PAWS Magazine

Issue 42, Summer 1999

Helping shelter dogs become "good dogs"

by Mike Jones / PAWS Advocate

Buddy pranced on his hind feet, front claws scraping denim. Luke turned a blind hip to Buddy’s behavior and the Rottweiler/Labrador mix settled back on all fours.

"He must have lived with a man before," said Carol Gannaway. "It’s usually the men who like to wrestle with their dogs."

In the fenced yard outside the PAWS Companion Animal Clinic, Buddy’s temperament evaluation continued. Carol handled the clipboard in a role referred to on the form as "scribe." Luke, Buddy’s "evaluator," knelt to examine Buddy’s teeth in a test of his response to dominance. "’Easy to handle,’" Luke proclaimed.

Carol created the Good Dog Program, Luke coordinates it and Buddy benefits from it. Carol touts the program as a way of "helping the dogs maintain their sanity in the shelter while they await a new home, and matching the appropriate owners with their new dog."

There is no reference on the temperament form to "sanity," and while he’s not exactly a candidate for committal, Buddy probably wouldn’t get high marks. There is a space for "behavior observations," one of which ranges from "serious" to "silly," 1 to 5. Buddy rates a 4. His tail would wag during all his waking hours if someone hadn’t docked it to a lump. Instead, his whole bottom wags.

Luke waited with Buddy while Carol fetched another dog from the shelter for the next temperament evaluation. Buddy’s path was intentionally allowed to cross that of Wally, a pit bull mix. The dogs’ response to each other was observed before Buddy made his exit and the evaluation of Wally began. Some Australian cattle dog in his breeding may account for Wally’s squat build and the fact that when he sits and his head tilts back, his ears stand up.

"If Wally sat more and more people noticed these ears, he may be adopted more quickly," noted Carol.

His evaluation may be over, but Buddy’s participation in the PAWS Good Dog Program has just begun. Buddy has lived at PAWS for five weeks, and the first month was less eventful than the past week has been. Since Carol began training volunteer dog walkers and kennel attendants a few days ago, Buddy has been learning to sit at the front of the kennel, sit for the leash, sit before doors, sit when his walker gives him nothing better to do. "Sit, sit, sit," was Carol’s mantra to the volunteers. "Sit all the time."

Buddy’s new behavior is achieved through positive reinforcement. Treats all the time. Carol advocates for very little or no correction. In her training manual, Carol quotes nationally respected dog trainer Morgan Spector. "We are talking about establishing a training bargain," said Spector. "If the dog sits, give him a treat. That’s the training bargain in its simplest form."

Carol’s program represents a bargain for PAWS and its dogs. In early 1999, Colleen Smith, director of Companion Animal Services for PAWS, was considering what more PAWS could do for dogs. For potential adopters, dogs represent a steeper incline of commitment than cats. Some dogs pose a greater adoption challenge than others. Morale can slip when a dog spends more than a month at PAWS without finding a home. A case like Buddy’s can foment a creeping emotional malaise, not just for Buddy, but for staff and volunteers who care so deeply for his welfare.

Colleen was familiar with Carol’s work at Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation (WAIF) on Whidbey Island. While at WAIF, Carol’s reputation grew through public speaking, television appearances, publishing, and her efforts at her training center, Canine Potentials. As Carol recruited and trained volunteers for WAIF’s Whidbey Island Animal Shelter, the length of stays for its dogs began to decrease. Not only was the dogs’ time at the shelter more pleasant and involving, but this shift toward happier, more attentive dogs was subtly noticeable to human visitors. Adoption rates climbed while the rate of dogs returned due to behavior and temperament problems dropped.

Colleen met with Carol at WAIF in January. "The most impressive thing I saw at WAIF," Colleen recalled, "was all those dogs in a row sitting at the front of their kennels." Dogs who endure weeks at a shelter can develop lethargy or show symptoms of kennel craziness, pacing, circling, gnawing on chain link, barking wildly. But Colleen noticed this wasn’t the case with the WAIF dogs. "I was stunned."

Leaving with good feelings about WAIF’s Good Dog Program, Colleen considered methods of funding a contract to adopt Carol’s methods for PAWS. The Humane Society of the United States had posted a grant to support programs beneficial to dogs. The PAWS application for the grant netted $3,150, Visio Corporation contributed $5,000 through a grant, and Carol’s work at PAWS was underway.

A key piece of the Good Dog Program is Luke Oakland, a veteran shelter staff member. Some of the attributes that led Colleen to appoint Luke as program coordinator are obvious (Carol pointed out, "He’s a tall, strong guy who can handle some of the more challenging dogs"). Other qualities are revealed only after observation and conversation. Luke’s stature is sizable, but his heart is disproportionately big.

"I’m really impressed with the program," said Luke. "I’m seen so much improvement in the dogs in just the first few days. It’s great that it’s based on positive reinforcement. Hopefully the days of yanking on the pinch collar are disappearing."

