This is the full text of an article I wrote for the Greenville News about getting shelter dogs trained to lower the return rate to shelters. The article was published on July 26th in the Greenville News, but due to space constraints, about half the article didn’t make it into the paper. After speaking to trainers and learning that good behavior, and stopping undesirable behaviors could be taught relatively easily and inexpensively, I wrote this article in the hopes that people ready to give up on their dogs, or thinking about adopting a shelter dog, would find this information useful. So, here is the article as originally written, with accompanying photos.
Kelly McComas with Moose at the Greenville Humane Society
Life and death. Dogs in so many animal shelters face this reality on a daily basis as they wait eagerly for their forever homes. A knowledge of basic commands such as sit, stay, no, or come could save a dog’s life. Not only because they might prevent a dog from chewing on something hazardous, or chasing after something and not returning to their owner. This knowledge could also make a dog more appealing to someone looking to adopt from a shelter. And good behavior makes it more likely that a dog won’t be returned to a shelter.
According to the ASPCA, approximately 7.6 million “companion animals” enter animal shelters every year. And approximately 2.7 million shelter animals are adopted every year.
The Greenville Humane Society, one of the largest no-kill shelters in the Southeast, opened their doors in 1937. And in May of 2011, they moved to their new location at 305 Airport Road in Greenville. According to Executive Director Kim Pitman, there was a 25% – 30% return rate at the old building. Their current return rate is now less than 5%. And they do over 5,200 adoptions in one year. They receive approximately 65% of their animals from other shelters, and approximately 35% are owner surrenders. They usually have between 125-140 animals available for adoption, with the daily cost being $10 per day per animal. Puppies are often adopted after being at GHS after only one or two days. Older dogs average between a week and a month to find their forever homes.
Pitman says the most common reasons that owners surrender their animals are: they’re moving somewhere that they can’t take their pets, they’re having a baby and don’t have time for their pet, finances, and behavioral issues. Kelly McComas, GHS Operation Manager, adds that new pet owners often don’t realize that they don’t have enough time for a pet, or that owning a pet is a lot more responsibility than they expected.
According to Pitman, the number one factor in a successful adoption is knowing as much as possible about the animal, and the prospective owner. She likens the counselors’ jobs there as matchmakers. She explained that they try to know as much as possible about the animal upon admission to the shelter – owner surrenders involve filling out a profile sheet. If it isn’t an owner surrender and they have little or no information about the dog, they bring the dog outside, off leash to the courtyard so the counselors and volunteers get a sense of the dog’s personality.
The counselors talk to potential adopters about what they’re looking for. Do they want an energetic dog? Or a lap dog? Big dog or small dog? Are they home a lot? And, if they have other pets, they are encouraged to bring them for a meet and greet. There are also bonding rooms for adopters and pets to get to know each other.
The other big thing they encourage is getting the dog trained. The Humane Society has a partnership with nearby Camp Bob Wow, where new owners get discounted training classes which can include leash behavior, socialization, and general good manners. Taking this step could make the difference between a frustrated owner and a successful adoption.
Patty Honkala is the Training Manager of Behavior Buddies at Camp Bow Wow. Her philosophy is, “Help people, help families live more harmoniously with pets. That keeps dogs out of shelters. Educate people on how their dog thinks – then they can communicate with their dog.” She emphasized that the owner must be consistent and committed to have success. People’s behavior must be modified in order to modify their dog’s behavior.
Patty Honkala with Gracie (adopted as a puppy to a great home) at Camp Bow Wow
Honkala says, “Positive reinforcement training builds a great relationship with the dog and owner. It makes dogs want to do what you’re trying to get them to do.” If she sees more difficult behavior such as aggression, it might be a chemical imbalance and she’ll suggest to the owner to get the dog medically checked.
Most trainers offer different options for working with your dog. These include group, private, or in-home sessions. And it doesn’t have to take very long to see results.
Honkala gave an example of a successful outcome. A mother and daughter moved in together and each had a dog. The dogs didn’t get along. They couldn’t even be in the same room. Honkala diagnosed their issues as fear-based and under-confident aggression by one of the dogs. Through confidence building and positive training including lots of praise and affection, by the second session, the dog initiating the problems began to relax. Honkala taught the owners to read the dogs’ body language. She worked with them on correcting and reinforcing behavior in a positive way. The dogs sleep together now.
Sue Conklin, owner of The Puppy Nanny’s Place in Simpsonville, is also a big believer in positive reinforcement to modify a dog’s behavior. For example, if your dog is barking or lunging at other dogs when on the leash, Conklin says the first step is going on a fact-finding mission. Find out what is setting your dog off, the distance at which your dog is reacting, and then not reacting. This behavior usually comes from a place of fear, not dominance.
Conklin said one of the biggest mistakes people who adopt older dogs make is to assume they are house-trained and chew-trained. She said owners need to start off as if they’ve adopted a puppy. “Good, positive reinforcement training will only make your relationship with your dog better. If you train people to handle their dogs properly, the dogs will fall in line.”
Pitman and McComas couldn’t agree more. They related the story of a dog named Lucy who came to them from a hoarding situation from another shelter. Lucy was shy and terrified when she arrived at GHS. They knew that whoever adopted Lucy would have to be a very special person.
There was a young girl who had severe migraines who was looking for a dog. Pitman said, “She couldn’t keep up in school because she missed so many days. But she wanted an animal she would have to take care of, instead of someone always taking care of her.”
So the young girl met scared little Lucy and they hit it off, and Lucy got a forever home, and the young girl got a loving and faithful companion. The girl studied how to train her dog. Soon the rescue with little hope also learned to do tricks and dance. She has now become a therapy dog. The young girl is all grown up, and is now in school to be a vet tech. And Lucy sleeps with her girl in a real bed every night.
Copyright Nancy Machlis Rechtman, all rights reserved