Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Three

In my earlier post ( Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two | The Animal Nerd) I went through my recommended process for leashing a dog and taking him out of his run with the minimum excitement and drama.  Today, I’d like to talk about working with him outdoors.

First, before taking the dog out of his run, you should find out whether the shelter staff has drafted and implemented a training or behavior modification plan for that dog, and what it entails.  It may not be a formal document and behavior log, and you might find it to be as simple as asking whether they have any particular instructions for that dog.  As always, if you don’t feel comfortable working with that plan, find another dog to work with on that day.

Before taking the dog outside, ask the shelter staff what his day has already been like.  Did he have a vet visit?  Has he already had some play time?  Has he been seen by potential adopters?  If he’s already had a big day, it might be best to just take him outside and let him sit quietly in a nice quiet spot and relax.

Once he’s leashed and you have good control over him, take him directly outside.  The dog has been cooped up and will need to relieve himself – that’s a little bit of stress that you can help him with immediately.  Hint – always have a few poop bags in your pocket when you’re at the shelter.  Don’t try to do any training for the first few minutes, until he’s had a chance to work off his initial excitement.  If your shelter has an outdoor off-leash pen, you might take him to it so he can work off any “zoomies” that he might have from being cooped up, or you can provide him some enrichment by playing with him – that’s one reason that I favor cargo pants, you can always have a tennis ball handy.

However, if the dog is new to the shelter or if you haven’t worked with him before, I wouldn’t include any off-leash time or play in the first couple of times that you take him out.  When I’m working with an unfamiliar dog, my practice is to take him for a long walk on the shelter grounds and let him have a good sniff around.  I don’t include any training or play, and I try to not correct anything he does – beyond removing him from any situation that raises his stress level or causes an over-reaction.  Remember, he’s new to you and doesn’t know you.  You want him to associate you with a pleasant, relaxing experience.  I also try to incorporate quiet time, in which I find a pleasant spot for him and me to just sit and relax.  Let him get used to the sights and smells of being outside and learn how to get comfortable.  This is an opportunity for you to observe him and learn his behavior cues and characteristics – What does he focus on?  At what distance does he react to other dogs?  What are the signs that he’s feeling tense?  How does he self-soothe and shed stress?  This knowledge is invaluable in socializing him.  And simply experiencing being outdoors provides a great deal of enrichment to him, engages his brain and helps his emotional state.

Once you’ve had him out a few times, and he knows you, then you should be able to incorporate some light training or play time – in a closed, controlled area.  Although, except for leash walking,  I recommend against trying to do any training while you’re outdoors – there are simply too many distractions.   When playing with the dog, especially for the first few times, carefully watch his excitement level.  A lot of shelter dogs have a tendency to become overexcited when they’re playing and can become difficult to handle.  I’ve had pitbulls suddenly become overexcited during play and decide that my sweatshirt would be an excellent tug toy.  For this reason, I strongly recommend that you leave their harness on during the play session, and leave the leash attached for the first couple of them.  If the dog becomes jumpy or mouthy, you can step on the leash and reduce his movement until he regains some self-control.

When you’re walking the dog, remember that he is not your dog and that you are not his buddy.  He really doesn’t know you.  He may decide to head in a particular direction that you don’t want to go.  In this case, simply plant yourself and wait him out.  After he stops pulling, you can simply say something like “Let’s go” and head in the direction that you want.  Or, he might stop and freeze, or pancake himself and refuse to move.  If either of these happen, do not get into a contest of wills or a tug-o-war with him.  You can kneel or crouch down and wait him out – give him the choice of either doing nothing or approaching you.  Or you can change direction and head off at an oblique angle to your original plan. This usually gets him to go along with you.  Don’t get frustrated or let your attitude show anything except that you’re having a relaxing good time.

At the end of the walk, he might not want to go back inside the shelter.  If this happens, try taking him back inside through a different door than his usual one.  This is also the time to use some very high-value treats to help him go back inside.  And always give him a few treats when he goes back inside his run – not only does this help him associate the end of the walk or play session with a positive reinforcer, but by scattering a few treats in his run you buy yourself a minute to take off his leash and/or harness, and get out the door while he’s distracted.  This reduces the drama associated with leaving him inside, and prevents him from door-dashing while you’re exiting.

That’s it for today.

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