Simple Solutions for Common Behavior Issues in Shelters
Since 1990 I have been volunteering in or working with a variety of shelters and rescue groups, until 2013 when I accepted a full-time position at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. While there, one of my fellow behavior consultants, Allie Bender, and I developed a program through which we worked with several other shelters around the country. About a year ago, I moved to Salt Lake City and went back into business for myself, but continue to work with several shelters and rescue groups along the Wasatch Front. Across the organizations I’ve worked with, there seems to be a recurring theme: “We know these dogs would get adopted faster if people could see them at their best, but we don’t have enough time or staff to work with the dogs on these behavior issues.” While an effective and ethical approach to more severe behavior issues in shelter dogs is an important topic that merits discussion, the focus of this article will be on the minor issues that can make a shelter environment stressful and off-putting to both the humans and the dogs who visit, work, and stay there.
In my experience, the solutions to these issues are much simpler than people imagine, and they don’t require a large staff, or aversive tools or training methods. What they do require, however, is a variety of high-value treats. This is because we rely on a classical approach as much as, if not more than, an operant one in a shelter setting, since so many of the behaviors in that environment are driven by stress. Changing the way dogs feel about the stressors in their environment can help us reach our training goals more efficiently and effectively than solely focusing on an operant approach. In those shelters I’ve worked with that don’t have the budget for treats and don’t currently have a consistent treat donor, social media can be a powerful tool to get what you need. Often, it’s as simple as posting a wish list on Facebook, and the treat shelves will be overflowing by the end of the day. If a shelter doesn’t find that to be true, the staff may need to get more creative in finding a way to get treat donations, but obtaining high-value treats is rarely, if ever, an insurmountable obstacle.
Barking is one of the first behavior issues that comes to mind when thinking of shelters. It’s also a constant, unending training process, because as dogs who have learned the quiet routine get adopted, new dogs who don’t yet know the ropes come in. Nevertheless, getting staff and volunteers into the habit of training for quiet can have a profound effect on the decibel level—and therefore the stress level—of a facility. It becomes a part of the regular maintenance and care routine, along with feeding, watering, cleaning, and enrichment.
Depending on the environment, there are potentially two ways to address this. The easiest is just to have staff and volunteers toss a treat into every kennel as they walk by. Theoretically this simple counter-conditioning would only be effective on dogs who were barking due to fear or frustration. However, I have seen situations in which the demand barkers also stopped barking—perhaps in response to the overall reduction of barking in the room. The other way to approach this is to teach the staff and volunteers to look at each dog’s body language and respond accordingly:
If you see signs of distress like a high, stiff tail, piloerection, forward commissures, or a tense face and forehead, toss a treat every time you walk by. If, however, you see signs of happiness when the dog is barking—loose wag, loose body, big grin, etc.—ignore the dog until they stop barking, then toss them a treat when they are quiet. It may seem daunting, but most people can learn this very quickly. For example, in Dogtown at Best Friends Animal Society, the Welcome Center brought tours through multiple times a day. In my areas, the caregivers would sometimes explain to the visitors who were on the tour the rules of “Click for Quiet” (although the clicker was optional), and then the visitors got to do Click for Quiet with the dogs. Within just a few minutes the area would be quiet, the tour guide could give their spiel without having to shout over the dogs, and the visitors would leave feeling excited to have been able to train dogs in Dogtown.
But what about the dogs who will bite fingers if people try to poke a treat through their cage bars? There are options for these cases, a couple of which include:
- A “No Touch” sign on the door or window
- A visual barrier like a screen or curtain
- Making a funnel by cutting off the end of a 60 mL syringe case and fastening it to the top of the cage door, well above the dog’s jumping height and using that to deliver treats
- Any combination thereof
Different cases may merit different approaches.
Door dashing or foot grabbing
The solution for both of these issues is essentially the same: Find It. Find It is simple and fool-proof; you say “find it” then toss some high-value treats towards the back of the run. Remember that only the learner decides what’s reinforcing, so make sure that the treats you’re offering actually are high value for the dog you’re working with.
For door dashers—dogs who try to run past you as soon as you open their door to enter or leave their kennel—it’s usually necessary to start by cracking the gate open just wide enough to fit your arm through, hold the treats under their nose so they know what you have in your hand, then say “find it” and toss them. They may not even go after the treats the first few times you try to enter their run. It may seem like a waste of treats. You may need to just squeeze your way into the run as you always have. But in my experience, after the first couple of times the dog begins to learn the routine and go after the treats. With consistent repetition, most dogs begin to back away from the door as soon as people cue “find it” —whether entering or exiting—within a couple of days, although sometimes it can take a bit longer.
