Claire: A Case Story
Summary: A case study of a shelter dog that came from a serious hoarding situation in Southern California. This dog initially showed significant avoidance and fear-based behaviors around unknown people. However, she was highly affiliative with other dogs and whilst waiting for an adopter, was given a “job” as part of the shelter’s evaluation team.
Claire came to us nearly two years ago. She was a 4-year-old medium-sized, short-haired, tri-colored dog of unknown breed origin. She came in a batch of dogs that were from a severe hoarding case. There were many dogs living in a single feces-filled room and more dogs living outside in the high, rural desert. We did not have a full, accurate picture of the lack of sociability that the dogs possessed. We received the most social and potentially adoptable of the bunch. However, many of them were feral. In suburban Southern California we don’t come across a lot of feral dogs, but when we do, it’s deeply unsettling. I’d love to tell you we were able to rehabilitate them all, but the truth is, we weren’t. A couple of the more sociable ones were placed up for adoption, some went to rescue, and some were euthanized because they were so afraid of people that every day was a waking nightmare.
Claire was one of the more social dogs and had been living indoors in that nightmarish room. On intake, she was avoidant of staff, avoiding eye contact and slowly increasing distance. The distance-increasing behavior was always controlled, unlike some of her more fearful counterparts who would run uncontrolled from staff. Claire’s attitude, if you’ll allow me to anthropomorphize, was more of the “No thank you, not today” sort of distance-increasing.
Beginning to work on sociability
At the shelter I work in, staff do not force interactions — the dog may choose to approach or retreat. They would sit at her kennel and toss treats, but if she didn’t want to approach, she didn’t have to. It took less than a week for Claire to gain enough confidence in her regular caregivers that she would allow them to approach, leash her, and remove her from the kennel. In the beginning, with her preferred caregivers she would approach, wag her tail in low sweeping movements, nudge their hands for treats or attention, initiate soft eye contact, and generally just choose to be in their vicinity.
Her lack of socialization and hoarding background were still apparent. When non-regular caregivers or the public went by, Claire would retreat to the interior portion of the kennel. If she was out with a preferred handler and came across a stranger, she would balk, refuse to move forward, and then try to slip her collar to run away. Likely due to her history of living in a hoarding situation, she regularly defecated and urinated on her blankets on the interior portion of her kennel, and she would still choose to sleep in the interior. To help with understanding that she did not have to sleep in her own urine and feces, her Kuranda bed was removed, and she did not get blankets placed in her kennel until the end of the day. Anecdotally, we have found that removing the Kuranda bed helps dogs not urinate or defecate on the interior portion of their kennel. It is also easier to clean. We do utilize spot cleaning principles for dogs. If there is no urine or feces on the bedding it is left with the dog, and the kennels are only disinfected as needed.1 Additionally, Claire was taken out of her kennel on a schedule for relief at least three times a day, and often four times.
Because Claire was demonstrating social behaviors towards staff, she was utilized to socialize the others from the group.2she would be placed in one of our cement yards (approximately 10’ x 10’ fully covered chain link square yards with a cement bottom) with two of the more fearful dogs. Two or three staff members would sit on the ground with high value-treats. and if noted any tension about resources, we stopped. Initially, staff would just toss treats on the ground to reinforce the dogs for being in the same space as people. With Claire in the cement yard, the dogs would watch her and would eat the food after she did. As the sessions would progress, staff would toss treats to encourage the dog to come closer, then they’d toss them behind the dogs to give them an opportunity to move away. If Claire came over to take treats from hands (which she often did), she would get handed treats. With her most preferred staff, she would ask to be touched by nudging their hand, or sitting near and not moving away when they petted her, and leaning into it. As the other dogs observed Claire being touched in a positive manner, they would be more willing to approach staff to receive treats.
Additionally, Claire was placed on our Shy Dog program. In this program, volunteers initially sit sideways on the outside of the kennel door, passively, and give the dog the opportunity to approach. They may also toss treats in the kennel. As the dog demonstrates some social behavior, including approaching the person, the program will move to the person sitting on the inside of the outside portion of the kennel and give the dog the opportunity to approach them. Volunteers are only allowed to interact with the dog in this fashion. They may not remove the dog from the kennel. Claire displayed progress quickly with people who regularly participated in the Shy Dog program. Each new person required less effort to elicit social behavior from her.
