Developing programs to help behaviorally challenged dogs is a top priority at Bay Area animal shelters, but not every shelter has the staff or money to hire a team of experts. At the East Bay SPCA, we created a Canine Behavior Modification Program utilizing volunteers to help our shelter dogs overcome behavioral issues so they can be adopted into new, loving homes.
Our population of dogs and cats primarily comes from owner surrenders, transfers from local shelters, and strays. Each animal that enters our facility undergoes a behavior assessment, during which we may observe several different type of behaviors of potential concern to adopters. For example, some dogs guard their food bowls, get stiff and growl when having their paws touched, or bark and pull on their leashes at the sight of other dogs. Our behavior and training department identifies which dogs need specific training plans to help modify their behavior and prepare them for adoption.
The department consists of just two full-time employees, so we rely heavily on volunteers. In fact, we created a volunteer position specifically to help us manage behaviorally challenged dogs. The program has been a win-win for our volunteers and dogs. 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 basic manners – all of which helps lower their stress while at the shelter.
We designed the program around three behavior categories that we regularly observe in our shelter dog population: fear, lack of impulse control or manners, and kennel stress/deterioration. We chose names for each behavior category representing the goal for those particular dogs. For example, all the fearful dogs were enrolled in the “Courageous Canine” program; all the rude, jumpy, and mouthy dogs were enrolled in the “Polite Pooch” program; and all the long-term dogs that were declining in their kennels were enrolled in the “Enriched Einstein” program. We knew it was imperative that our volunteers receive extensive, continuous, hands-on training so they could help the dogs overcome these specific behaviors.
Our staff identified volunteers who were donating at least eight hours a month and had expressed interest in learning more about dog training and behavior. These volunteers were invited to a three-hour hands-on training about our canine behavior assessments, body language, learning theory, and basic behavior modification techniques. Those who completed the program attended a follow-up meeting with a mentor for more individualized education and training.
Each behavior category has its own training plan. For example, when staff or volunteers are working with a Courageous Canine (fearful dog) they are expected to determine what makes each dog fearful, create positive experiences, and reinforce any brave coping behaviors. When a volunteer is working with a Polite Pooch (rude, jumpy, mouthy dog) they are expected to teach the dog to sit quietly at thresholds, while the kennel door is opened, and while greeting people. Lastly, the Enriched Einstein dogs and staff/volunteers work on shaping games, training tricks, and food puzzles.
The pilot program was launched in February 2012. During the first six months, we had 17 behavior and training volunteers donate 467 hours of time training 85 dogs. Going forward, our goal is to expand every aspect of the program, from the number of volunteers to the number of dogs enrolled to the educational opportunities for everyone involved.
The East Bay SPCA is deeply committed to the dogs at our shelter and to our volunteers who have made this program a great success.