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Shelter Dog Training

People who shy away from animal adoption often cite worries about behavioral and training issues as reasons. They believe animals in the shelter are there for behavioral issues that can’t be helped. Unfortunately, this misconception results in the euthanasia of many perfectly healthy animals that could be trained to be wonderful pets. Not all animals in the shelter have behavioral problems—some do, but not every single one. Many rescues and shelters now make training part of their standard procedure for preparing dogs for adoption, whether they have behavioral issues or not. Broadway Barks reached out to the experts to get the facts on training shelter dogs.

Training to Survive

More and more shelters are incorporating basic obedience training into their adoption protocols. Some shelters go as far as ensuring that dogs complete a training program and can obey basic commands before they are available for adoption. This is labor intensive for the shelter and volunteers, but it increases the likelihood of adoption and decreases the likelihood that the animal will be returned. Shelters that recognize the value of training but are unable to provide it before adoption, either due to financial resources or time and space constraints, often offer training sessions for free after adoption or provide discounted training sessions with a partner organization. Vinny Spinola of BARC Shelter in Brooklyn, New York, says his shelter strives to do both: “We do have a program that we offer to adopters who adopt a dog, and we work with the dogs prior to them leaving the shelter.”

Training prior to adoption can be especially important for stray animals or breeding dogs that have never lived in a home before. According to a study conducted by Andrew Urs Luescher and Robert Tyson Medlock titled, “The effects of training and environmental alterations on adoption success of shelter dogs,” which appeared in the February 2009 edition of the Applied Animal Behaviour Science journal, dogs who received 20 minutes of basic training a day from volunteer trainers were adopted 50% more often than dogs that did not receive training. Training as basic as wearing a leash and collar, sitting, and not jumping up on people was enough to increase the chances of a dog being adopted. Bill Smith of 1 Love 4 Animals explains, “Like children, young dogs need boundaries, structure, and positive reinforcement. Training is the guardrail that keeps a rescue dog on the road to their forever home!”

Training to Live

Best Friends Animal Society in Utah maintains an indoor training facility for shelter dogs called Tara’s Run. The facility specializes in training dogs that have never lived in a home and have not received much social interaction. These dogs learn how to walk through doorways, go up and down stairs, and walk on a variety of surfaces, which helps put them at ease and aids in their transition into a family home. Just the fact that a place like Tara’s Run exists proves that expert animal rescuers and volunteers know that it’s never too late to teach a dog new behaviors. If dogs past a certain age could no longer learn, then why would so many rescues and shelters invest in training them? In fact, many experts say that adult and senior dogs often learn faster and are easier to train because they are calmer and better able to focus for longer periods of time.

Once adopted, shelter dogs can and should begin training with their new handler or family as soon as possible. Training helps the dog bond with his new family and become more comfortable in his new home, builds the confidence he may have lost while in the shelter, and gives him the consistency needed to become a well-adjusted and well-behaved pet. Many shelters know training right after adoption is imperative so they offer free or discounted training to adopters as part of their adoption contract. Even if you know the dog you adopted lived in a home before, assume that he has no training, and begin setting the boundaries for your home on day one. If training or setting boundaries for your pet is delayed it can still be achieved, but you risk allowing your new pet to get settled into some bad behaviors. Getting your new dog on a schedule right away is also important. When a dog has a regular routine for eating, walking, playing, and sleeping he will feel stable and have an easier time adjusting.

Training to Serve

You may think of a German shepherd or Labrador retriever when you think of a trained service dog, but purebred dogs aren’t the only ones who can serve. The organization Paws With A Cause says that 1 in 12 shelter dogs that have been “temperament screened” over the past 25 years have gone on to complete their training program to become working service dogs! That might seem like a low number, but if the statistics from Paws With A Cause translated to the current population of 4 million dogs in shelters, that would mean that roughly 332,000 potential service dogs are sitting in shelters today! Many dogs are relinquished because they are too active, and in many cases this can be solved through exercise and having a job. Service dogs provide a wide variety of benefits to people, including mobility assistance, performing everyday tasks like turning on and off lights, summoning help, alerting to medical issues like seizures or diabetes, providing comfort, and so much more.

Thousands of potential service dogs are currently in rescues and shelters. Photo Credit: mares

Pawsitivity Service Dogs rescues “second chance” adult dogs and trains them as service dogs for people with disabilities such as Autism, PTSD, and Epilepsy. Pawsitivity also offers the Nama-stay (a play on the Hindu greeting ‘Namaste’, meaning “I bow to the divine in you.”) program, which is the first mindfulness program offered by a service dog organization in the U.S. This innovative program trains Psychiatric service dogs for children and adults and has improved the lives of people who suffer from severe depression, anxiety, phobias, and panic attacks. Psychiatric dogs work by shielding, bridging, excusing, calming, proxying and safeguarding their handlers. The dogs also learn to remind the handler to take medication and perform daily tasks, maintain a regular sleep/wake schedule, provide a buffer in crowds, and provide tactile stimulation to aid the handler during a panic attack. These advanced tasks benefit the handler through increases in self-esteem, independence, security, and socialization. And while Pawsitivity rescues the dogs, the dogs are also saving their handlers in more ways than one. According to Pawsitivity’s statistics, money spent on raising and training a service dog yields a 237% return in healthcare savings!

Service-dog-in-training Lexi with her handler, Frannie. Photo Credit: Pawsitivity Service Dogs

The Animal Farm Foundation also gives homeless dogs a chance to find forever homes and jobs as service dogs. Their service dog program rescues pit bulls and pit-bull-type dogs and trains them to assist their owners as hearing dogs, mobility-assistance dogs, comfort dogs, and more. These dogs complete tasks such as bracing and balance, opening and closing doors, retrieving items, pulling wheelchairs, blocking, pressure therapy, and interrupting panic attacks, which vastly improves the lives of the humans they serve.

Merlin’s Kids is a New Jersey-based organization that rescues and rehabilitates shelter dogs and trains them as service dogs for children. Once trained, the dogs are placed with people who have autism, PTSD, or other special needs. Their dogs are also trained to detect diseases, provide comfort for victims of violence and abuse when they testify in court, and give support to patients in hospitals or residential facilities. As their website states, “…the dogs save the kids and the kids save the dogs; it’s a match made in heaven!” The training is lengthy and rigorous, taking one to two years to complete. As you can imagine, two years of training is expensive and can cost thousands of dollars. Organizations like Merlin’s Kids rely extensively on donations, and families seeking a service dog also raise money to contribute to the care and training of these special dogs.

So just remember, if you are thinking of adopting a pet, don’t assume that all shelter dogs have behavioral issues or can’t be trained. It’s clear that shelters are filled with animals who have gotten a bad rap and just need a little structure, exercise, training, and love to help them become wonderful pets.

Further Reading

Organizations to Know

Contributed by Charlene Sloan

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