By Emily Strong
When we talk about being able to accurately identify behaviors in order to be more effective at addressing them – and then, as a result, successfully adopting out the dog into a permanent home – you may not have a clear picture of what that looks like. It may sound daunting or scary. You may be thinking, “Oh great, now we have to have behavior professionals on staff. We can’t afford that!”
The good news is, that often isn’t the case. Allie and I have often found that the solutions for seemingly insurmountable obstacles to adoptability can be quite simple and elegant–something that caregivers and/or volunteers can easily implement. Here are just a few of our favorite examples from our years of working with shelters:
Kyla was a red border collie who was admitted to the organization where she lived because she had multiple, severe stereotypies (that is, functionless repetitive behaviors): primarily, licking the walls for hours on end until her entire chest was soaked, and chasing lights and shadows until she collapsed from exhaustion. Surprising to no one, adopters never showed any interest in her. The organization already had her on an anti-anxiety medication and had a training plan in place, but her progress was painfully slow. Emily suggested trying play Nose Work games with her, wherein she learned how to find scents hidden in containers scattered around a space. In the first session, Kyla could only do one round of nose work before she got too distracted by light chasing. The staff and volunteer doing to the nose work seemed a little discouraged by this, but Emily encouraged them to bring her back for more. Her second session, she was able to do two rounds. In her third session, she could do all three rounds. Kyla got a 15 minute session of nose work three times a week and started improving rapidly. She was able to rest on her own. She started playing with toys, and seeking affection from people. She could focus long enough for the staff and volunteers to do the training plan with her. Two months after starting nose work, Kyla had improved so much that a family fell in love with her and adopted her. Emily stayed in touch with the family and discovered that as long as they did 15 minutes of nose work three times a week, Kyla could rest, focus, and live a good life.
Phil was a little mixed breed dog that Allie was called in to consult on because he wouldn’t leave his run. Any time anyone tried to bring him out for a walk or to meet potential adopters, he just froze and shut down, lying pancaked on the ground. Allie taught the staff to play the Yo-Yo Game with Phil: she tossed a lower value treat behind him in the run, but dropped a high value treat just at the threshold. Then she’d toss a lower value treat back into the run again, and this time a higher value treat just past the threshold. She continued to play this game with him, gradually increasing the distance Phil had to move away from his run in order to get the high value treat. Within a few minutes, he was happily leaving his run. The staff had to do this with him a few more times so that he learned that the game applied to everyone, then he was able to go out and enjoy life in the world, where his adopters met and fell in love with him.
Princess was an adorable Pit mix who was white with blue spots and built like a baby hippo. Overall, she was the loviest cuddlebug on earth who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but she had one bad habit that was terrorizing staff, volunteers, and potential adopters alike. She didn’t want people to leave her in her run, so she would grab their feet when they were leaving her run. Understandably, many people thought she was trying to bite them, that she was being “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, unpredictable and scary. When Emily saw the behavior and understood what was really going on, she recommended teaching Princess the Find It Game. Whenever Emily opened the gate, she’d say “Find It!’ then toss a couple of treats to the back of the run. When Princess ran to the back of the run, Emily would enter the run. She’d play with Princess for a couple of minutes, then when she was ready to leave she said “Find It!” again and tossed a couple of treats to the back of the run again. When Princess ran back to get the treats, Emily left the run. Once the staff and volunteers knew how to play this game with Princess, everyone used this simple game to get Princess in and out of her run safely. Within a few days, Princess learned the game so well that she would run to the back of her run as soon as she saw people approaching. Now that no one thought she was a dangerous dog, she was soon snatched up by an adopter who fell in love with her irresistible squishy face.
For more quick tips and tricks to help address simple behavior problems in a shelter setting, read this article I wrote for the IAABC Journal: http://spring2017.iaabcjournal.org/common-behavior-issues-shelters/
This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s exciting to know that sometimes the animals that seem the least adoptable just need a simple little tweak to their routine or environment!