Project Dog Program

By Jessica Ackerman, CPDT-KA, Behavior Care Manager

Animal Friends is devoted to finding loving homes for our residents. It is our hope that a dog’s time with us is short term and they find their perfect match. On occasion, we find that some dogs are met with behavioral challenges that make it a challenge to find the right adopter for them. Some behaviors that deter the average adopter include pulling on their leash, reactivity and jumping. Dogs with these behaviors tend to have longer stays. Other dogs become long-term residents because they did not have the best start in life and need time to build confidence and learn to trust people.

Our Lifesaving Operations team decided to evaluate how we can provide these dogs with the support they need to increase their likelihood of being placed in a home. The incredibly talented team of Behavior Care Technicians were tasked with helping these long-term canine residents. This team is primarily responsible for animal care, including feeding and cleaning animal areas, but because the staff interact with the animals every day, they are also encouraged to promote and influence the behavioral well-being of our residents. They not only receive training in animal husbandry, but animal behavior as well.

This is how the Project Dog Program came to be. Under the guidance of the Director of Behavior & Placement, members of the Behavior Care team were asked to select “project dogs” who needed special attention and provide them with individualized training.

To ensure that these dogs were receiving the best training, Animal Friends enrolled these staff members in the online Karen Pryor Training Academy course on the fundamentals of dog training. Karen Pryor is a pioneer in modern dog training and helped popularize clicker training. Her online fundamentals course focuses on the foundations of positive reinforcement training techniques and understanding dog behavior.

Upon completion of the course, project dog trainers were responsible for training their dogs on five key behaviors including clicker training, sit, wait, target and loose leash walking. They also had the opportunity to meet with the professional trainers on staff to discuss their dog’s progress and to assist with behavior modification protocols designed by the Canine Behavior Specialist.

Six of our Behavior Care Technicians have graduated from the Project Dog Program so far and there have been significant improvements seen in the dogs they have worked with. As the program expands, the goal is for every member of the Behavior Care Team to have a project dog and apply the education that they receive through Animal Friends to help our residents become well-mannered future family members. There have already been adoption success stories linked to the Project Dog Program and we hope that with the continued growth of this program, our Behavior Care staff can help every dog who needs extra training find their perfect home.

Mindy and Queen Bee

Mindy is a highly skilled dog handler devoted to the rehabilitation of rescue dogs. Mindy is drawn to the shy and under socialized dogs because she is determined to help them gain confidence and blossom. Mindy is currently working with a shy and fearful dog named Queen Bee. Mindy says she is dedicated to this work because it is so rewarding “to see a dog that once looked at you with anxiety and fear start to look at you with excitement and love. It just pulls all the heart strings for me.”

Megan and Maggie

Megan is deeply passionate about animal welfare and has been integral in improving processes at Animal Friends to help reduce stress for the animal residents. Megan first met her project dog, Maggie, while conducting her behavior evaluation and noted that Maggie was fearful of strangers. Megan’s training focused on getting Maggie to work comfortably in the presence of people on cues like paw and sit. Megan is now working on more complicated training and said she “really liked being able to string cues together, I didn’t think I would be able to get to that point but it’s great to watch it happen.”

Jade and Daisy

Jade is a Behavior Specialist who helped pilot the Project Dog Program and successfully trained two project dogs who went on to find their own loving homes. According to Jade, “the most valuable thing I learned from the Karen Pryor Academy course was how important it is to give your animal the opportunity to make their own decisions and how beneficial it can be for their confidence.”

Sean and Craig

Sean has a strong animal training background, including training service animals. He has been very successful in teaching Craig skills like loose leash walking, sit and touch, and now he is tackling Craig’s discomfort with body handling. Sean found that the most valuable thing he learned from the Karen Pryor Academy course was timing for markers and reinforces and thinks “it’s good that more staff are able to take the training course and get more experience with hands-on dog training.”

Emily and Ramona

Emily is dedicated to developing her skills and knowledge in all aspects of animal welfare. She is also an aspiring veterinary student with an interest in shelter medicine. Emily helped a former puppy mill dog gain the trust and confidence needed to succeed and is now working with Ramona to make sure she thrives as well. She says that her future goal is “to make more solid behavior and training plans for each dog, so that I can begin training more complex behaviors.”

Mira and Clyde

Mira has an extensive background in animal grooming with a focus on fear-free methods. She chose Clyde as her project dog because he would become very excitable on walks and could benefit from clicker training to communicate. Mira is training Clyde to focus on walks and rewards his good behavior with relaxing sniffs around the flowers, time in the Play Yard and even the occasional trip to get some ice cream! She finds that learning the foundational skills of clicker training has improved her communication with animals and appreciates having the educational opportunity because “it creates an atmosphere of compassion and enrichment.”

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