We are finally getting to a place where animal shelters recognizing the need to enrichment and training is the norm. You maybe thinking about starting something at the shelter where you work or proposing the idea to a shelter you volunteer at. This is a roadmap to helping you set up your own program.
Why do we choose reward based training for shelter dogs?
Shelter dogs are under huge stress and it goes against animal welfare to knowingly add additional stressors to their life. There are two ways to change a behavior:
1.Make the unwanted behavior less rewarding- adds stress
2.Make an alternative behavior more rewarding- decreases stress
Reward based training is more forgiving of handler mistakes and if the timing is off or you miss use a tool the dog simply gets an extra treats. Which makes it easier for volunteers who aren’t professional dog trainers to be effective. Reward Trained Behaviors also transition easier to the new home. It works even if you are a smaller person handling a larger stronger dog.
It also builds confidence in the dog. A large number of shelter dogs lack confidence. Confidence is needed for a adopter to have a smooth first trip to the vet and a confident dog will transition more easily to new environments.
Why is it important for shelters to offer training to their residents?
It provides mental stimulation known as enrichment, increases how quickly animals get adopted, prevents bad habits from developing and helps keep the dog in their new home.
When you think about why dogs come to the shelter in the first place the demographics of a surrendered dog are worth mentioning. Most dogs surrendered to an animal shelter are adolescent dogs in their teenage years. Why? Well my guess is it’s because they have puppy brains and adult bodies. They are coming into their teenage years and owners often mistake their lack of self control and focus as “Rebellion”. Common puppy problems go from cute to annoying.
Training in the shelter starts with clear communication. If one volunteer is teach off means no jumping and another is using down and one is saying here while the other says “come” that can be confusing.
Teach volunteers to use reward markers. I like to use “Yes”, but you can use a clicker. Some volunteers find clickers to be cumbersome. If they forget them at home they may feel like they can’t train that day.
What to teach:
“Off” Defined as four feet on the floor it is used to prevent jumping
“Sit” Defined as their butt on the ground it is used to prevent jumping, makes leashing easier, frequently used by owners and helps with stay.
“Down” Defined as their elbows on the ground it is used to create calmness and may increases adoptability when dogs can settle down next to a visiting adopter
“Touch” Defined as their nose touches your hand, desensitizes to strangers putting their hands up, can be used to call the dog, keep the dog in heel position, builds confidence, increases understanding of expectations.
“Focus” Defined as their eyes meet your eyes, fakes that “magical connection”, teaches dogs to stay checked in their handler, used to teach heel and prevents distraction. how to Teach Focus
Cute Tricks, one cute trick like “Prairie dog”, shake or roll over can help a dog win a forever home. Make a video of the trick, create a URL code and put it on the kennel card.
Sometimes dogs need time to adjust to the stress of being in the shelter. There are things that you can do to help with this.
If the dog is overactive and restless
Find a quiet place to sit with the dog “Capture” calm behaviors like when the dog comes back to you, sits down, or lies down. This will train the dog to get in the habit of relaxing with people visiting the dog. Such as adopters…. Remember adopters want to the “magic connection”
If the dog is shy and calm
Find a quiet place to sit with the dog “Capture” the dog’s curious behaviors like looking your direction, moving closer to you, or engaging with you. Teach Touch first once they are ready.
Go for a walk with another volunteer with another dog KEEPING a safe distance. Sometimes dogs that are shy with people blossom around other dogs.
If the shelter allows it go into the kennel and read for a while, if they don’t sit outside the kennel.