Expanding Your Audience

This past weekend our shelter had an extremely successful adoption event specifically held for our “pit bull” dogs. A local store, Bark!, along with local awareness organization Generation Wags, hosted us and five of our adoptable dogs to try and get the pups more exposure.  The shelter is full of so many happy faced, tail wagging dogs that it can be overwhelming to adopters and many end up getting overlooked. By taking these five superstars out of the shelter, they got some special time in the spotlight away from the 50+ other dogs.

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Bark is located in a suburban shopping center that is frequented by all sorts of different people. There were so many shoppers who came in to meet the dogs after seeing them through the window or on a flyer around the community. The great thing about these out-of-shelter adoption events is that it creates an opportunity for John Q. Public to meet and interact with a “pit bull” dog. For the most part people came in and ooh-ed and aww-ed. We don’t really know what visitors thought about “pit bull” dogs before they walked in, but after getting face kisses or giving belly rubs galore, we’d bet that they left with positive thoughts about the experience.

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37An important part of events like these is to remember that you are not your target audience. I’ve mentioned it on this blog before: we are not trying to win over the already converted.  Advertising adoptable dogs to our family of “pit bull” and shelter dog advocates is great, but a lot of them already have homes full of dogs and are tapped out.  It’s the outside world we need to bring into not only our “pit bulls are just dogs” circle, but also the “adopt don’t shop,” “spay and neuter your pets,” etc. circles.

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Even if all the people who meet these dogs don’t end up adopting them (and not like we expect them to), they are still going home and telling their friends and family about the great dog they met today, who happens to be a “pit bull” dog.

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13All of these cuties are available at the Montgomery County Humane Society!


Thanksgiving Day Parade

There is no better way to get in the Holiday spirit than a festive Thanksgiving Day Parade! Our shelter participated in one this weekend and it was so much fun. It’s a great chance to interact with our community, and – better yet – get some adoptable dogs into the spotlight.

I brought adoptable “pit bull” dog Luna. I cannot even begin to describe how hard I fell in love with her in just the few hours we hung out. She is less than a year old, and she’s got so much energy that it’s rare for each of her four paws to be on the ground at the same time when you first meet her. But I love her. She immediately caught on to the fact that jumping on me was going to get her ignored, and that sitting politely would get her treats.  The transformation I saw in just one hour while we were waiting for the parade to start was remarkable and showed me how much potential she really has. She’s also great with other dogs. Awesome dog, no? Not to mention she is stinkin’ CUTE!

We also had adoptable Mystic on the route with us! She wasn’t too keen on all the noises and people, so she greeted fans from inside our van. You can see that she performed that job perfectly!

We invite shelter alumni to join us in the parade as well.  MCHS alum Taz come with his family, and he was dressed to the nines in his elf outfit. Here he is with his big brother.

As you can see, it was a great morning for shelter dogs in the community! Happy Thanksgiving week!

If you think you’d like to add Luna or Mystic and their adorable ears to your family, email me at peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


A Record Breaking Community Pit Bull Day

Like I briefly mentioned on Tuesday, I finally got the opportunity to volunteer at one of B-More Dog‘s Community Pit Bull Days last weekend. B-More Dog holds these events once a month to provide free or low cost vaccinations to dog owners in generally low income communities. As well as the vaccinations, B-More Dog schedules free spays and neuters for “pit bull” dogs, does a leash and collar exchange, and gives general wellness advice at these events. Working directly towards their mission of promoting responsible pet ownership, B-More Dog takes it as an opportunity to connect with the community and help those who might not have the resources or sometimes even the knowledge to provide their dogs with the care they need.

For these types of events, you can’t just put information out on social media and expect for your target audience to show up. B-More Dog went into the community and put up flyers, went door to door, and used word of mouth spread the news. That’s more effective to reach who you want, as evidenced by the amount of people and dogs that came.

From what I understand, this weekend’s event was record breaking with a total of 91 dogs vaccinated, and 23 (24?) spay/neuters scheduled! I can report that it is an utterly exhausting six hours – but it is so, so worth it.  I was lucky in that I spent most of my time at the “photo booth” capturing adorable images like this, and got spared some of the tougher stuff (dogs in very poor health, etc.).

For the most part, I got the impression that the people we helped loved their dogs as part of the family, and were extremely grateful that we gave them the opportunity to care for them properly.

Look at the collars we received back from the leash and collar exchange! Yes, there are a few chains in there. The way this works is they give us their old collars or whatever they’re using, and we give them a brand new leash and collar set. These are the types of things B-More Dog raises money for: to buy the new leashes and collars, in addition to of course covering the vaccinations and the spay/neuters.

What an amazing day with an amazing group of people!


Taking Your Dog to Public Events

The more I’m learning about dog behavior, the more large-scale dogs events make me cringe. I can now pick up on stress signals, signs of discomfort, poor social skills, warning signs, etc. – and I’m realizing that these behaviors, as you can imagine, are widely prevalent at events with lots of dogs and people.  Even though most of the dogs that attend these events are dog friendly (because they’d be kicked out in an instant if they weren’t), doesn’t mean that all the dogs present are having an easy time.

