Animal rescue meets behavior education

Category: Rescue
Abilene. Photo by Sinthia Pedraza.

Little Abilene is as cute as can be. She’s the type of dog who would normally “fly off the shelf” at a shelter or rescue. There’s just one problem: she doesn’t like to be touched. At all.

Luckily, Abilene has a support team at the rescue she’s landed with. To help her feel more comfortable with people’s hands, behavior interns teach her to touch hands with her nose (“hand targeting”) to earn treats. Abilene has started cuddling with her foster. Recently her foster was able to pet her. Progress! 

Intern Jamie Cheong teaching Abilene to hand target

This kind of training might sound out of reach for short-staffed shelters and rescues. But what if I told you it’s possible to have high quality behavior help, and a lot of it, for very little money? And as a bonus, you’d be educating future animal care workers in positive reinforcement training at the same time?

I am lucky to run a behavior internship program for the Yolo County SPCA. Our foster home-based rescue takes in about 250 dogs per year. At any given time we have about 40 behavior interns working with our animals. Interns are mostly undergraduate students, and stay with the program anywhere from 6 months to 3 or more years.

Interns learn about behavior through readings, videos, and hands-on experience. Lead interns train newer interns, making it possible for the program to grow despite the limited time I have to teach interns directly.

“It’s fascinating to learn about dog behavior and at the same time change the way a puppy or dog interacts with their environment so their next home is truly their forever home.” -Lead intern Melissa Santogrossi

Here are just a few of the things our wonderful behavior interns make possible. Could this kind of program work for your organization?

Winston working with lead intern Rachelle Gagnon. Photo by Lynn Takata

Group Training Classes

During four weekly group training classes, interns hone their training skills using positive reinforcement while working with foster dogs. Prior to coming to class, interns have reviewed written training plans and watched videos showing the plans in action.

Classes aren’t just for the interns’ benefit. Foster dogs learn behaviors that will serve them well in their adoptive homes. For instance, Winston struggled with “leash reactivity” – he lunged and barked at other dogs when on walks. Behavior interns trained him to look at his handler when he saw other dogs, rather than bark.

“In addition to dog training skills, this internship has given me experience with leadership, critical thinking, patience, and problem management.” -Lead intern Rachele Wurr

Oreo watching larger puppies from a safe spot. Photo by Rachelle Gagnon

Puppy socialization program

Little Oreo and his brother Buttercup were 8 weeks old when they came to our rescue. They attended our twice weekly intern-run puppy socials, where they met new people, adult dogs, and were gently introduced to body handling and grooming. Interns took them on field trips to learn about the outside world. Treats were used liberally during all interactions to help the puppies form positive associations.  

Both puppies became braver and more social as they grew. However, Oreo was much more timid than his brother. To help Oreo feel safer, interns tailored Oreo’s socialization efforts. For instance, the interns lifted Oreo onto a perch to watch the bigger puppies play at puppy social when he got worried. Both Oreo and his brother are now happily adopted and doing well in their new homes. 

“I love helping interns become more confident and independent dog handlers and watching them working with dogs to make them more comfortable with their environment.”– Lead intern Kyra Hostetler

Adoption events & special events

Doris in the care of very capable lead intern Sinthia Pedraza

Public events can be stressful for even the most social dogs. Our lead behavior interns monitor dog welfare during adoption events, supervise newer interns, and make adjustments when needed to help the dogs have positive experiences.

Doris is a shy gal who doesn’t always enjoy attention from strangers. Lead interns place her in a quieter location at events. They make sure she sits with someone she knows. She gets treats when strangers pass by, and interns manage her interactions with new people to keep her feeling safe and happy. As a result she is becoming more comfortable in public. We hope this will improve her chances of connecting with that special adopter. 

“I have been a behavior intern at the YCSPCA for nearly a year now. I have learned so much about dog training, all while helping dogs in their adoption process.” -Advanced intern Danielle Jones

These are just a few examples of the life-changing work our behavior interns are doing every day. Putting people interested in learning more about behavior to work in shelter and rescue is truly a win-win!

Interns on a puppy socialization field trip downtown

Special thanks to these generous supporters of the Yolo County SPCA Behavior Program:  The Academy for Dog Trainers, Jean Donaldson, Sadie Goldman of Sadie and the Tramp Dog Training, and Debbie Jacobs and her wonderful group Fearful Dogs.