By Tabitha Davies
Shelter is defined as a place to rest, a place for comfort and a place for safety. But with 3.9 million dogs entering shelters and an average of 1.2 million of them being euthanized each year (Source: ASPCA), this is sadly not the case for many dogs in US shelters. Life in the shelters in Coachella, CA, where I am based, means a concrete floor with drains, full access to food, water, and, only if you are without behavior problems, a blanket, bed and toy. It also means seven days of life in confinement and being surrounded by 100+ other dogs with limited, if any, time out of your kennel. Almost all of the large breed dogs at the Coachella Valley Animal Campus (CVAC) stay in their kennels without being walked and risk euthanasia for what is labeled “cage rage.”
So what can we do to try to change the cycle? In actual fact, there are a number of ways to help improve adoption rates in local shelters. The most under-utilized method, in my opinion, is that of training. Unfortunately, many of those that do have rescue training programs do not use force-free training methods. For example, I know of a local humane society that uses those old-fashioned, aversive techniques commonly seen on television, as well as prong collars on rescue dogs to “train” them and “prepare” them for their forever homes. This, as many seasoned trainers know, is not the best way to build a dog’s self-esteem and trust.
On the other hand, some organizations may be resistant to implementing a training program. Concerns of liability, wasted time and resources, or the thought that force-free methods cannot procure the same results are common. It took me some effort, concrete material, and, honestly, just being a bit pushy to get my foot in the door at my local county shelter. It culminated with my partnering up with Advancing the Interests of Animals, a human education and animal welfare organization that works to educate owners and consequently improve the lives of pets in the home. I have since developed relationships with a local non-profit rescue and a no-kill coalition for our county shelter. I went in blindly, I had all of the information, the skills and the training experience as far as working with dogs was concerned, but none of the experience working with a shelter.
The biggest task getting started is presenting the information to the shelter in a way that is short, to the point and gives them every reason to say yes. The sad realities are that your shelter director is stressed on budgets and deadlines, lacks the time to read through multiple documents and may not even be the kind to truly care (although, fortunately, most I have met do care).
When you are putting this information together for the shelter to convince them to not only ask you to come in, but to get them fully on board, you may want to include non-common knowledge information. The director does not want to see statistics on how many dogs are euthanized each year, how many are preventable owner surrenders etc. What they do want to see is how a training program can empty their shelter and increase adoptions without costing them extra money or time. They also want to see statistics on how force-free training can benefit their dogs with temperament concerns. It can be a good idea to offer to conduct a case study with a particular dog within a set timeframe to show them how well positive, communicative, training works.
That being said, unless you are truly willing to donate your time, make sure you go in fully prepared with your training program specifics, complete with an outline of costs. Who will do the marketing for your classes? Who will be responsible for scheduling classes? What percentage will go toward the shelter? Who is responsible for providing supplies, waivers etc. Be open to negotiations that you are comfortable with. Remember that the shelter wants some benefit from you offering classes as much as you want to make income while also working on lowering the rate of euthanized dogs.
Keep your information to the point and ensure that it does not go beyond one page. Call your shelter and find out when the director is available and see if you can schedule an appointment. Email your information ahead of time if you can. If the director cannot make an appointment with you, go during the hours when he/she is there and ask to see him/her or the head of their temperament testing or volunteer department. Give information on your training as well as information on your credentials, education and experience.
The most important step to getting in the door is following up. Everyone is busy and, while the director may mean to call you back, he/she may have to prioritize other things. Just like a job interview, follow up after a week or so. Keep the lines of communication open and easy. Make sure the knowledge of you and all you have to offer stays at the forefront of their mind.
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2015, pp.44-46. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
ASPCA Pet Statistics: www.aspca.org/about-us/faq/pet-statistics
About the Author
Tabitha Davies CPDT is a dog trainer and canine behavior specialist with 12 years training and rescue experience. She is an AKC CGC evaluator, founder and owner of the Coachella Valley Dog Club (CVDC), www.cvdogclub.com, in California, and is partnered with the Coachella Pet Rescue Center,
www.CoachellaPetRescueCenter.org, and Advancing the Interests of Animals, www.AIAnimals.org. She is also a volunteer behavior specialist for the No-Kill Coachella Valley Coalition to implement programs at The Coachella Valley Animal Campus (CVAC), a local shelter.