This article describes our training program for shelter dogs. A few years ago, three of us decided to volunteer our training time and skills at the local no kill shelter. We were searching for ways to help people with the process of selecting dogs for adoption. During our search, we found that a somewhat different need emerged: behavioral issues that caused dogs to end up in shelters. To address this need, we established a weekly schedule of visits to the shelter and developed a training plan for the dogs.
Since beginning our volunteer work, we have seen nearly a thousand dogs. Most of these dogs have exhibited a lack of basic training and unruly household manners, including jumping up on people, barking unnecessarily, and pulling on the leash. The result was that these dogs were overlooked for adoption. Certain dogs were adopted only to be returned when the family determined that the dog’s behavior was not acceptable. Other dogs showed characteristics such as being overly shy or fearful that led to problems in a home setting. A few had significant issues that needed to be addressed before considering placement.
We decided to begin training basic obedience behaviors and household manners to the dogs. In interviews and discussions with new pet owners and potential adoptive families, we found that people consistently pointed to a set of behaviors that were important to them. We targeted specific behaviors to train that would potentially increase the adoptability of dogs. The behaviors that we selected can be divided into two general areas: behaviors taught while the dog remains in his kennel, and behaviors taught when the dog is outside of the kennel.
The following list includes those behaviors that we teach while the dog is in his kennel:
1. COME TO THE FRONT OF THE KENNEL. This behavior is important for adoption purposes. A dog that sits or lies at the back of the kennel may be overlooked. When the dog is sitting at the front, people can view him easily. The dog looks friendlier, and appears more interested in his surroundings when he is forward in his kennel. Teaching this behavior gets the dog interested in training and engaged in learning, which improves his attitude and overall behavior.
2. QUIET. Dogs that bark are overlooked since people generally don’t want a dog that is noisy. Be rewarding “quiet” behavior, dogs bark less often. A quiet viewing area is less stressful for dogs and people alike.
3. TOUCH MY HAND. This behavior is the foundation for more advanced behaviors. It is easy for the dogs to initiate; they tend to be curious about our hands. “Touch” gets the dog into position at the front of the kennel when the dog comes forward to sniff our hand. “Touch” provides a first step in establishing a bond between the dog and us.
4. TAKE IT NICELY. Teaching the dog to take treats without touching human skin is one of the first steps in training dogs to inhibit their bite. A dog’s introduction to potential adoptive families is more pleasant when the dog takes treats nicely.
5. SIT. When puppies and young dogs exhibit this behavior people see that they can learn at a very early age. The general public expects that older dogs will sit on cue. People tend to view this behavior as an indication that the puppy or dog is “smart.” Also, sitting is an excellent replacement for jumping on people. Some dogs learned to sit on cue before coming to the shelter. Sit on cue helps to establish communication between the dog and us. When we give the “sit” cue (verbal and/or hand signal), a dog that has been taught the cue will tentatively try the behavior. If we respond with positive reinforcement, the dog becomes interested in training.
6. DOWN and STAND. We teach these behaviors to build the dog’s behavioral repertoire, improve communication with the dog, and keep the dog engaged with us. These two behaviors are beneficial to dogs that are placed in family homes. They provide an avenue by which we can teach cues to the dog when we alternate “down” and “stand” with “sit” and “touch.” “Down” and “stand” have the added benefit of being easy to train while the dog is kenneled.
7. TRICKS. We teach tricks to the dogs by capturing or shaping behaviors that a dog exhibits. Dogs that perform tricks are endearing to people. Teaching tricks to large dogs makes them appear friendlier, especially to children. Examples of easy-to-train tricks include sit pretty (beg), high five (or ten), and take a bow. Learning a trick is fun for dogs, staff, the general public, and for us as trainers.
When taking dogs out of the kennel for a visit with potential adoptive families, we focus on reducing jumping up and pulling on leash. If these behaviors can be minimized or even eliminated, the dog presents a more positive first impression to adopters.
1. FOUR PAWS ON THE GROUND. People searching for a companion dog do not like dogs that jump up. Teaching the dog to keep all four paws on the ground is a positive step towards adoption.
2. WALK ON A LOOSE LEAD. We combine two techniques to teach this behavior: management and training. We use a head collar for management and provide training to teach the dog to walk on a loose lead. Thus, we show people the possibilities for taking mannerly walks with the dog using behaviors on our list. We developed a plan that organizes our training schedule. Each week, we prioritize the training issues that the dogs present to us. Before arriving at the shelter, we review observations from the previous week’s visit and consider which dogs may need extra attention that day. Upon arriving, we assess the needs of the dogs by checking with the shelter supervisor. Individual dogs may need attention because behaviors have changed during the days between our visits. Since some dogs may have been adopted and others may be at offsite adoption events, we discuss dogs which are currently available at the shelter.
We have established a particular order for our sessions that helps to maximize the impact of available training time. Puppies are easy to adopt since they have fewer problems. People are more willing to adopt young puppies without any training than adolescent or adult dogs, even when those dogs have basic training. Therefore, we work with older dogs before working with the puppies. We begin our training sessions by reviewing behaviors with dogs from the previous week that have not been adopted. Next, we work with new dogs that have not been adopted. As time permits, we work with dogs and puppies that have been adopted but have not yet gone home. Throughout our sessions, we work with all dogs on “quiet” kennel behavior.
In the shelter environment, our individual sessions are short; kennel sessions usually last only 5 or 10 minutes per dog. However, each dog receives training and attention from us. To train the dogs, we use positive reinforcement, specifically click and treat. Positive reinforcement consists of food treats (hot dog slices) and attention. To get a desirable behavior, we wait for the behavior to occur (quiet in the kennel), shape the behavior (come to the front of the kennel), or lure the behavior (sit, down, or stand). When luring is used, the food lure is quickly eliminated; usually food is not needed after using lures two or three times in a row. If necessary, negative punishment is used when we withhold the click and treat or withdraw our attention. Negative punishment and ignoring are effective for reducing behaviors like barking.
An individual dog may cause us to change the order in which the behaviors are taught. For example, the dog may already know “sit” as a behavior, so we begin teaching other behaviors. A new dog may need time to adjust to the kennel environment; therefore, we may spend more time working to get the dog to the front of the kennel. To be effective in training, we must assess the dog and adjust our plan quickly to fit the present situation.
Since we began training in the shelter two years ago, we have discovered that perceptions and first impressions are important to people who visit the shelter and to those who are looking to adopt a family dog. We have developed a systematic way to impact adoptability since calm dogs and dogs with basic obedience are adopted more quickly. Our plan combines positive training methods with basic behaviors to dogs and promotes their adoptability. By using the plan outlined in this article, we provide results. While the behaviors of an individual dog may not be the finished obedience product, we provide enough training to showcase the trainability of many dogs that have found their “forever” homes.