I no longer work at my hometown shelter, but just before I left I spent time with some really awesome dogs. My coworker Kim and I have both been doing lots of training work lately and decided to try and help a few of our shelter dogs. LJ – or Lebron James as we nicknamed him – was one in particular need of our help if he was going to get adoption attention.
When you would take LJ out of his kennel to go for a walk, he would barely spend time on the ground. He was either jumping on you or jumping to grab the leash or jumping to try to get a ball – all not uncommon, yet scary, behaviors in shelter dogs who have too much pent up energy and not enough ways to expend it. Some volunteers and staff tried their best to curb the behavior, but without knowing any better their pushing and saying, “OFF” in a stern tone was actually just reinforcing LJ’s rude behavior.
Kim and I decided to try our hand at getting through to LJ. We went in armed with lots of hot dogs, a few tennis balls, some peanut butter on a stick, a clicker and our best, most positive attitude. So much of working with shelter dogs is management because even the best shelters are tough on dogs and are not practical places to expect a dog to turn into the perfect pup with just a few training sessions.
We started LJ off on the right paw by leading him out of his kennel with a spoon covered in peanut butter. This way, he focused on licking the peanut butter on the way out instead of talking smack to the other dogs or biting his leash. Success #1. When we got out to the yard where it is a bit calmer, we introduced him to the hot dogs. Thankfully, LJ is very food motivated so this helped us catch his attention from the very beginning. Any trick you can find to capture a shelter dog’s attention in such a crazy environment is something you want to stick to and use to your advantage! Again, management is key.
We took LJ off leash and let him run around a bit, careful to not let him get too hyped up. Yes, he needs to expend energy, but getting the zoomies and amping himself up until he is so “stressed up” that he can’t focus on anything is not healthy for him. We want LJ to practice calm behaviors. We did a lot of sits and touches in the run. These two cues are pretty easy for dogs to learn and are a great way to practice focus.
Then we decided to work on his jumping. Even when he is calm, LJ would default to jumping on you. Kim and I decided to make it a game for him. As he would come toward us, ready to jump, at about one foot from us we would click and toss a treat away from us. The first time this happened he skidded on the breaks like he was thinking, “Woah, what was that?!” and went after the treat. We continued this many more times: clicking and treating right when he got to our 12” personal bubble, before he got the opportunity to jump. He thought it was the best thing ever. “I stop in my tracks and I get a treat. Awesome!” Very quickly LJ began to run towards us and stop at our feet, waiting for his reward. We even began to throw in some extra stimuli like us moving more quickly or waving our hands – things that would normally set him off to jump – to slowly raise the criteria. Still no jumping. LJ had gotten it.
In just ten minutes, we had taught LJ an incompatible behavior to jumping up on us. If we continued to work with him, we would practice that behavior for one or two short sessions per day, then move on to practicing it in different areas of the shelter and then with different people. We would manage our expectations and understand that the shelter environment means that LJ might deteriorate a bit between sessions, and that it might take extra practice for him to be able to generalize the behavior in other situations. Continuous practice and repetition, though, would have helped turn the behavior into habit for LJ. But, luckily, we were not able to work with him again because he got adopted! That is the kind of outcome I love, of course.