaching basic manners including loose-leash walking; reading and interpreting body language; counter-conditioning and desensitization; sitting when greeting strangers; identifying rewards other than treats; enrichment games; and modifying a dog’s response to being handled or touched. We decided to use the category titles (Courageous Canine, etc.) as personality descriptors rather than terms to identify a training protocol. Once we assigned a dog to a personality category, we would then indicate which training skills would best suit the dog’s needs. This way, the volunteers received additional skills, and a specific training plan was tailored for each dog. We launched this change in January 2013 and look forward to tracking our results this year.