The Deterioration of a Shelter Dog:
by Sue Sternberg
I can think of very few situations in which to house a dog that are less humane than a shelter. The shelter environment is intensely overstimulating and detrimental to a dog’s long-term behavioral, mental, and emotional health. I have met some long-term shelter dogs (dogs whose stay exceeds two weeks) and “lifers” who have simply lost their ability to calm down.
The Highly Aroused Dog
One of the most disturbing elements of the long-term shelter dog’s environment is the constant, elevated state of arousal. The aroused dog usually has trouble maintaining weight. He is well muscled, however, due to repetitive movements such as spinning, pacing, circling, bounding, and rebounding off the walls of his kennel. His pupils are almost constantly dilated, and he exhibits a furrowed brow and a bug-eyed look. He seems unsettled, jittery, and hyper. He will likely be the dog who barks loudly and rhythmically in excitement.
High arousal is a downward spiral for the shelter dog. The more aroused he gets, the less of an adoptable impression he makes on the public, thereby ensuring a longer (and, hence, more arousing) shelter stay.
Human Interaction and Arousal
When do shelter dogs see and interact with people during their stay at the shelter?
1. At feeding time
2. When the kennels are being cleaned
3. When the dogs are moved into the outdoor space
4. When volunteers come to leash walk the dogs
5. When the public comes to view the dogs
On a scale of 0 to 100-with 0 being brain dead and 100 being so aroused that an aneurysm is imminent-how do each of the above activities rate on the scale of arousal? Each activity rates 110+.
Shelter routines condition a dog to associate the presence of humans with a state of intense arousal. Yet the single best thing we can do to prepare a shelter dog to get adopted is absolutely nothing.
When a volunteer comes to my shelter, my first response is to think of an activity to do with a dog. Out of habit, I suggest a walk or a training exercise. Instead, I should have the volunteer should take the dog out of the kennel run and do absolutely nothing.
Think about it. Most of a dog’s time alongside her owner at home will be spent doing nothing, so that is what a shelter dog needs to learn to do. The most life-saving activity for a long-term shelter dog is a non-activity.
The Nothing Exercise
Go into the kennel area and select a highly aroused dog. Slip a lead on the dog and take her out to any quiet indoor area. If there is no quiet indoor area, a bathroom will do. Give the dog a very specific and limited amount of leash to pull on (three feet is perfect). You should sit, but let the dog pace, wander, stand, whine, bark, or roll over. Ignore the dog completely-do not even make eye contact-and say nothing. Be very specific about the leash length. Do not allow the dog to yank your arm or let out a few more inches of leash. Turn your face away and pull down subtly on the lead if the dog tries to jump toward your face or onto your lap.
At some point-maybe 20 minutes or longer-the dog will lie down, sigh, and settle down. Count off three seconds after she has settled, and then bend down and stroke her down her back, speaking quietly and soothingly as if you were talking to a child in a library. Your touch should be firm and confident, like a one-directional massage.
As soon as you pet her, she will probably break position and become aroused and active again. This is to be expected. Immediately withdraw your attention, stroking, and eye contact. Ignore her, and she will settle back down much more quickly this second time. Once she is settled, begin once more to quietly speak to her and stroke her back.
Even though your inclination may be to ignore the dog when she settles-because, after all, won’t you be ruining the moment of quiet?-remember that the dog is learning how to handle human interaction calmly. If you give her no attention for being aroused, she will quickly learn to maintain her calm mood while you stroke her.
After a few days of these lessons, the dog can be asked to settle down for longer and longer periods of time without attention. Let her settle for a few moments, and then release her for a potty break, a training session, or a walk in the exercise yard.
Be aware of the important role you can play in the life of a long-term shelter dog. Reinforcing her high arousal and overstimulation will get her ignored. Helping her learn to be calm and peaceful will result in dog activities and rewards … and may get her adopted.
Sue Sternberg is a lecturer, shelter owner, trainer, and creator of the infamous “Assess-A-Hand.” She can be reached at Rondout Valley Kennels and Animals for Adoptions, 4628 Route 209, Accord, NY 12404 or at email@example.com.
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