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From Outsider to Staff Favorite

Breanna Norris describes how involving shelter staff in the training of a “difficult” dog can make all the difference

nce a week I work at the local animal shelter, often with a dog that has been deemed “difficult” in some fashion. These so-called difficult dogs are generally long-term residents at the shelter and not the type to be quickly adopted. They are often a source of stress for shelter staff, some of whom may be burdened with compassion fatigue and, thus, less open to dealing with less adoptable dogs, and others who are scared even to let the dogs out of their kennels to walk them. Some staff members worry about finding the right adopter; someone that will not easily return a dog or, worse, treat him poorly. Recently, I have been working with Courage, a pit bull type dog who apparently refused to get into a car, and who showed very poorly on the adoption floor. Shelter staff were concerned that these two issues were contributing to him not being looked at by potential adopters. They asked me if I could help with getting him into a car. I began with some introductory sessions, and then progressed to clicker training Courage for going near a car. By lesson three he was already jumping in the car, which was a bit earlier than I had anticipated. I included the shelter board member, Laura, in Courage’s training. She had become fond of him and wanted to help him become more adoptable. Luckily, Courage seemed to enjoy her company as well so, when he leaped into the car, Laura would be right there in the front seat to deliver the reinforcement. This became a win-win for both of them. I believe Laura’s presence was an added reinforcement for Courage as it meant he got to spend more time with her. Laura, meanwhile, really enjoyed seeing him jump into the car. Soon they started going for rides to McDonalds to get him some chicken

Author Breanna Norris (left) with Courage, whose reactive behavior improved enormously by changing a number of antecedents


BARKS from the Guild/March 2017

Courage was thought to be “difficult” at the shelter because he was reactive around other dogs and refused to get into a car

nuggets. An extra bonus for me during this process has been Laura’s new-found understanding and excitement for training. By including her in the training, she has been able to share her experiences with other board members, shelter staff and volunteers. As a result, many of the shelter staff took time out of their day to watch the training and even assist. Some of these people were the same ones that had previously been nervous about working with Courage. Since our first session together, I had included staff members and encouraged them to make observations on Courage’s behavior. Early on, we noted that he stood on his back tippy toes, stretching to sniff, had a rigid look to his muscles and overall body, tail either very high or tucked, a wide stance, tight mouth, and penis crowning. One staff member noted that he would urinate frequently (six or more times) when out of his kennel, while another noted a furrowed brow. Courage has not bitten or done anything to be deemed aggressive, but he makes staff nervous due to leash reactivity issues and also his appearance. He does not get along with other dogs in the kennels or yard. The worst issue for most staff is, when he is taken out of his kennel on leash he begins thrashing around, often getting the leash tangled around him or catching a worker’s hand in his collar. I could easily have written a list of things I thought staff should do, or change, but the chances seemed slim that they would do it just because I said so. Instead, I brainstormed antecedent arrangements with them that could help address some of the issues and make their work days better. The antecedent arrangements we came up with were many, but here are some of the main ones. First, we would put

BARKS from the Guild March 2017  
BARKS from the Guild March 2017  

The bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, canine, feline, equine, p...