To train or not to train: basic obedience for shelter dogs

This post at Zoom Room raises the important question of making basic training available to shelter dogs as a way of improving their chances of permanent adoption.

While I know well that resources for obedience training are often lean, what is even more stymieing in many rescue and shelter situations is the constant argument about what kind of positive reinforcement training works best.

Unfortunately, our arguments often have more to do with our egos than with what is best for the animals: when it’s possible to give dogs in shelter some basic, daily obedience training, it helps them find homes (and helps their new families carry on with the obedience training – which is the single thing most likely to keep them in their new homes).

I’ve frequently heard the argument that there just isn’t time in an animal’s short shelter stay to get anywhere with training. While I definitely understand (and have experienced) the very real limits of what can be done with never-enough shelter resources, this idea that nothing can be accomplished with a dog in a few days or a few  weeks doesn’t hold water, in my experience.

The difficult piece is really more a question of figuring out who is going to do what, and how to achieve good, consistent HUMAN behavior: the pooches will generally pick it up right away, as long as we’re consistent.

A dog can be trained, often in minutes, to walk on leash without injuring the person who is walking them, to sit when asked, and to come towards people in a curious and friendly way when they approach the dog’s cage (which is what shelter visitors want to see most).

Some dogs with hard histories may take longer, have bigger hurdles, and genuinely require adoption by a family willing and able to do a higher level of rehabilitation than a more outgoing or social dog is going to need. A majority of shelter pooches, though, respond well and quickly to positive reinforcement – and the other essential thing here is that training makes dogs feel happier and more confident, not upset or scared.

The upset and scared comes from living with tons of noise and stress, erratic and unpredictable situations, physical discomfort, lack of exercise, no clear boundaries, no clear expectations, no idea how to be. Some of that we can’t help. Shelters are loud, uncomfortable, under-resourced and stressful places. The training  piece, though, I really think we can help.

As advocates for dogs, I think we really need to understand basic training techniques and how/why they are not only important, but positive for the dog. I’m always shocked when I hear shelter people say ‘oh, training will just stress him out’ when the most minimal experience with dogs shows that lack of training is what creates stress, while clear mutual expectations create trust, safety, and joy.

Dogs love training, too. It’s fun, happy, focused, one-on-one attention with lots of praise and treats – and that makes a big difference to a shelter dog even if it’s for five minutes a day.

To be specific about one particular thing which can be controversial territory: safe leash walking is a big issue.

A lot of places prefer not to deal with leash-training for any number of reasons. Regardless of those reasons or what may well be good intentions behind the reasoning, the result is that any and every ‘walk’ – whether by staff, volunteers, or most importantly, by potential adopters – is in fact a dangerous drag that is negative for both the dog and the person.

The people get overwhelmed, upset, and sometimes literally hurt – which in turn means the dog’s anxiety is escalated and the result is more pulling, less walking, and more bad interactions between pent-up, pulling dogs and shelter visitors who feel they couldn’t possibly handle such a crazy dog.

Of course, the dog isn’t crazy – but without any training, there is a very real possibility that the person ‘walking’ the shelter pooch is going to get hurt, particularly if the dog is big (and already less likely to be adopted because of that).

A little goes a long way here. A dog who dislocates a visitor’s shoulder isn’t going to be taken home. A dog who pulls some and isn’t perfect but basically knows that s/he is supposed to stay near the person’s side – or even just occasionally makes an effort! – has a much better shot.

Basic training in safe leash walking, ‘sit,’ and ‘come’ will make a huge, huge difference in the dog’s ‘adoptability,’ and all they need is consistency and daily repetition to keep the training in place and growing.

In one afternoon, shelter volunteers can be quickly and effectively trained by a volunteer or staff behaviorist in the simple positive reinforcement techniques needed to achieve safe leash walking, ‘sit,’ and ‘come.’

If there’s a lot of argument about technique, the shelter staff can meet several behaviorists then discuss and agree upon one approach by consensus, or a shelter director can make this decision: anyone working with the dogs can then be expected to follow the technique the shelter feels good about. There really aren’t vast differences between positive reinforcement techniques at such a basic level.

If volunteers aren’t available enough on a daily basis to keep the chosen training reinforcement going, some  shelters have their staff do the repetition as part of the daily activities of maintaining the shelter.

If that’s not possible, there may be a group of behaviorists willing to donate time each week, or a dog-training school nearby whose students can be tapped to do ‘internship’ sort of hours for a shelter, or other creative solutions.

If we think creatively, there is always a way to enable a little bit of training in the shelter and boost the dogs’ chances of adoption.The thing we have to figure out is how to get everyone doing the same thing.

To me, the goal isn’t necessarily perfection (although in my experience, we underestimate how happy, willing, and even relieved dogs are – in even the most stressful situations, and sometimes especially in those situations – to learn and have a ‘job’).

It’s also not a (probably unrealistic) goal of total harmony in terms of full agreement by everyone about what training methods work best for advanced or comprehensive training.

To my mind, the goal is to agree upon and use a simple, clear form of humane, positive reinforcement training to socialize the dog and set some groundwork for two things: first, the positive interaction we hope will happen with shelter visitors considering adoption, and second, the training the adopted family will continue when they bring the dog home.

The goal is just to set them up to succeed.

Have any of you had experience dealing with this to train or not to train issue in a shelter or rescue context? Did you find any creative solutions to the almost inevitable conflicts?

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One response to “To train or not to train: basic obedience for shelter dogs

  1. Pingback: Adoption ethics – beyond the adoption « Gilgablog

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