Working with shelter animals

This is a copy of the original article I wrote in June 2018.

I started volunteering at my local RSPCA in January 2018 specifically to train dogs and cats, all force free. The team at the shelter are absolutely wonderful, have welcomed me with open arms and I love my time there.

The biggest thing I have learnt is that a shelter is very different to a home in ways that have profound consequences on training, and I want to describe how I work with the dogs I see. I hope this inspires those involved in rescue in kennels to broaden the spectrum of activities they might do with the animals in their care.


How is a shelter environment different?

  1. Energy levels:

Spending time outside the kennel is the highlight of the day for most shelter dogs I know. The world outside is immensely fascinating. They know their morning routine very well, they know exactly what the clang of the gate or the jingle of the harness means. This has a huge impact on their arousal level when they come out and their ability to focus on me at the other end of the lead. It means that I do specific activities at the start of our training session to calm them down first to the point where they’re able to learn and retain something new. It also means dialling down my expectations as their trainer at the start of every session to set them up to succeed straight away.

My own lurcher, Beanie, was a kennel dog for three months whilst waiting for a home. The day I met him was unforgettable — he came bounding out of his kennel, dashed a door, leapt up like a kangaroo to say hello, walked right at the end of his lead and couldn’t contain his excitement at going out for a walk with us. Six months later, he was a very different dog. Sure, he loves his walks but he is much calmer about going out that he will happily wait at the door to be released to walk through. One would find it hard to believe that the dog I met at the kennels that day is the same dog sleeping on the couch next to me as I write today.

Beanie has views on what I should be doing instead of writing.

2. Training schedule:

Shelter dogs are walked, trained and cared for by different people with different expectations. I try to visit twice weekly. I keep a record of which dog is working on what with me. I have a set of regulars — a subset of whom I’d work with every visit. Sometimes it could be a couple of weeks before I see the same dog again. My time with them is precious.

Unlike with Beanie where I can quickly grab some treats and countercondition the loud thud of the postbox every time I hear the postie nearby, my training time with the shelter dogs as a volunteer is very structured. This means planning the session a little ahead of picking up the dog and recognising that there will be setbacks through the week since not every opportunity can be used for training as with pet dogs at home. It means recognising that different people might have reinforced different behaviours throughout the week and, most importantly, never blaming the dog for doing something unexpected.

3. Training environment:

As a volunteer alongside other volunteers, I work within the existing routines at the shelter. Corridors must be kept clear since some dogs need space from other dogs. Training treats and portions are carefully monitored and agreed with staff. I wait at the doors of the dog kennel area for a member of staff to bring me a dog who is available for some training on a harness and lead. I then walk this dog to our training area and depending on which area is available, I may be able to have the dog off-lead for our training session. I then bring the dog back after training to the staff member and usually describe what we did and how it went.

Now I am a huge believer in proper antecedent arrangement. I set the dog up to do the right thing, he does exactly what I’d like, I throw him a party, everybody is happy. I dial up the difficulty a little for the next round, he aces that, I throw another party. Rinse and repeat. Typically I work on something new with Beanie first indoors where there’s little distraction, then in my garden, then on the street outside and finally in the highly-distracting park behind our house. But it is less feasible to do the same at the shelter. I minimise distraction as much as possible but I am very aware of all the activities around us — other dogs turning the corner out of sight, the washing machine running nearby, the smell of shelter cats that wafts past with a strong breeze. I try my absolute best to never put the dog in a situation where he simply cannot behave as I would like. Sometimes that does mean moving the dog away from a situation, quickly redirecting to something else or lowering my expectations in that instant.

4. Training goals:

I have very high and very low expectations of Beanie simultaneously. He can tell whether or not two notes on a piano are the same. He can chill at a busy restaurant. He is a sighthound who walks off lead with my cats. But he neither knows how to sit nor how to heel. He doesn’t do a sit pretty. He follows me around the house and I don’t really mind it. I don’t expect him to be able to live with children. And I’ll happily wait a minute for him to finish sniffing a single blade of grass on a busy path.