In order to keep dogs and people happy at big events, it’s important to stay in tune with your dog. I recommend reading up on dog behavior and stress signals before braving one of these big events. That will give you some tools to recognize issues as they arise, before they become a bigger problem.  After watching others attend these events and going to many myself, here are some tips I think are helpful for big public outings:

Come prepared with appropriate equipment. Make sure you bring everything you need to set you and your dog up for success. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you do not take your dog to big events using retractable leashes. There is hardly any control with these leashes, and in high activity environments you need all the control you can get. For the sake of all other dogs and owners at the event, I encourage you to stick to 4′ or 6′ standard leashes. Many events, especially if run by a humane society or rescue group, have policies against using retractable leashes.

Bring lots of TREATS!   I understand that shoving a bunch of treats in your dogs mouth won’t solve real problems, but it can sure help manage some when you’re out in a distracting environment. Often times when there is an overwhelming amount of stimuli, your dog will only pay attention to you if you’ve got something they want: yummy food. In new environments it is essential to be able to capture your dog’s focus. Treats will help enormously for this, especially if they are high value.

Don’t test at big events. An easy way to set your dog up for failure is bringing them into a high stress situation and having the “they can sink or swim” mentality. Socialization doesn’t come in the form of mass interactions with lots of people/dogs/things at one time.  Socialization should be controlled, positive experiences. Events can be so overwhelming for dogs – to the point that instead of learning proper social skills they just shut down. It is much better to work on your dog’s reaction to new people, dogs, etc. at a threshold where they will still be able to learn and progress.

Understand that dogs are dogs. I think the worst thing we can do for our dogs is to anthropomorphize them. This leads to all sorts of unrealistic expectations: Fluffy should like all the dogs, Fluffy should behave all day because this is fun, Fluffy should listen to me when we’re here just like at home, etc. We have to be understanding that these events are so high stress and different for most dogs that they might not act like they do normally, or they might act differently than we expect or want.

Know your/their limits. It does not help anyone to overdo it with your dog. Dogs are extremely sensitive and can go from being fine to absolutely not fine in a matter of minutes. It is essential that you stay in tune to how your dog is reacting to other dogs or people, and the minute things start getting hairy, you skedaddle (like I mentioned – don’t use these big, unstructured events as tests or “learn to deal with it” situations!).  Your dog might not necessarily need to leave all together, but a time out away from all the hubbub can really help a dog’s mentality.  Baxter behaved perfectly for over an hour at the Nationals game, and we listened to him when he told us he’d had enough. We distanced ourselves from the crowd and hung out together at a separate table. We knew that was the best way for Baxter to finish the afternoon off successfully, so we made it happen. We didn’t push him, and we ended the afternoon on a great note.

There are the lucky few out there who have dogs that are game for anything and everything. But there are also a large number of dog owners who don’t realize what they’re putting their dogs through when they bring them to these tough situations. I’m not saying your dog will never be able to attend these sort of dog friendly events, I just want dog owners to be aware of how their dogs are handling situations. That makes for a happier and safer environment for everyone, and who doesn’t want that?

Instead of these large scale events, I am always a supporter of smaller ones that are more controlled, like B-More Dog’s walks where the dogs aren’t allowed to meet each other, and Pittie Trails where we work specifically on skills around other people and dogs. I like to live a life of always setting my dogs up for success!


Everyday Dogs, Everyday Owners

I had another recipe for a perfect day when I headed down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for my second B-More Dog walk on Sunday. Many of you probably remember the last time I went on a B-More Dog Pit Bulls on Parade (see here and here) where I soaked up all the adorable pitties with their owners. B-More Dog’s mission is to promote responsible pet ownership through education and outreach, and they hold Pit Bulls on Parade once a month to show the community that we are the everyday “pit bull” dog owner.

These walks help dispel the myth that if you own a “pit bull” dog, everyone will be afraid of you. Unfortunately, when those of us with “pit bull” dogs talk about how people cross the street or pull their kids away when they see us – even though we are usually saying it in a light hearted way since we know our dogs are nothing to be afraid of – we send the message that the public as a whole is scared of “pit bull” dogs.  Generalizations like this can cause people to shy away from considering a “pit bull” dog for adoption because they don’t want their friends to stop hanging out with them or to be looked at as an outsider – even though those of us with these dogs know that likely won’t happen (if you’ve got decent friends at least).

The more we demonstrate that these dogs are just everyday pets, the less we perpetuate myths that they should be treated differently. If I had a dollar for every person that stopped to ooh, aah, and coo at all the dogs on Sunday, I’d be able to buy front row seats to the Ravens game. Sure, there are some Negative Nancys in the crowd, but the overwhelming majority are positive and excited to see the dogs – just like in every day life.

It was a beautiful Autumn morning in the harbor and despite another big event going on, the dogs were well behaved and it seemed that everyone enjoyed themselves. It was great meeting a few blog followers too – of course I always love that! Thanks to everyone who came out. There were all sorts of shapes and sizes in attendance!

For more information about getting involved with B-More Dog, visit their website.


My Time at Animal Farm Foundation

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.

Practicing shaping with Eli.

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!