Thursday, May 21, 2009


This is Sissee. This picture was taken in February while I was volunteering at Heartland Humane Society, but she'd been there since January, I think. She's rambunctious, loves people, and likes to play fetch. Since this picture was taken, she was adopted, then sold on Craigslist*, then, about a week ago, brought back to the shelter a bit of a nervous wreck. She was one of the demo dogs we used this weekend to practice Open Paw training, and hopefully it will help her stop being a ping-pong dog.

Open Paw is a non-profit founded and run by dog trainers. The co-founder and president Kelly Gorman Dunbar flew here for the weekend to kick start the program at Heartland and lead the training exercises for volunteers and staff. (The local paper ran a story on it today).

Essentially it's about integrating basic obedience training to a shelter's every day operations to help improve the animals chances of being adopted and STAYING adopted. Once fully implemented the staff, volunteers, and even the visiting public take part in providing (relatively) consistent basic training for the animals.

My favorite part is the feeding program. It's so simple and intuitive, why didn't anyone think of this before? Instead of being fed two meals a day in their kennels, the dogs' bowls are hung on the outside of their doors and throughout the day, visitors, staff and volunteers hand feed. It means a constant positive association with people, and can be used as reward training for, say, not barking, or not jumping up.

This has already made a difference for two chronic barkers. By the end of the weekend they would stay quiet and wait when they heard people enter the kennel area instead of immediately barking. And they would continue to stay quiet as long as someone stood there and fed him. Not perfect, of course, and as soon as you left the barking could start again, but, after weeks of no change (and maybe even deterioration), it only took two days of this new program for there to be noticeable progress.

Another nice thing: the mental stimulation of even short, simple training sessions tired out the dogs more than hours of walking would have. A good thing to keep in mind since, with this new system, volunteers can't take the dogs out for a walk until they've been trained and tested for that.

It's a bit counter-intuitive. Right now the mentality is that the dogs are cooped up and need exercise, so the goal becomes to get them out on a walk at all costs. Which usually means, of course, letting them jump all over you and pull on the leash and generally cementing negative habits that won't endear them to a potential adopter.

The biggest obstacle will be making sure everyone stays on the same page and doesn't 'revert' back to the old policies.

It might be less satisfying to spend an hour practicing entering and exiting kennels than taking the dogs to the park, but in the long run I really think this will help them find and keep a home.

*I have no idea if her original adopters are jerks or just ignorant.


Anonymous said...

Not sure if this will be read or seen. I am Sissee's owner and have been since June of 2009. She has been a wonderful family dog but she is not small or female dog friendly. She has been like that since the day after we got her. Sis still gets excited about playing ball and will go until she gets hurt. My husband and I have trained her to stop and go in when it has been long enough. We love that she took well to our cat when we got her and the kitten we got the year after getting her. Sis has always been wonderful with children and she let's our 2 year old son roughly love her.

Suzanne said...

Thanks for the comment, it's great hearing about how shelter dogs I've met have been getting along.