By Darlene Duggan
In the sheltering world, there is a lot of focus on dog behavior and training. Many resources—including staff and volunteer time—are dedicated to both behavior modification and enrichment training. When I first started in the field, I found the extent to which we provide these training resources to be skewed. In my mind, the shelter’s main goal was to get the animals out of their care and into permanent homes as soon as possible. Why focus attention on behavior and training, when those resources could be used to find more homes? After all, they will only be in the shelter’s care for a short period of time and the new adoptive parents could cover the training when they get home, right? Well, it didn’t take long for my ignorant perception to be changed, and I could see the value of the behavior and training.
Behavior problems are one of the primary reasons dogs over the age of one are relinquished to a shelter. Along with “Moving, can’t keep” and “Landlord won’t allow,” you will find relinquishment reasons such as, “Too Rowdy,” “Destructive,” and “Too Noisy.” Although the old adage “One man’s trash is another’s treasure” certainly holds true in the adoption world, many times, if one caregiver was unwilling to put up with behavior problems, chances are the next caregiver will be unwilling to put up with them as well.
So, a shelter finds itself with a decision to make: adopt the animal out (relatively) quickly and take the chance that it will get returned, or invest in some training to better prepare the dog for its next home, but perhaps increase the animals’ stay with your organization in doing so. Quite a catch-22, and a decision shelter managers have to make each day. But, the fact remains, trained dogs are generally not surrendered to shelters, so if the shelter can afford to invest some training resources into these dogs, they will not find their way back to the shelter again.
In researching this issue, the benefits of training go even beyond decreasing return rates. It turns out that training actually increases adoption rates! A study published in February 2009 in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science found that dogs trained in a shelter were adopted 1.5 times more often than dogs not trained in a shelter.
Some progressive shelters have gotten so good at training the shelter dogs, they have expanded to training and behavior modification for already adopted animals. As already mentioned, one of the top reasons a dog is given up to a shelter is because of a behavior problem. What if a shelter trainer could intervene with behavior and training issues before the dog is brought to the shelter? Essentially, this keeps the current caregiver from relinquishing the dog and keeps the family together. A brilliant plan! Some shelters achieve this by offering free or very low-cost group training classes, access to one-on-one training sessions, and even behavior hotlines where anyone can call up the shelter trainer for free behavior advice. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest uses of shelter resources—keeping animals in the homes they already have equals a shelter length of stay of zero!
Behavior and training opportunities at your local shelter are a great way to get involved and make a meaningful impact. There are many dogs that need training, and for some organizations, staff cannot do it alone. Many shelters offer programs that allow volunteers to assist in training the dogs.
Think your love of animals/dogs is more than just a hobby? I have seen many volunteers turn their hobby into a career by starting out with the basic training classes at my local animal shelter and eventually getting official certification in dog training. Contact your local animal shelter for details about their dog training needs, and check out this website for great information about training shelter dogs.
Darlene Duggan worked for many years behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, explores the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry.