Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some of my observations on how to work with dogs while they are living in shelters

This is just my list of do's, don'ts, and approaches I have come to after spending years helping shelter dogs. I have incorporated much of the info into my stories on the individual dogs, which I'm still trying to figure out how to edit and publish . I thought my observations and list of what I do and don't do might be of interest to other people who want to help the shelter dogs. I'll probably add to the list over time, but these are a few things that come to mind, not in any way a complete list. If anyone has any other bits of information to add, please feel free to comment or contact me. Learning and helping the dogs, and people who work with them is my main objective

This is Hunny the deaf lab that's been at the shelter since May. I had talked about her before but misspelled her name before assuming it was Honey, but I'll leave the topic of shelter dog names, for another blog post. I always hold the leash in my hand this way( I bring my thumb back into my fist), not putting my hand all the way through the loop which seems dangerous to me. It's easy to release the leash this way if it's a matter of releasing a dog or breaking my arm. I have broken my hand before while foolishly riding my bike while walking my Labrador Retriever, despite my husband's warnings, so I am a bit cautious.

I train the dogs to voice commands as well as hand signals from the start i.e. I say" this way" and tug on the leash for a change in direction. I say "wait", "stay", "sit","come" etc.., and give appropriate hand signals. That way if a dog accidentally pulls the leash out of my hands I can usually control them with my voice, at least long enough to catch them.

I usually ask the shelter staff for info on a particular dog, and then I try and assess the dog before walking it.I stand on the other side of the fence/gate and view the dog, talking to him or her and seeing what kind of response I get. I am conscious of my limitations and skills and will avoid a dog that is beyond my ability to control it in public.

I usually stop and lovingly pet and try and make some kind of bonding contact with a dog as soon as I get it out of the shelter and away from all the noise. I do this repeatedly for more normal dogs, it helps to establish a bond and connection and they are less likely to pull if they have made some kind of acknowledging contact with the person at the other end of the leash. It helps to calm them a bit.

If I have a dog that is just way too rambunctious and intent on pulling and pulling and I am on the verge of losing control, I run them in a circle- I stand in one place and direct their energy around in a circle. It gives a few minutes to regain control and tire the dog somewhat.

With big unruly dogs, I like to use a large link, "Barbara Woodhouse (English dog trainer) style," choke chain. The weight on the back of their necks is somewhat of a natural subduing gesture, and the sound of the jerk startles them and gets their attention, it's not used to choke them.

On smaller wound up dogs, I usually try a" Haltie" or "Martingale" collar if it's available, it's a humane way to get a dog under control. I've had a few large rambunctious dogs destroy them and escape so I'm more cautious with bigger, rowdy dogs. At times I have purchased my own equipment and keep it in my car, just so I have the right equipment for particular dogs I'm walking. There always seems to be an assortment of leashes and collars at our shelter and some disappear and reappear months later in different places with so many volunteers, so at times it's better to have my own favorite pieces of equipment that I keep under my own control.

For shy sensitive, abused dogs, I am very low key and non intrusive with them. I don't do my usual high pitched happy dog talk as it can scare them. I usually just act calm and let them come to me and sniff me and interact with me on their own time. I can usually give a trial, semi- happy talk, greeting, and see if the dog responds positively or becomes scared. If they get scared, then I back off. If they get really scared then I slow way down and take much more time just letting them get comfortable with me which might entail just sitting with them for 15 minutes at a time for a few days until they get the courage up to trust and feel comfortable with me. Sometimes food treats work in this scenario sometimes they don't but the most important thing is to observe their response and go slow and not push too hard. Once they have gained my trust I can work with them and the progress usually goes faster after they have accepted me as a friend. In the shelter scenario,- the dogs have been traumatized, ending up in a foreign place that is noisy and scary, so I try and make them feel comfortable and get them to see me as a trustworthy ally, not a trainer simply forcing a response.

I always check the collars, and leashes before I go out with a dog, sometimes collars can be way to loose and a dog can back out of the collar- I had a dog escape downtown this way, but luckily got her back unharmed. I have also seen dogs whose collars were too tight because they had put on weight after they had been fed properly. I also check to see that the leash is strong enough and in good working order for the dog I intend to walk- i.e. it's not seriously frayed so it could snap or break if pulled too hard.

I usually go into the kennel and put the leash on while the kennel door is shut, unless I'm confident I can slip a leash on quickly in the hallway. The main thing I try and avoid is having stressed shelter dogs come in contact with each other in close quarters.

I always try and make sure that gates to the outside are shut before I take a dog out of a kennel. I try and make sure that there are not two shelter dogs in close quarters, together as problems could arise. I let the other people and dogs go out then I go with the dog. I try and keep the dogs on a short leash while walking past the other dogs behind fences, and I try not to linger as tails and barking mouths can align in close quarters

I wear "play clothes" as I will inevitably get a few muddy paws on the front or back of my clothes. I wear comfortable walking shoes as I usually walk for an hour or more.I have actually seen people show up in flip flops! I bring a "belly bag / fanny pack"-pocketbook that closes around the waist. I take my wallet, cell phone, pooper scooper plastic bags, hand sanitizer, tissues, band-aids, the business card of the Humane Society- in case someone falls in love with the dog I'm walking and wants the phone number of the shelter to call them. Since I usually walk the dogs around town, I also ask the age of the dog and some background info on the dog in case anyone stops and asks me questions about the dog.

I try not to exchange bodily fluids with the dogs, that is I don't let them lick my face if I can help it. There is however, the occasional "stolen kiss." I'm real big on "air kisses" and conveying love and care through my hands, and happy talk voice

I used to spend quite a bit of money on treats for the dogs. After a while, I decided to just try love, attention, praise, and fun walks. I found that the dogs were just so happy being out walking around and having some positive attention that I really didn't need to use food treats to get them to respond to commands. I guess financial necessity can be the mother of creative training invention!

Some dogs need to be cheered up and respond well to happy talk, some dogs, hunting breeds in particular, are already excited and I've noticed, can be over wound with too much happy talk. Some scared dogs benefit from calm, direct, low key energy. I usually try and assess what is going on by observation and adjust my approach accordingly

When I am done with walking the shelter dogs, I make sure that there is drinking water in the dog's kennel. I return all the equipment to it's correct place and report any useful info on the dog to the staff i.e.- he chases cats, or squirrels, he's a lovely dog and responds well and is easy to walk, the dog is startled by .., Sometimes the staff is interested to get information on the dogs in order to help the people interested in adopting the dog have a good idea of what the dog is like. I try and be useful without overly burdening the hardworking staff with all my insights. The staff members also seem to have different insights and info on the dogs and are often the first ones to bond with the dogs, because they are providing warm safe housing, humane treatment, and feeding them regularly. This kind treatment is often better than the treatment many of the dogs have been previously used to and they are very appreciative of the efforts on their behalf.

I am always careful to remove the Woodhouse style(choke chain) from the dog as it could get caught on something in the kennel and injure the dog- Never leave a choke style chain on an unattended dog

When I am completely done I wash my hands before leaving

Well, these are just a few thoughts that came to mind. I will try and add to the list from time to time.

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