Tucked back in the rolling hills of Dutchess County, New York, Animal Farm Foundation is a not-for-profit group who believes in equality for all dogs. They advocate specifically for “pit bull” dogs – the ones most likely to be discriminated against at this time – but their work goes further than that as they share sheltering best practices that help shelter dogs and the people who work with them. They’ve got a team of knowledgeable trainers who work with their adoptable dogs on the farm or where they’re needed elsewhere, as well as dedicated educators who travel around the country to share the idea of equality for “pit bull” dogs and progressive thinking when it comes to getting dogs adopted.
I just spent a week there for the internship program, and it was a week free of judgements – dog or human, free of breed/gender/history labels, and full of open-mindedness. Every day was packed full of learning about dog behavior, basic training, shelter enrichment, advocating for “pit bull” dogs, and so much more.
Each intern was paired with a shelter dog that they worked with for the week, and many also took their training dogs home with them at night as roommates. My situation was unique, as I was staying in a house with two other girls, so we had one house dog named Birdie. Birdie came from the Spindletop case. She was a bucket of energy, and so stinkin’ cute. At first I was taken aback by her affinity for constant movement, but by the end of the week it became quite endearing. Birdie was actually already adopted, but stayed the week with us to learn some manners.
And manners she learned. Each day we spent time discussing the basics of communicating with and teaching dogs in a positive way that sets them up for success and reinforces desired behaviors. These sessions included clicker training drills and shaping techniques. I never realized how fun and silly training can be until I was getting Birdie to voluntarily put her paws up on a box – an example of shaping. We also practiced having the dogs always sit and give eye contact (offered behavior) before going through a door (reward), and waiting patiently before being allowed to eat from their food bowl. These simple things are expected from the dogs by each staff member, so the dogs learn quickly and soon they don’t even seem like rules – more like no brainer type stuff.
While Birdie was our house guest, I worked every day with a different dog named Amarillo. Amarillo was also a Spindletop dog, and at about seven years old she decided she wasn’t in to all that much but a good butt scratch. While we (okay, mostly I) struggled with the basics like sit and down, Amarillo quickly excelled at leave it, easy tricks, and loose leash walking. I guess a girl’s gotta have some challenge in her life? She was a bit shy of the camera, so this is all I was able to catch of her bat ears.
In addition to the basic training we worked on, the interns also learned about other ways to improve the lives of shelter dogs using enrichment for the different senses. We spent a whole morning constructing enrichment activities, which I will talk more about tomorrow.
For me, one of my favorite parts of the trip was getting to know not only the Animal Farm staff, but also the other interns who came from all over the country to learn about the same things I did. Everyone’s shelter experiences were different, yet many of us had the same difficulties and issues. By the end of the week we were all encouraging each other as we shared how we will use the information from that week moving forward.
It was a very valuable experience for me; one I would recommend to anyone who wants to advance their efforts in helping shelter dogs, especially “pit bull” dogs. If you are interested, you can see more details, including the application process, on the AFF website. If you’ve got questions, feel free to email me with any about the program or what I learned!