While we were assessing her adoptability, and working on her sociability, we began to utilize Claire for dog introductions. This is where Claire really shined, and her fate was sealed.
We, like many shelters, have many medium-to-large, impulsive dogs with reactivity issues that walk through our doors. We do believe that dog/dog socialization is a choice, and that not all dogs find it enriching, so we do not force dogs to participate in dog/dog interactions. But our community really desires dogs that can get along with other dogs, and we do believe it is a great form of enrichment and exercise for dogs that can play in a healthy and positive way.
We discovered that Claire was the perfect neutral dog. If the dog was on the end of the leash barking and lunging, Claire would just turn around and walk away. She didn’t start barking back; she didn’t display defensive behavior; she just said “No thank you, not today” and would go back to her handler for a treat. She did not display any stress behaviors such as panting, long mouth, darting eyes, escape-seeking behavior, etc. Her unconcern about the dramatic displays that other dogs would put on was so calm it was almost funny.
This lack of reactivity allowed us to assess dogs in a best-case scenario: What do you do with a real dog that is giving you every opportunity to settle down and giving you every calming signal in the book, and is not reciprocating your arousal or aggression? What we found with this model was that many of the dogs that were quite reactive could participate in some counter-conditioning and desensitization sessions with Claire as a neutral dog, and eventually be introduced face to face with Claire and gain a play buddy.
Failed adoptions and a new job
We put Claire up for adoption twice with significant counseling about her history and behavioral issues. Both times the adopters returned her and acknowledged they did not believe us when we told them how much work she would be. We knew at that point that she was not adoptable through us. We could not find a private rescue to take her. And so we were faced with a hard decision. No rescue options, not adoptable…
But in the time we had Claire we realized two things: She didn’t mind being at the shelter, and she truly loved being with dogs and had dog skills that were virtually unmatched. And a solution was born. Claire would be our shelter pet and she would have a job. She would be our playgroup leader and our tester dog.
We created a standard by which her ability to cope with the shelter would be judged:
- Continued sociability with preferred staff
- Not displaying kennel stress behaviors, including:
- Feces smearing
- Increased reactivity at the barrier
- Continued enthusiasm for meeting new dogs
- Good overall physical health3
These items were evaluated regularly, and if any of these kennel stress indications were noted, management strategies would be utilized to alleviate stress. If we were not able to manage her stress adequately, an alternative to living at the shelter would have to be sought. Kennel staff noted any behavior aberrations in Chameleon, our data system.
Out of all of the standards, the only one that ever was an issue was that Claire struggled with allergies, probably to grass. We were eventually able to manage it with regular medicated baths, daily medication, and daily wipe-downs to get pollen off of her skin.
Additionally, part of her shelter management plan, she would have:
- Play sessions daily, or as often as possible, depending on population.
- Volunteer engagement daily:
- The Shy Dog program
- Basic obedience
- At least one food puzzle a day.
- Toys changed daily.
- Office time, once a week.
- Offsite walk with another social dog3
Our goal for Claire was not only to make her stay at the shelter as comfortable and enriching as possible, but also hopefully to help her become available for adoption, but there would be no timeline pressure as long as she met the quality of life metrics as outlined above.
Claire became our tester dog. When we had dogs of unknown sociability, she was our go-to. She helped us work with some very reactive dogs to be able to have some positive, social experiences. Since she was generally unconcerned about dogs reacting at her, we would have her stand or walk with her handler, and an experienced handler would walk with the reactive dog and begin desensitizing them and work on approaching calmly.
A notable case was Huckleberry. He was a Golden Retriever/Shepherd-ish mix who was big, strong, and unruly, and had poor impulse control. Both dogs were on leash, and the handler was able to slowly take their time reinforcing Huckleberry for approaching slowly and calmly. When he did finally get near Claire, he was pushy and displayed play deficits but he did want to interact. He approached at her shoulder and had his whole body wagging, but his head was up and forward, pupils dilated, and his movements were frenetic. Claire attempted to interact but there was a good size difference and Huckleberry kept approaching at her shoulder, putting his head over her shoulders with his head up, front legs locked, and his ears up.
