Helping Lebron With His Ups

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Tough Truth About Frankie

When I shared Frankie’s handsome face on Friday, I described him as the dog he is at heart: goofy, adorable and loving. Sadly, there is a bit more to the story. Frankie has been in the shelter for six months. That is almost 20% of his entire life. Shelter life is obviously not the ideal situation for any animal, and it takes its toll on each pet in a different way.  For Frankie, it is not going well.

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The staff at his shelter are doing everything they can to keep him happy, including play groups, enrichment activities, extra human time and more exercise. Something is just not clicking with him though. Here is a note written by his biggest fan on the behavior team at the shelter after some friends met him for the first time:

“When you saw Frankie, you probably couldn’t tell too much. Fridays are good for him, he gets a lot of walks and attention. But then the weekend comes and his routine is thrown off. By Monday morning, he is a wreck. It takes a staff member or volunteer at least 30 minutes of snuggle time just to get him to WANT to go on a walk. We take him outside, where he rolls in the grass, and zones out as we give him belly rubs and talk to him softly.

When Frankie is with people, his comfort and joy is palpable. As you saw, he will literally fall asleep in your lap. But without consistent human touch and affection over long periods of time, the stress of the kennels is slowly wearing him down. This is a dog who grew up in a neglect situation. He grew up without any human affection at all. Despite that, he has managed to remain at heart a social dog who enjoys the company of people. However, long periods without human contact cause him great emotional suffering and stress. Instead of shutting down, Frankie is beginning to show other concerning behaviors that show us his emotional breakdown. He will repeatedly jump at the door to his kennel, and has a difficult time settling on his own, even after the longest of walks. This may not seem concerning, but we have learned that these behaviors are the beginnings of stereotypy – repetitive behaviors caused by stress. If this level of stress goes on too long for a kenneled dog, long term effects occur as their brain chemistry will actually change.

Frankie used to relax quite well in his room after walks. Over time though, he is now just as antsy afterward as he is at the start. To help him, we begin and end walking sessions with relaxation time – body massages and belly rubs and snuggles. However, it is clear that Frankie is suffering. You can’t see it on the outside. Every Friday I go home and he is happy and relaxed. Come Monday morning he is transformed into a stressed out and anxious boy. Given some time, he comes around and bit by bit, he comes back to us. But he is in emotional pain here, and soon I fear it will be too late for him to turn back into the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky dog that he is.

I really am worried for him. The best life he has ever had is in the shelter. The people who love him most are here. And that’s okay, some dogs don’t even get that, many dogs really. But he deserves a home.”

Falling in love with Frankie is contagious. I realized that quickly and, just like the rest of the staff, became attached to him almost immediately. It probably has to do with the way he gravitates towards your lap as soon as you get on the floor, or maybe it’s the way his front paws awkwardly face away from each other beneath his big smile, only adding to his goofy demeanor, or maybe it’s his laid-back personality that is a breath of fresh air from the exuberant adolescent dogs you’re used to. Who knows. But Frankie is Frankie and he will make you fall in love with him.

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It breaks my heart that I can’t long term foster him thanks to my upcoming move, because a house with no other dogs, a big yard and someone who wants to take him on hiking adventures is just what he needs (not saying anything about myself, just that my situation was ideal for dogs like him!).

The least I could do was give him a break from the shelter, so that is what I did. Saturday afternoon Frankie came home with me so I could take him to the pit crew group walk on Sunday morning. We jammed as much fun into our 16 hours together as possible, which I will tell you all about tomorrow!

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If you or someone you know is interested in fostering or adopting Frankie, a big dog located in VA who would excel in an active, only-dog household, please email me at peacelovefoster@gmail.com! Spread the word about handsome Frankie!