The Importance of Story Time

Okay, not actual story time – just simple quiet time is what I’ll be talking about today, but it’s the same idea. Quiet time with people can be just as important for shelter dogs as getting out of their runs and exercising.

Stress in animals can be gauged by measuring levels of the glucocorticoid cortisol. Cortisol is released by animals in times of stress, meant to be used as a body’s way to combat sudden environmental changes and other stress-inducing situations. Prolonged exposure to stress, however, causes elevated levels of cortisol over long periods of time, which begins to have a negative impact on the body. Prolonged elevated cortisol levels in animals can lead to illness, behavior changes, depression and more.

It’s no secret that the shelter environment is stressful for dogs. That is why progressive shelters these days are doing so much to try to combat the negative toll that shelter stays inevitably have on many dogs by implementing enrichment, play groups and, of course, human interaction. A study in the journal Physiology & Behavior was published about the effect of human interaction on shelter dogs. Not surprisingly, human contact is essential to helping shelter dogs stay more mentally stable.

We’ve begun to realize though that maybe it shouldn’t always be “runrunrun let’s get your energy out!” when folks have the opportunity to take shelter dogs out of their kennels. Exercise is necessary to help dogs alleviate their pent up energy, but it can sometimes be so stimulating that it has the opposite effect of what we want (a calm, happy dog). Quiet time with people is a great way to give dogs the human attention they crave while teaching them to be calm and relaxed.

Settling down doesn’t always come naturally to dogs, especially in an environment as hectic as a shelter. Having some quiet time with shelter pups gives them an opportunity to practice being settled in the presence of a human. Think about it – if humans always mean getting jazzed up and excited and rambunctious (how lots of shelter dogs react when they first get out of their kennels), that’s not going to show so well to potential adopters, is it? If getting out of your kennel sometimes means cozying up with a volunteer and a good book, then a dog is less likely to develop the habit of becoming crazed at the thought of being with a human.  Plus, back to the main point of writing this – quiet time can help to reduce stress!

When we bring shelter dogs at work back to our cubes to hang out, we are giving them an opportunity to relax. Not only are they escaping the loud kennels for a bit, but they are practicing calm behaviors and being settled. Sometimes we help them achieve a zen state of mind by providing a long lasting chewable like a bully stick or a stuffed Kong, and sometimes they are just so happy to be out of the kennels that the zonk out right away! Check out adoptable S’mores enjoying her time with us in the office today. Another perk of quiet time: you discover adorable traits like being a total lap dog!


Quiet time can be in the form of reading time (many shelters are implementing reading time with kiddos – how cool is that!), massage time or just plain old belly rub time. Spend my time cuddling with shelter dogs for their own good? Don’t mind if I do!

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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Why I <3 Instagram

I love social media. Ask my boyfriend (who happens to absolutely hate it) how much I Facebook, Tweet and Instagram, and he will say way too much. Having a smart phone means we are instantly connected to all these social media platforms and between my job and this blog, I have real reasons to be on each of them. Sure, I probably use them in excess like most other twenty-somethings who grew up with all of these sites, but I also know that they can hold serious value for helping the missions of non-profits and advocacy groups (and even for-profits).

My latest and possibly favorite social media find – and by latest I mean about a year ago – is Instagram (follow me! @julianajean). Instagram is similar to Twitter, except in photo form. You upload photos and can use filters to enhance them, and then you share them with whoever follows you. Most of my photos are of my fosters, and you see a lot of them because they end up on this blog. Similar to Twitter, you use a “hashtag” to tag your photos using different subjects. My most often used hashtags are probably #fosterdog, #pitbull, #socute, #silly, #adoptable, and #lovebug. If you click on a photo’s hashtag, it brings you to all the other photos on Instagram that have been tagged with the same phrase. My favorite is clicking on the #pitbull tag – talk about examples of every day dogs and every day people! I love it! (More gushing about that on a later post.)

As an amateur photographer, it’s pretty clear why Instagram and I are a good fit. Instagram can instantly make photos taken on your phone into something better, something more creative. One of my favorite parts of photography is composition (even though it might not seem that way on this blog, ha), and I’ve learned to love that all of Instagram’s photos require a clean, square crop. I also love post-processing, and Instagram gives you a quick and easy option to apply image enhancing filters.

Working at a shelter, I often need a quick photo of an animal for a variety of reasons, including to put on our social media sites, to send out to rescue groups or to document for future marketing. Instagram makes it so that the photos I take of shelter animals on my phone are actually presentable, and much more eye catching. Here are a few “before and after” shots of different animals that I’ve done through Instagram (the afters are the square cropped ones).

Pictured below is Pooh Bear. She was given up at fifteen years old (don’t get me started). As you can imagine, a fifteen year old dog can be very difficult to locate a foster or forever home for. Often times an adopter is found after rescuers share a dog in need’s photo far and wide, so the photos needed to be attention grabbing. I am happy to report that Pooh Bear is heading to her forever home this weekend thanks to LOTS of networking!





Cropping, an element of composition, is something I try to be very aware of and use to my advantage. I do my best to cut out as many unnecessary background images as possible without chopping off key parts of an animal. In the photos of Pooh Bear I cropped out my coworkers legs and made sure to still keep Pooh’s paws in the frame.

My next before and after subject is an adorable Miniature Pinscher that was given up to us (ding ding ding, purebred alert!). My coworker wanted to send her out to rescue groups, and needed a decent photo. I again used cropping and filters to make the photo a little nicer than just an out-of-camera shot. She’s pretty adorable to begin with, so it wasn’t too difficult.



