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

Let’s talk some more about the best practices for handling shelter dogs.  Specifically, taking them out of their runs.

Assuming that you’ve gone through your shelter’s orientation program and received the basic instructions on safety and dog handling, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the best way to go about your volunteer responsibilities.  Some of the things I’m discussing may not be required at your shelter, but I recommend doing them anyway, as long as they don’t directly contradict any of their procedures or requirements.

First, wear appropriate clothing – clothing that it wouldn’t bother you to get muddied or torn.  Long pants are the best option to protect your legs.  I prefer cargo pants, as the pockets offer places to stow treats, poop bags, cell phone, eyeglasses, etc.  Wear work shoes or boots, or athletic shoes that won’t slip on a wet floor and are easy to clean – keep in mind that from time to time you will step in something unpleasant.

Avoid wearing sunglasses when you’re working with a dog that doesn’t live with you.  Dogs read our facial expressions very well and are constantly checking in with us.  They want to see your eyes and can get nervous when you hide them.  And avoid wearing anything around your neck when you’re dealing with a dog that you don’t know, including lanyards or scarves.  The last thing you want is for a rambunctious or over-excited pup to turn that into a tug toy.

Second, wash or disinfect your hands before entering the shelter, and between visiting any dogs.  There are diseases that can be passed from dog to dog, and you do not want to be the way they’re transmitted.

Third, check in with the shelter staff before handling any dogs to make sure that there are no changes in the dogs’ status, their physical condition or if they have any medical or adopter appointments scheduled.   They should know what dogs you will be working with while you’re on site, and what activities you have planned for them.

In my last post, Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd, I talked about introducing yourself to a shelter dog.  Now, once you’ve sufficiently gained his trust, how do you get him leashed and out of his run?  First, watch him for a minute and see how he reacts to you being there.  What does his behavior and body language Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu) tell you?  If he approaches you quietly; shows a calm, friendly demeanor or offers you a toy then your job is easy:  Leash him up and have a nice quiet walk with him.  If he does anything other than that, then take it slow.  Remember these dogs are stressed and over stimulated just by being in the shelter.  And, to them, you’re just another stranger who’s coming into their space.

First and above all else, your job is to be a calming presence and to reduce the dogs’ anxiety and stress.  If the dog is showing signs of fear or anxiety then, for the first few times you visit him, you can just sit or kneel down, facing away from him at an oblique angle, and relax with him.  Toss a few tasty treats near him and in the space between you to see if he approaches you and takes them.  Don’t stare at him, just be a friend and talk quietly.  Then leave him alone for a while.  You can try again a half-hour later and try again.  Wait until he approaches you and allows you to touch him before attaching the leash to his collar or attempting to put on his harness.

On the other hand, he may be over stimulated and be racing around you, jumping and mouthing at the prospect of going outside.  He may even treat the leash, harness or your clothing like a tug toy.  Even if he responds to a “sit” command, he’ll be vibrating like a guitar string and will only be able to hold the sit for a few seconds.   In this case, the key for you is to not become excited or overwhelmed, and not escalate his arousal and excitement.  Don’t shout any commands or corrections and don’t get into a wrestling match trying to harness him up.  And don’t give him any reinforcement such as bribes for allowing you to harness him:  Remember, you want to lower his stress level and prepare him for life in a home.  Try waiting him out:  Simply stand with your hands, leash and harness out of his reach and do not react to him at all until he calms down enough for you to get him ready for his walk.  If that doesn’t work, stop and get someone to assist you by distracting him while you get him harnessed.  Once the harness is on and/or the leash is attached, you can reinforce him with treats or praise.  Over time, this will become routine for him, and his level of excitement will drop.

Lastly, if, when you approach the kennel, he shows any sign of defensive, territorial, or aggressive behavior (teeth showing, low growls, lunging, warning barks), then don’t enter.  This should be reported to the shelter staff, and they may want to evaluate his behavior before having him up for adoption.  On the other hand, it may only be a matter of having you introduced to the dog by a person he trusts.  In one case, I had the opportunity to handle a dog with sever anxiety issues.  The first time I walked up to the kennel, he had an extremely territorial reaction – it looked like he was auditioning for CUJO.  But when he saw me reaching for the door lock, his whole demeanor changed, and he accepted me as one of the good guys.   But it’s a matter of having the shelter staff and behaviorists involved.

In all cases, when leashing a shelter dog do not – repeat not – stand in front of them and bend over them.  To a dog, this is an extremely threatening posture and can provoke a fear-based reaction.  My preferred method is to put myself alongside the dog, facing in the same direction that he is and have all contact with him as low on his body as possible without ever reaching over his head.  Kneel down and make yourself as small as you can while still being able to stop and stand up easily if he becomes over-excited and you need to stop contact and give him a time-out.

Next, we’ll talk about behavior on walking and socialization.

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