The PAWS Good Dog Program is backed by Carol’s dozen years of studying dog behavior. Her canine career began in 1987 with volunteering at an animal shelter, the Seal Beach Animal Care Center in Seal Beach, California. First as a dog walker, and later as a trainer and instructor, Carol noticed a need for greater activity and engagement in shelter dogs. She developed a program for walking and training the dogs at Seal Beach, and the center’s reputation began to grow. Potential adopters drove extra miles to meet the dogs at Seal Beach, who had a reputation for being "good dogs."

Carol later served as an animal-control officer, columnist and author, whose book, Living With More Than One Dog, was published in 1995. She brought her expertise to the Whidbey Island Animal Shelter five years ago.

Inspired by a presentation in Spokane by New York-based canine behaviorist Sue Sternberg, Gannaway adapted Sternberg’s concepts of environmentally-cued training, and the Good Dog Program was born.

Carol’s focus differs from that of most animal trainers, who often work more at training people that training animals. "My draw has always been the shelter dogs. I prefer hands-on dog training as opposed to people training." Not that the outgoing Gannaway is some kind of social misfit, but she adds the disclaimer, "I just enjoy watching the dogs."

Of course, the people must be trained before the dogs can be trained. Volunteers who walk dogs and tend to the kennels are advised to be prepared by wearing appropriate clothing and carrying a leash and collar or an animal control lead. Attached to their belts should be a spray bottle filled with water and, of course, a pouch with the all-important treats.

At a training session, Carol showed the volunteers a simple method for placing a training collar around the head of an energetic dog. "Put the treat in your hand and the hand through the collar. As the dog goes for the treat, slip the collar over his nose and head."

Dogs are taught to sit at doorways by using the opening of the door, not the treats, as the reward. Once the walker has passed through the open door, with or without the dog, praise is in store. The approach is reinforced by moving to a new door only after the dog has mastered the sit at the original door.

Once outside even a dog who appears lethargic in the kennel can pull a walker like a horse pulling a surrey. The volunteers stop this behavior simply by stopping. It may take time, but the Good Dog Program requires a dog to learn that a tight leash means no forward progress. Pulling means stopping. A loose leash means freedom to walk and explore, maybe even a savory treat.

According to Carol, the only correction should be directed toward aggression. If a dog starts lunging and barking, the spray bottle should be employed. The PAWS dog walkers carry a small spray bottle with the trigger tucked into a pocket or belt. As soon as the aggressive behavior begins, the spray bottle is drawn and water—only water—is sprayed at the dog. The moment the behavior ceases, the dog is praised and rewarded.

Carol has seen this approach work for most dogs, but occasionally a dog comes along who considers the spray a reward, and other approaches must be considered.

As Carol and anyone else who works at the PAWS Companion Animal Shelter knows, there are lots and lots of good dogs, but no perfect dogs. Except mine.

Cheever was called Jasper during his stay at PAWS. During the two months he lived in the kennels, PAWS adoption posters displayed at area pet-supply stores pictured him over the text: "Don’t overlook Jasper! He’s one of the best in the shelter: likes other dogs and cats, bonds well with people, and is sweet-natured."

So how could one of our best be repeatedly passed over for adoption? Potential adopters who were intrigued by this handsome and intelligent Chow mix would be disappointed during "visits"—interaction with family members supervised by a staff member. He was perceived as aloof, more interested in sniffing the ground than in meeting a new person.

Some adopters want a dog that will bound up to them and worship them like they are God’s gift to canines. Cheever isn’t like that. A temperament report generated by the PAWS Good Dog Program would have informed potential adopters of this trait prior to a visit. (A recent temperament evaluation of Cheever, conducted for the purposes of this article, ranked him as a 1 on the "aloof" to "needy" scale).

With no Good Dog Program in place at PAWS in the fall of last year, Cheever, the perfect dog, sat for two months until I woke up to his wondrous qualities and filled a void in my life by adopting him. He still spends his days at PAWS (next to my desk), but now he gets most evenings and weekends off.

The presence of a temperament report, currently attached to the kennel door for every PAWS dog, may have prevented some disappointing visits for dogs at PAWS prior to the Good Dog Program. Potential adopters would have had a glimpse into temperament and behavior tendencies, and may have been drawn to qualities that weren’t apparent through the kennel door.

But can too much information be a hindrance to adoption? Could someone who loves the look of a dog or the brief interaction through the chain-link door be dissuaded by the results of the temperament evaluation?

Colleen Smith, the shelter director, believes the more PAWS knows, and the more an adopter knows, the better. "It’ll make a difference for us because we’ll know the dogs better and we’ll know what they need." She predicts the program will have a positive impact on adoption rates and will decrease the rate of return.

About potential adopters, Carol said, "They should know everything they can about the dog. We’re looking for a lifetime commitment."

Wally, the pit bull mix with the flip-top ears, had little experience with the Good Dog Program before a family made him their own good dog. Buddy, the smiling dog with the wagging butt, is getting better, not worse, as his stay at PAWS continues, thanks to the Good Dog Program. He knows there are lots and lots of people out there, but he’s waiting for the perfect adopter. Maybe you.

"There are so many dogs for adopters to pick from," said Carol. "Their perfect dog is there."

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