This Alliance May Sound Simple, but It's Got a Stellar Life Saving Success Rate

Story at-a-glance -

  • A school that teaches obedience and nose work for dogs is making a big difference for homeless dogs in Calhoun County, Alabama
  • The Encore Enrichment Center collects dogs from two local shelters each morning and brings them to the center to work with them to improve their behavior, which makes them more adoptable
  • Since the Center’s recent opening, they’ve helped over half the shelter dogs they’ve worked with find forever homes
  • Another wonderful program sponsored by the Humane Society of Missouri trains youngsters to read books to shy shelter dogs
  • One of the goals of the Shelter Buddies Reading Program is to help shy dogs get comfortable approaching the front of their kennels, which increases their chance of being adopted

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

In Calhoun County Alabama’s overfull animal shelters, sadly, many homeless dogs don’t make it out alive. Thankfully, a retired couple, Julie and Tom Madden, decided they wanted to change the situation. Initially the Maddens planned to start a K9 nose work school. However, their plan eventually morphed into the Encore Enrichment Center for Shelter Dogs, a school that helps homeless dogs learn behaviors that improve their chances for adoption.

The Center Is Filling a Very Important Void for Homeless Dogs

Each morning Monday through Thursday, volunteers with Encore pick up four dogs from the Calhoun County Humane Society and the League for Animal Welfare and bring them to the center. The dogs are then evaluated for potential problem behaviors such as fearfulness, leash pulling, jumping and nipping.

Based on their observations, the Maddens and their volunteers develop a plan for each dog and work with them to reduce or extinguish undesirable behaviors. Each afternoon the dogs are loaded back into the Encore transport van and returned to the shelter for the night.

"There's a lot of really great dogs at the shelter,” says Julie, “and they have some behavioral problems that can be managed and reversed pretty easily, if someone has the time and the space to work with them to do that."1

The two shelters Encore works with are short on space and always full. Shelter staff and volunteers have all they can do to keep up with their daily chores, and there’s no time available to work on behaviors with the dogs. Sadly, like so many shelters across the U.S., Calhoun County’s are full of pit bulls and bully mixes who often must overcome not only behavior challenges, but also breed stereotypes.

Fact: Shelter Dogs With Good Behavior Get Adopted

The Maddens and Encore volunteers help the dogs learn new behaviors to replace negative habits that can prevent prospective adopters from giving them a second look. For example, if a dog starts jumping all over people the second his kennel door is opened, or if when leashed he pulls and yanks and tugs, he won’t be a big hit with prospective pet parents.

“But if the dog will sit on command, shake hands, walk nicely on a leash and maybe seems to be great meeting other people, we're hoping that would make the dog easier to get adopted," Julie explains.

The Maddens are definitely doing something right at their newly opened Encore Enrichment Center, because well over half the dogs they’ve worked with so far have found forever homes. The Center also offers obedience, behavior and K9 nose work classes to the public, and a portion of every class fee goes to the Center’s shelter dogs program.

Another Ingenious Program Specifically for Shy Shelter Dogs

Believe it or not, many shy, frightened shelter dogs respond positively when someone reads to them, and this discovery has inspired reading programs in several animal shelters in the U.S. Most of the programs are designed for children who want to help homeless pets and hone their reading skills at the same time.

One such effort was undertaken by the Humane Society of Missouri (HSMO), which sponsors the Shelter Buddies Reading Program. It’s a brilliantly simple concept. Kids ages 5 to 15 receive training and then volunteer to sit next to shelter kennels and read to the dogs inside.

Shelter Buddies was actually conceived as a result of an HSMO-sponsored summer camp called “Kids for Critters.” For a week during the summer, local students learn how to be responsible pet guardians. They also learn about animal welfare issues and the humane treatment of animals.

Attending critter camp inspired many of the kids to look for more opportunities to help homeless pets, and soon the Shelter Buddies Reading Program was born. As JoEllyn Klepacki, HSMO’s assistant director of education explained to

“The children get to practice and hone their reading skills, while helping scared shelter dogs come out of their shells. It’s the most amazing win-win situation — and watching it unfold has been really something.”2

Youngsters Learn the Right Way to Interact With Shy Dogs

Interested children first attend a 90-minute training session at the HMSO shelter. During the session, they are walked through the kennel areas where the dogs are housed.

“Next, we take the kids to a classroom area, ask them to close their eyes,” says Klepacki, “and invite them to imagine what it’s actually like to be one of the shelter dogs. We ask, what do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell?”

The youngsters seem to have an innate awareness of what the dogs are likely experiencing in their kennels. They mention being able to hear the barking and whimpering of other dogs, and smelling shelter odors like urine and cleaning chemicals.

“One student actually said he could envision smelling the fear of all the other dogs,” said Klepacki. “This exercise is especially crucial because it helps students to empathize and experience things from the dog’s perspective.”

The kids also watch a presentation that teaches them about canine body language and how dogs look when they’re stressed. They also learn how to approach the dogs in a non-aggressive, non-threatening manner. The reason the children must sit outside the kennels instead of inside with the dogs is also explained to them. Since they’ll be dealing with traumatized dogs, their presence inside the kennel could potentially terrify an animal, posing a danger to both child and dog.

“Our goal is to give these dogs a choice,” says Klepacki, “in an environment where so many things are beyond their control.”

The children also learn why they need to sit sideways next to the kennels when reading to the dogs. It’s because facing a dog, standing over her or making eye contact can be taken as signs of dominance or aggression by the dog. The kids learn to simply be present with the dogs rather than forcing interaction with them.

Finally, the young volunteers are taught to use calm, low “library voices” while reading and making conversation around the dogs. They also learn to look down at the book rather than directly at the dog. If a dog responds positively to a child, the child is instructed to offer treats through a special tube to praise and reward the dog’s interactive behavior.

Program Results Are Very Encouraging

According to Klepacki, the results of the Shelter Buddies program are inspiring:

“We have photo after photo of dogs who were cowering in the back of their kennels — scared, withdrawn, hunched over and tail tucked. As these kids read to them, you can actually see a gradual transformation taking place.

Frightened dogs begin to turn around and face forward. Some stretch out and relax. Many eventually move toward the children. Everything is on the dog’s terms. In so many ways, you can witness the connection being made. You can just see the dogs responding to those kids.”

Shelter Buddies appears to be a smashing success with the young readers as well. Up to 25 kids attend each training session, and volunteers can read for up to two hours per visit. Many children sign up for several sessions each week.

When a child who has graduated from the training arrives at the shelter to read, he or she signs in at the check-in area, receives an official volunteer name badge, and selects a book. The kids also receive a bookmark that lists common canine stress signals. The bookmark reminds them what to look for in choosing a dog to read to.

Along with shy dogs, the youngsters are also encouraged to seek out dogs that seem anxious or agitated, since reading can be soothing to them, as well. A child can also choose to read to a dog she’s read to in the past.

An adult family member must drive each young volunteer to and from visits to the shelter, and if they choose, they can wait in the lobby while their child reads to a dog. Parental involvement is crucial — it sends a message to a child that what he or she is doing is important.

“As a result,” says Klepacki, “we have kids eagerly showing up multiple times per week, working on their reading skills, even bringing along specific books they think a particular dog might like. Each child who logs 10 combined reading hours earns a Shelter Buddies T-shirt.”

Of course, the real magic happens when a child sees a dog he has read to coming out of his shell. The children feel a sense of accomplishment, which prompts them to keep reading and making a difference in the lives of the dogs.

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