Last but not least is this cutie patootie named Priscilla who has the best underbite I’ve ever seen. She’s got some pretty serious skin issues that we’re in the process of clearing up, and that unfortunately prevent her from photographing well. Nothing a little backdrop improvising can’t help! This is another tip for low-quality photos, especially of adoptable animals: try to control your background. Instagram helps with this because you can blur out the background, but choosing a solid backdrop over a cage or cluttered background can really make a difference. For Priscilla we grabbed a few towels and a Santa pillow, and voila – an adorable makeshift photo session!



All three of these dogs have been spoken for by rescue groups for either a foster or forever home (yay!). I’m definitely not saying it’s because of the pictures, but we all know what a difference a good photo can make. Because I can’t bring my big camera in every day and take the time editing camera-quality photos, Instagram is the perfect solution. And even when I’m not photographing shelter animals, my Instagram feed is a really fun peek into the lives of some of my blog friends!

Happy Monday: Shelter Dog Updates

I feel like we all need some good news after the tragic events of last Friday. I’m a firm believer that when things get tough, you have to focus on the positive.  It just so happens that recently the “Happy Tail” (har har) updates have been rolling in from rescue groups who have pulled our shelter dogs, and I thought this would be the perfect time to share them with you.

I’m so lucky to have relationships with some of the rescues who pull dogs from us so that I get the occasional update. There is nothing that compares to seeing your favorite shelter dogs in a home with a family, no matter if it’s a foster family or forever family. The dogs are out of the shelter and finally getting the chance to be a loved family dog. Here are some no-longer-a-shelter-dog updates!


Patrice was at the shelter for about four months. She had so, so much energy and her obsession with tennis balls made it hard for her to make an impression on potential adopters. She literally wanted nothing more than to chase a tennis ball all day, ever day.

Patrice finally made it out through the rescue group Bully Paws. One of their foster homes came forward to pull a dog from us (we LOVE those), and they chose Patrice. They have other dogs and a massive fenced in yard where she will be able to run as much as her little heart desires. I took this photo the day Patrice left. This is her with one of our volunteers, Les, who, along with many others, has worked with her every day for the last four months. The smiles on both of their faces say it all – it was a huge victory for everyone the day she got out of the shelter for good.


Bully Paws recently sent me this update from Patrice’s foster family. It’s always so hard to predict how dogs will act once they leave the shelter, and hearing that they’re settling right in makes us do all sorts of happy dances.

“Hello, the last couple of days have been a thrill to both Pablo and myself. Patrice is a REALLY sweet little girl. She is still a bit frightened esp of loud noises and her little tail goes between her legs when she hears a dog barking while on our walks. In the yard she will run and play but the moment she sees me walk away or turn to do something else, she will drop her ball and come follow to ensure she is not left behind. She seems to be MOST interested and really enjoys walking along with one of my others (her tail goes up and wags and she holds her head up high while she tries to stay right by their side). She definitely wants to be a part of the pack and seems eager to please each one of mine and their particular personalities (she was part of a particular play group at montgomery and sure she must be missing them a bit).  We are introducing really slowly using baby gates. Patrice has her own room where we set up her crate. The crate door is left open and she goes in herself and curls up to sleep. We did have two accidents the first day she was here (right in front of the door as if she knew where she was supposed to be going). I soon realized that when we take her out into the yard she is so excited to be outside and to run and play that she doesn’t stop to pee (I have another that does the same and who is also ball crazy).  So now we walk her into the yard on a leash before she plays and then before we go in, and she gets lots of praise for going pee outside. Patrice is a very finicky eater and eats just a teeny bit at a time (its shocking to me bc of the amount my other three eat). Tonight is probably the first good amount of food she’s had since being here. But she also got lots of exercise today so she had a good appetite. Most of all, she LOVES to run of her leash and play ball!”

This is a photo of Patrice, the dog who couldn’t settle down in the shelter, in her foster home. Doesn’t she look content? Hooray Patrice!


Peanut (now Wilbur):

Peanut was at the shelter this summer. I fell in love with him because he was this adorable little compact pittie with a crooked tail and the cutest little face.


Bully Paws pulled Peanut from us as well. He is actually now in his FOREVER family, and that is the amazing email update we got:

“Wilbur (formerly Peanut) is awesome. Our obedience instructor loves him. He is so smart that it is hard not to teach him more than what is scheduled for the class each day. We have decided to keep Wilbur in school until he can earn his good citizens certification. The wife and I truly feel lucky to have him. Wilbur gets along great with our elderly basenji (15 years old) and sleeps at night on the foot of the bed with his feline friend (who thinks he is a dog as well). In the morning, when its time to give Tybalt the basenji his daily medicine, all three line up, sitting in a row next to each other. All get something. Wilbur sleeps whenever he is in the car and typically doesn’t get up until the car has stopped. He will jump in the tub for a bath even when it’s not his turn. He loves him some soccer ball. People who know this breed readily come up to us to meet him and talk about their pits. Always a funny story to share. Wilbur has been great to say the least.”


These are two dogs you haven’t met (though hopefully you still loved their stories). Tomorrow I’m going to update you on the story of a dog I introduced a few weeks ago that Jasmine’s House pulled: Kobe. He has come a long way in the few short weeks he’s been out of the shelter, and it’s all thanks to his foster family and Jasmine’s House. Check back tomorrow for another happy tail!

Patrice and her tennis ball-loving smile are available through Bully Paws!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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