We would give the dogs breaks after short sniff sessions, then ask them if they wanted to go back.4 Claire tapped out after a couple of greetings and the session ended. While Claire and Huckleberry did not go on to become play buddies, we were able to work with Huckleberry to find him an appropriately sized play buddy because Claire was able to not escalate his poor play behavior or reactivity. It allowed us to see that Huckleberry could potentially have a friend and find it enriching. Huckleberry was adopted, eventually, knowing he wasn’t a dog-park dog but he could have carefully selected friends.
Another case is Betty. She was a young German Shepherd Dog who had a host of behavior concerns, and we were searching for rescue to take her. She could be quite reactive to dogs that barked at her. Part of our rescue search involved letting the rescues know if she was dog-social or at least dog-tolerant. We utilized Claire and let Betty set the pace of the interaction. Initially, Betty was avoidant and had her head and body down with a low, tight wag and ears back. Betty walked around the large yard sniffing and watching Claire cautiously. Claire did not approach. She sniffed the ground, interacted with her handler, and turned away. Both dogs received food reinforcement and the session ended. The next session, Betty was able to approach Claire. Betty would not stop displaying submissive behaviors, but Claire was appropriate and allowed Betty to relax at her own pace. This allowed us to best inform rescues that Betty could potentially be around another dog.
During her time as a working girl, Claire did this process with dozens of dogs, and with still dozens more had successful, enriching playgroups and buddies. There was no joy greater in her life than being with other dogs. Claire would play with the unplayable. She helped rehabilitate some really reactive dogs to give them a play outlet.
Interestingly, we learned that we could not use her to socialize puppies or young adolescents because she had no patience for their antics and was too rough in her corrections. Conversely, she loved huge, unaltered or only-recently-neutered male Shepherds.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Claire truly began to live her best life. One of the issues that we still were struggling with was her fear of strangers. She would refuse to come out of her kennel if she could see strangers and would refuse to walk if she encountered any while out. We were able to work around this by providing her a large yard to be in during the day, where she could easily move away from strangers but still not be in her kennel all day. Then suddenly the pandemic struck and there were no strangers here at all. Her soiling the interior of her kennel stopped, we had no incidents of balking, and interestingly, we noted that when we did add new staff she would become social to them in a matter of days rather than the weeks it would previously have taken. We also noted that she would display social behavior to staff that she previously would not allow to handle her or those she would not previously choose to engage in social interactions with. We also began to see more silly, playful behavior with preferred staff. She began to demonstrate play behaviors such as a play bows, tag behaviors (she would poke you and then run, stop, and look back, then wait for you to either chase or pretend to chase), and playful mouthing.
This unique situation gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to fully and completely control the access to an aversive stimulus and control all interactions so that there were minimal opportunities for Claire to be scared. We witnessed how critical it really is to reduce exposure to an aversive stimulus to see maximal improvement. This sort of control is rarely available in shelters.
I often present this story and tell folks “It’s not really sad,” but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I get wistful when I think about Claire. When we began to talk about opening up again, we knew our control of aversive stimuli was about to end, and that the fairest thing for Claire is to try to find her a home again. And the most amazing part of this story — we found one. Immediately! After a year and half with us, being loved, dressed up, cuddled, laughed with, and working for us, she went to a rescue in another state. The wonderful and amazing thing was that it took them almost no time at all to get the same social behaviors we had worked so hard for. And even more amazing, she got adopted shortly thereafter into a loving home where she gets to run around all day outside on a farm with other dogs. That, as it turns out, is Claire’s actual best life.
- University of Wisconsin Madison Shelter Medicine Program (2015). Spot Cleaning Dog Kennels. Last checked: 11/29/2021.
- ASPCA (2016). Simple Behavior & Handling Tips for Shy or Fearful Dogs. Last checked: 11/29/2021.
- Bennett, S. (2018). Kennel stress in dogs: What is it and what can we do about it? [PDF].
- Shelter Playgroup Alliance (2019). Inter-dog Playgroup Guidelines. Last checked: 11/29/2021.
Paige Kim CBCC-KA, CSB-C is the Behavior and Enrichment Coordinator at the Irvine Animal Care Center. She has been an animal sheltering professional for over 15 years and takes pride in making the world a little better one day at time by helping pets and the people that love them. She shares her life with two old cranky cats, two kids, and one husband.