For dogs who grab at people’s feet as they are exiting the run, Find It is also a fast and efficient way to stop the undesirable behavior while also teaching a more desirable incompatible behavior, as well as reducing their stress in this situation. Because Find It isn’t simply a matter of associating high-value treats with people leaving the run, but also using their nose to locate the treats, there is usually a visible change in their body language and stress levels once they start to look for the food. That said, how and when we need to implement Find It may vary from dog to dog. In the standard protocol, you would get all the way to the gate, open the latch, then turn, say “find it,” and toss the treats to the back of the kennel before leaving. For some dogs, though, trigger stacking starts well before you open the latch. I remember working with one dog who would start to fixate on shoes as soon as you turned to face the gate, even if you were on the opposite side of his run. For dogs like him, I start Find It as soon as the dog starts to fixate on shoes, regardless of where I am in the run. It looks like this:
- When the dog starts to fixate on my shoes, I say “find it” and toss one or two treats away from me.
- As the dog is coming back to me, but before he gets all the way, I take a step towards the gate, then stop, say “find it” and toss another treat or two away.
- As the dog is coming back, I repeat the process.
- I continue repeating the process all the way up to when I open the latch, then do one last round before leaving the run.
Even in those more extreme cases, dogs usually learn to stop foot grabbing within a few days and will begin to back away as soon as they hear the “find it” cue. The only exceptions, in my experience, have been dogs who were later diagnosed with an underlying medical issue, an anxiety disorder, or a compulsive disorder, and needed to be on medication.
Difficult to leash up
Another common issue in shelters, especially with the juvenile large-breed dogs, is hyperarousal when trying to leash them up to take them outside. The behavior can not only be annoying or even intimidating, but also dangerous. I have a scar on my chin from when an 80-pound Rottweiler mix jumped up and split my chin when I went into his run to leash him up. A painful life lesson for 13-year-old me, but the damage can be much worse for smaller or frailer humans. If a dog is in a home with owners who are committed to training, there are many ways we might teach impulse control. But in a shelter where dogs are only there for short periods of time, and the people walking them are usually staff with little to no training experience or volunteers with even less, our focus needs to be on the most simple, efficient way to get the desired behavior. So for leashing dogs up, the easiest solution is to smear a dollop of a moist high-value treat—such as Kong Stuff’n, Easy Cheese, plain yogurt, peanut butter, canned pumpkin, or canned dog food—on the ground so the dog is focused on licking that up while you leash or harness them.
When my colleagues and I on the behavior team in Dogtown first started to implement this, a common question we got from caregivers was, “Isn’t this cheating? It isn’t really training, is it?” The answer is no, it’s not cheating, and yes, it is training. We are creating an association between person-approaching-to-leash and amazing-licky-noms-on-the-ground. It doesn’t take long for dogs to see people entering their run with a leash or harness and immediately start focusing on the ground, waiting for treats. And a dog who is focusing on the ground can’t be jumping up and splitting people’s chins open. But perhaps more importantly, a dog who is jumping up and down in excitement about being leashed up is in a state of extreme stress. It might be happy excitement, but eustress is still stress. By giving them something to focus on and lick off the floor, we are also reducing their stress in this scenario. And that, I would say, is a meta-goal for any shelter: looking for every opportunity to reduce stress in their dogs’ daily lives.
Getting the dog calmly out of the kennel
So, you’ve got the dog leashed up, but now getting them outside to go on a walk or to the lobby to meet a potential adopter is a whole adventure in and of itself. How do you get them to walk through the gauntlet without pulling you off your feet or yelling at every other dog they see? We do something similar to what we did to get the dogs leashed up in their runs.
Put small pieces of painter’s tape on the floor of the kennel area every two feet down the aisles to each door. When dogs are first learning, put a dollop of their preferred licky treat on every piece of tape. You may have to point them out at first, but it takes no time for dogs to figure out that every piece of tape has licky-noms. After just a couple of these tape walks, you can drop down to putting a dollop on every other piece of tape. Then after a couple of those, every fourth piece of tape. And so forth. In a surprisingly short period of time, the dogs learn to walk with their nose to the ground instead of pulling their handler all over kingdom come, only needing a dollop when they get to the door, and eventually not needing any at all.
Shelter dogs need walks, but a lot of shelter dogs have no idea how to walk without pulling. Like the jumping behaviors, this can be both aggravating and dangerous for staff and volunteers. But again, loose-leash walking training requires time and at least some skill, and management tools such as harnesses and head collars can only help so much.
