As a Canine Behavior Consultant, I encounter a lot of obstacles in developing and implementing behavior modification plans for dogs that are housed in shelters and rescues. When I’m working with an individual in a home environment, I can develop a detailed plan with a schedule, incremental steps, instructions for consistently tracking the problem behavior(s), etc., all of which contribute to tracking the dog’s (and the owners’) progress. However, a shelter is a completely different environment with a combination of busy staff and volunteers: The dogs are under constant noise and stress, the staff generally works in shifts, the volunteers are dedicated, but are on sight inconsistently and have varying levels of expertise. All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult to implement a consistent plan or track results.
In the past, I’ve posted articles about the shelter dogs that I’ve worked with on an individual basis[i], and how I have involved shelter personnel in these treatments[ii], but these single cases are far outnumbered by the dogs with mild-to-moderate behavioral problems that we routinely encounter. I’ve been looking for a way to have more people involved in helping dogs by reducing their anxiety or reduce the issues that are getting in the way of adoption.
A few months ago, I found an article in the IAABC Journal describing a program that the Singapore SPCA had implemented to help volunteers train and rehabilitate shelter dogs.[iii] This program is very impressive; it provides volunteers with training and forms them into teams to work with individual dogs by targeting specific behaviors with low level training and games. Although my shelter lacks the resources to put together a program as comprehensive as the one described in the article (like every other shelter, we are emerging from the pandemic with a reduced volunteer cadre and are working hard to rebuild this vital component of shelter operations) it seemed to me that we could implement something on a smaller scale for our “problem” dogs.
Recognizing that there was no way I could implement a formal behavior modification program, I began experimenting with ways to draft plans that:
- Identify dogs with specific behavior problems that interfere with successful adoption.
- List specific games or training steps intended to address those behaviors.
- Provide detailed instructions on how to implement those games or training elements.
- Provide some form of feedback on the effectiveness of these steps.
My goal is to include relatively inexperienced people with a set of consistent steps towards resolving our dogs’ behavior issues, that can be easily implemented. In the case of our shelter, this is aided by having a formal training program for volunteers and having the volunteers organized in grades according to their level of experience and training. The dogs are also placed in corresponding groups, according to their assessed difficulty of handling (volunteers are not allowed to handle dogs with bite histories or indications of aggression). This assessment is based on their behavior during quarantine and upon the histories that are provided during intake into the shelter. The challenge is to identify helpful activities that an inexperienced person can implement during a walk or play session.
The program we’ve established follows these steps:
- An individual dog’s behavior issues are identified, along with the events that trigger the behavior(s) (antecedents) and the events that typically follow it (cons
- equences). This is typically anecdotal reporting from shelter staff and volunteers.
- The shelter behavior team performs an assessment of the dog’s behavior, verifying and baselining those reports. Once the behavior is baselined for severity and its triggering events are identified, the behavior team confers and develops a set of games or training activities for the staff and volunteers to use when handling the dog.
- The behavior staff also drafts clear instructions on implementing these treatments, the use of reinforcers, etc., for staff and volunteers to follow during walks, play time or other opportunities to implement the treatment plans.
- These activities and instructions are published in an online chat forum used by shelter personnel. Paper copies are posted in the cubby holes used to store the individual dogs’ leash and harness.
- Staff and volunteers provide feedback via the chat forum.
- The behavior team performs reassessments on a regular basis.
Formal metrics are not being kept at this time, due to the varied personnel who are implementing the behavior management activities and our current inability to regularly schedule treatment sessions. Hopefully, as more volunteers go through the shelter’s onboarding and training process, we will be able to migrate to a more formal behavior modification program for dogs with serious issues.
I’d appreciate feedback from any other shelters that have implemented low-level behavior modification programs using volunteers. It would be great to compare notes.
[i] Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties | The Animal Nerd
[iii] One Dog at a Time: Enriching the Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs | The IAABC JOURNAL