But I try to prepare the dogs at the shelter for a very wide set of environments. I work on manners. I work on cute tricks. I teach them cues to heel and sit. I teach them how to contain their excitement and not jump up. I condition them to loud sounds if something suddenly happens outside. The more situations the shelter dog can cope with, the greater her chances of adoption and fitting into most homes. I want the dogs I work with to be a jack of all trades. This means I work on a huge variety of behaviours with them which a dog already settled in a home like Beanie might not necessarily need to know.


So what does a training session look like?

Well, there’s no simple formula. But these are the typical things I might do. I’ll first admit that most of the dogs I see tend to be food-motivated. So I have more experience with food rewards than toy rewards.

Let’s start with the super shy dogs. They are hardly OK with me being in the room with them, forget me asking them to do something for me! I sit in a corner facing away from them and I toss treats towards or past them, which they can pick up if they feel like it. Sometimes, I let them do whatever they want I don’t interact with them at all. If they bark at me, I move myself further away. I toss treats nonetheless because I want to counter-condition them to my presence (which by definition means I don’t expect any operant behaviour from them). The time I spend with the shelter dogs is entirely for their benefit. I need to help them feel confident enough to tell me if they want or do not want to do something.

Now let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum, which is far more common than I had originally expected. If a dog is literally bouncing off the walls when we enter the training area, I usually use some scentwork to calm them down. I toss treats in different directions, they sniff them out and they’re usually calmer after a few rounds. Sometimes they get the zoomies, they run around like a lunatic and then it’s OK. Most dogs automatically sit at this point, probably because everyone who has ever had a dog insists that the dog sits before giving them a treat. That’s fine. I’m happy to reinforce that if they offer it. Eventually I find I have to reward sitting less often because I suspect they would never do anything else if I kept rewarding it every single time.

So let’s say we now have a dog who is paying me attention. I tend to start with nose targeting. Some dogs find it very scary if I hold out an open palm. So I hold a treat in a loosely closed fist and drop the treat to the floor the minute they come to sniff it. I also tend to show these dogs the back of my hand for a nose touch and eventually turn the hand around once they are more comfortable with me.

I invariably work on manners. I teach the dogs to walk right next to me, rewarding for every little step at the start and eventually working up to a straight line, turn and back at heel. Many jump up. I work on four feet on the floor, which is very successful during training time. I work on recall. I work on impulse control around food. I don’t expect their full attention all the time. So it’s absolutely fine if they wander off to investigate a noise. I reward them the minute they turn their attention back to me.

Then I work on tricks. The charm about trick training is that, although manners and tricks are exactly the same thing to the dog, us humans tend to take manners more seriously than tricks. It’s easier to just move on if a dog doesn’t seem to take to a particular trick. It’s light-hearted all around. Tricks are also a great way to help bridge the gap between a dog and a potential adopter. I play shaping games like 101 things to do with a tennis ball or a sticky note, especially with dogs who are shy to show behaviours unless prompted. Sometimes I suddenly run away for a chase and jackpot when they come to me, which invariably works with a sighthound! I mix tricks and manners together. I tend to work on similar things in the same week with the dogs I see. I take videos of our sessions if I can. This helps me keep track of how every dog is doing and also learn from my own mistakes (which I’m sure I make). I edit some clips for the staff to see what we’ve been up to and maybe use the videos to showcase how wonderful the dogs really are on social media!

I lower all my expectations the minute we step out of the training area because suddenly the environment has changed and I recognise that I’m suddenly far less interesting than I was a minute ago. Having said that, I practice a few nose touches or a little heel on our walk back to the kennels if I can. Sometimes I have to wait for a staff member to take the dog back in. I do a little recall on lead, a nose touch or a sit in that time.

Sometimes I just give them a cuddle as we wait and call it a day. I watch if their tails wag away. I still can’t make up my mind whether or not I want to see them again the next time.

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