When working in Dogtown, a common complaint we got from caregivers was that they would put a lot of training into loose-leash walking, but then volunteers would undo all the progress they made by letting the dogs pull them everywhere, or conversely dragging the dogs around when they weren’t comfortable. To address this perfectly valid complaint, we created training lanyards for the volunteers. Each lanyard had a different skill for the volunteers to work on with the dog they were walking. The instructions were short and simple. The caregiver would hand them a dog, a training lanyard with a clicker attached to it, and a treat pouch with the dog’s treats. Then they would take the dogs out and follow the instructions on the lanyard.
What we found was that the volunteers didn’t have to focus specifically on loose-leash walking. They didn’t have to know anything about training. They didn’t even have to be following the instructions particularly well. By merely attempting to work on training while walking, the dogs stayed more focused on them, and as a result were less likely to pull—or pancake—while out on walks. And humans, like learners of any other species, are less likely to perform undesirable behaviors such as leash corrections or dragging dogs by their necks if we teach them what we want them to do instead.
This is a video of just such a volunteer. I did not coach her in any way, nor had she had any training experience before taking Lordes on this walk. I asked if I could film her using a training lanyard, gave it to her, let her have a minute to get into the rhythm of walking while training, then started filming.
Her mechanics aren’t perfect and she’s holding the leash a little tighter than I’d prefer, but she’s doing a great job of working on name recognition, and Lordes is listening to her and working with her. Considering how persistently Lordes had been dragging volunteers around the sanctuary before we starting using the training lanyards, this is a huge success.
While these ideas are all fine and good, every organization is different, and the nuts and bolts of how to implement them will look different too. To be successful at incorporating these ideas into the daily operations of a shelter, we must bear a few things in mind:
Antecedent arrangements matter
- Busy staff and volunteers will be less likely to follow through with new ideas if doing so is difficult, complicated, or time consuming. Set up the environment to make it as easy as possible for them to comply.
- Treats: Hang little buckets or other containers on each cage, so you can put their preferred treats in their own bucket. This way people won’t have to constantly go find treats or keep ten different kinds of treats in their pockets at all times. This is especially helpful for dogs who have dietary restrictions or are simply selective about their likes and dislikes. Once you know what a dog likes, you can write it on a piece of masking tape and put it on the bucket.
- Body language: Being able to accurately read and interpret body language is essential to successful training. It may be worthwhile to add some body language videos to the orientation process for new staff members and the education for volunteers. I have also found it helpful to offer free quarterly body language workshops to shelter and rescue staff for more in-depth education, and the organizations who send their staff and volunteers to those workshops see a marked improvement in their interactions with dogs.
- Training lanyards: Hang them right next to the leashes or they will never get used. Also, we learned the hard way to attach the clickers to the lanyards. Otherwise the clickers walk off with volunteers, never to be seen again.
Our meta-goal of reducing overall stress
In addition to the training ideas above, look for other ways to reduce stress in the dogs’ lives. For example, many enrichment programs focus only on ways for dogs to play and exercise, but forget about ways for dogs to rest and relax. As a crepuscular species, dogs benefit from a midday nap. So giving them at least an hour of structured nap time with lights off, no visitors, and calming music can do wonders in giving them a chance to relax and de-stress.
Remember That Humans Are Learners, Too
If we are committed to LIMA, we must be able and willing to apply it to the human learner, too. For this reason, I don’t recommend forcing staff to suddenly start using new techniques. Doing so will only make them resent—and ultimately fail at—the new methods. Some staff will immediately be on board with trying the new methods. Other staff will be ambivalent or doubtful, but when they start seeing others have success with it, they will be more willing to try it themselves. Some may take much longer to come around, or may never come around at all. But even though it may look like forcing staff to use these methods seems faster in the short term, over the long term you’ll get better and more lasting results by letting staff internalize the new information at their own pace.
One side effect of letting staff change at their own pace is that the ones who don’t want to try to new methods yet become your unintentional control groups. For example, when we starting using the training lanyards in Dogtown, we could tell which areas were using the lanyards and which ones weren’t: The dogs in the areas using the lanyards improved with loose-leash walking by leaps and bounds, whereas the others didn’t. Similarly, one of the shelters I’m currently working with has started implementing some recommended changes, and most of the caregivers are either fully on board or getting there. While resistance from staff and volunteers tends to lead to slower progress and can be demoralizing, the reduced incidence of aggression and other problems compared to the “control group” of people still using the old methods has also been the primary reason that board members and higher level staff have been willing to implement LIMA policies and position statements: When they see the difference within their own organizations, it leaves little room for doubt.
Emily Strong, CPBC, CPBT-KA is the owner/operator of From Beaks To Barks in Salt Lake City, UT. She works with all species of companion animals.