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12 March 2009

Just call me the dog whisperer

I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive. ~Gilda Radner
In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn't merely try to train him to be semi human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog. ~Edward Hoagland

So, this last weekend, I went to the animal shelter to volunteer with the dogs. It's been a long time since I've been there as I spent the latter part of the summer looking for a new job, interviewing my ass off, and then getting settled in my new job. So it was so good to be back there with the dogs on Saturday.

I spent the first two hours at the shelter in a refresher course on how to work with the dogs. We are the only shelter in Oregon that uses the Open Paws program with the dogs. Most shelters have the goal of getting the dogs adopted as soon as possible with little to no attention to their table manners. Many of these dogs are soon returned to the shelter because their new owners 'can't handle' them. So this Open Paws program, teaches shelter staff and volunteers how to quietly train the dogs to get used to humans coming by their cage, entering their cage, and harnessing them up for a potty walk - all of this is to be accomplished without the dog barking. The dog is to watch your eyes, sit quietly and wait for you to give a silent command. Easy right?

Think again. A shelter is the best and the worst place for a dog. I say the best place because the dog is no longer wandering the streets and has a warm bed with food, water and veterinary care. But it's also the worst place to be as there is a lot of noise, new people, new dogs and none of the comforts from their previous home. Many dogs get shelter shock. They bark incessantly, anxiety levels rise, they stop eating and they go potty in their cages (which by the way, do have a small opening that leads to an outside pen). This behavior causes them to become 'unadoptable'. Think of it this way - you are ready to get a dog and you want to get a dog from the shelter. However as you are perusing the dog pens and checking out the dogs, you pass quickly by those pens where the dog is jumping up and down and barking loudly. Hmmm, definitely you are not going to adopt that dog. It is not 'behaving' like a dog should. Intead you are drawn to the dog who is sitting quietly in his pen, wagging his tail and sitting. So this is the intent of the training program - to teach all of our dogs to be adoptable.

So I start my rounds down the line of pens. I make my way to each dog. I stand in front of the dogs pen and watch silently. If the dog barks, I turn away. Once the dog is sitting quietly, I give it a treat. I walk away and then come back. I do the same thing again. Once the dog has mastered this, we move on to me reaching for the cage door handle, then opening the cage, then going in, the harnessing the dog, then unharnessing the dog. Each of these steps is done at least 15 times before moving on to the next step. It takes a long time. But I make good progress with most of the dogs. Today we focused on the first two steps only. However, every day volunteers work with these dogs. And every day, they get a step further. And then the dogs anxiety levels decrease and of course, they are better behaved for potential adopters.

The next step of course, is to train the potential adopters. The shelter I work at is hoping to incorporate that soon which soon really increase the potential for the dog staying in it's forever home.

The thing that most people don't realize is their newly adopted shelter dog is not going to be perfect. The first thing that must be done is to enroll the doggie in kindergarten and follow that up with one or two more full training classes. It is worth the investment. You learn how to train your dog and best of all, you begin to bond. Let me tell you, when we enrolled our 12 week old yellow lab in kindergarten, we had NO idea what we were in for. We'd had her for 3 weeks before school started. The first day of class our instructor said 'So, I assume everyone's dog knows how to sit already yes?'. Of course, we blushed a bright red and lied as we shook our heads yes. Crap, we were supposed to teach her to sit? But she's just a puppy. So over the course of the next 7 weeks, we learned every trick in the book, asked a lot of questions and practiced daily. It was not easy. Huckleberry is a smart dog and catches on fast. But she also has a mind of her own. However, as long as we had a full jar of treats and filled our pockets with treats, we always had stuff to bribe her with. Years later, I still find old treats in clothes I haven't worn since. I laugh because it reminds of how hard we worked. One thing I realized though is that besides training her, she trained us. Huckleberry even won 1st place in the kindergarten final. We walked her up to receive her diploma as we cried to the graduating music playing in the background. Luckily, we were experts now so we didn't have to enroll our next two labs in school. We trained them on our own with the same perspectives.

So shelter dogs really are going to need some TLC and a lot of of it because most of the time, we don't really know the history of the dog. But we do know that besides meeting their basic needs, they need you to open your hearts to them, love them fully, and give them training tailored to their needs. While working at the shelter this weekend, I could not help but try to conjure up ways I could take home some of these dogs. Of course, we used to take them home - one at a time - to foster them. But with a household of labs now that is no longer an option. But I did daydream about it - the whole time I was there. I said a little prayer to the spirits for each dog. At least I can do my part by helping to train them. It's better than not doing anything. And believe you me, if I find a way to do it, and I will - we will have us a dog ranch someday where we can take doggies while they are waiting for their forever homes. And we'll even have room to keep those who just are not being adopted and let them live out their lives on our happy dog ranch.

So, really, the best thing about this weekend was I came home from the shelter renewed and reminded of why I go there. I am always willing to help anyone out whenever they need it but when it comes to a dog, I am willing to give it my whole heart.

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