If I managed the Austin Animal Center Behavior Program….

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A friend pulled me aside at the recent Dogs Out Loud! Tails Under the Stars event and convinced me that I needed to apply for the available Behavior Manager position at Austin Animal Center. At first I was like “no way”, but when I looked at the job posting it started to make more sense. While completing the application, I found myself writing several principles that would drive a Behavior Program that I managed. I thought I’d publish them here.

I want the city to hire the best applicant – whether or not that is me. The dogs and people of Austin deserve that. My door will always be open to help whoever gets the gig in any way I can, provided they aren’t complete dummies.

These principles are also in no way a reaction to anything currently happening in Austin shelters. I’m not as involved as I used to be but from what I do know I’m actually thrilled with where things are and the people in charge.

I am NOT looking for other jobs!!!! I love DeBono Dog Training and am thrilled with the work we are doing and excited about what we have planned for the future. It just seems like, with the help of my friends in the rescue and pet community, I could provide something awesome for the city’s Behavior Program. I almost felt guilty not applying!

With all that said, if I managed the Austin Animal Behavior Program we would:

I. Provide excellent quality of life and preserve/improve the behavior health of the dogs.

  1. Focus only on what is controllable.
    Worrying about things we can’t control (eg. breed, size, color, past history, budget, staff constraints) is a waste of energy. Instead, we will quickly acknowledge them, set them aside, and take action on what we can control.
  2. Have fun.
    Yes, it’s an animal shelter. Lots of unpleasant things happen. But I’ll be damned if the dogs aren’t going to have fun. Play groups are a great and crucial start. We can build on that. And when the dogs have fun, so do the people.
  3. Provide more than enough enrichment using allotted resources.
    Develop programs that maximize physical and mental stimulation while minimizing the consumption of resources. Besides playgroups, potential programs that are in my wheelhouse could incorporate scent training, “focused” obstacle exercises, simulated off-leash exercises, agility games, and Ttouch.
  4. Be purposeful.
    We will always have an answer to why we are taking a certain action – even for questions as small as “Why did we give that dog a Kong?”
  5. Get help from allies.
    We will need them and we will use them.
  6. Reduce arousal and stress levels.
    Recognize the signs and have protocols for intervention.

II. Make informed, consistent, and defendable behavior decisions.

  1. Be objective.
    Behavior decisions will be made systematically.
    We will ask the questions that get us closest to an accurate, unbiased perspective. We can and should feel emotions. But we will not let them drive our decision making. And the buck will stop with me.
  2. Kill egos, not dogs.
    Ego and personal pride are the enemies of good decisions. We will take active measures to reduce their effects on our decision making.

III. Create and maintain a positive environment for employees and volunteers.

  1. Keep an open door and respect all voices.
    We may not always agree but we will always listen.

  2. Abolish the term “aggression”.
    It  is a useless label that is not descriptive of anything and does irreparable harm when thrown around. Behavior is just not that black and white. A person can get into hundreds of bar fights while another person shoots up a school one time. Both people can be labeled as “aggressive”. But they are nowhere near equal. Instead, we will adopt a standardized vocabulary that describes behavior in terms that are clear, meaningful, and non-judgmental.

  3. Address common struggles among shelter employees and volunteers.
    How many good people might we be losing because of overwhelm or compassion fatigue? We will actively seek solutions to help prevent and cope with these issues.

  4. Provide ongoing education and opportunities.
    We will encourage learning and personal progress through programs and incentives.

IV. Serve the public in good faith.

  1. Offer post-adoption support.
    Our job does not end at the adoption stage. While we can’t provide full-on training service, the more dogs we save, the more crucial it is to offer post-adoption support to reduce returns and increase quality of life for our dogs and adopters.

  2. Prepare dogs for life in a home.
    Long-stay and challenging dogs are especially at risk of being returned if they don’t easily and quickly adapt to the home. We will work on teaching them these skills to make the transition as easy as possible and reduce returns.

  3. Be transparent.
    I understand the need for tact. But if we do this right we shouldn’t have to lie or sugarcoat.

  4. Educate.
    Create campaigns, programs, and materials/games/contests that help the public better understand dog behavior and training.

V. Never take our eyes off the Big Picture.

  1. Always be moving forward.
    Keeping the status quo is easy. And unsatisfying. We will have clear, trackable goals that we will get a little closer to every day.

  2. Implement, innovate, evaluate.
    We will adapt proven existing programs while working to create new and innovative new ones. We will continuously track programs for effectiveness and efficiency.

  3. Take risks.
    We will not shy away from taking calculated risks to receive potentially large rewards. We will not be afraid of making smart mistakes.

  4. Be flexible.
    When it comes to animals, nothing ever goes as planned. We will be ready, willing, and able to switch gears and reprioritize at any given moment.

  5. Have wills of steel.
    We will not be discouraged by failures. They will happen. Our success will be defined by how we overcome those setbacks.

9 Comments on “If I managed the Austin Animal Center Behavior Program….”

  1. Thank you for these well thought out ideas and solutions. I have never attended a meeting at the “Dog Shelter” – so I cannot comment on thinking other than yours. I do know I have adopted my second dog from them. The first – a black lab – a little over 1 year old, developed many problems and “aggressive behaviour” ,,, I could not cope with her anger and she attacked my friend’s grand-daughter; sadly, I took her to my vet and asked that he euthanize her. The second dog I adopted (several years later) was an unborn puppy. She was foster-homed. I don’t know what happened to her between birth and arriving at my home. She was a scared little puppy. I worked with her and did all I knew how to do; trained her and treated her the same as I did with my older dog. Today at 3 years old, she is extremely shy. She will not come out of my bedroom when guests or family visit. Beebe is the last dog I will adopt from the shelter. I will look on the internet, etc. for others, if I want a dog. My cat was a “feral” cat – who hung out at my house until I coaxed her in… and she now sleeps in my bed and “runs” the whole house! I love my dogs and cat. I am so glad there is YOU – a thinking person who also loves animals. Blessings to you. C

  2. Abolish the word aggression? I agree it shouldn’t be thrown around… words have meaning. Food, dog or handler aggression are clear terms. Aggression can be extinguished or enhanced and definitely controlled. Until shelters take responsibility and train these dogs before adoption the public will continue to be at risk. Sadly there are too few trainers with the skill set to train dogs with aggression issues.

  3. Hi Doug! Thanks for your comment – sorry I am just replying – I hadn’t seen the post until now!

    “Food, dog, handler aggression” are NOT clear terms – the only meaning they have is as a broad starting point to finding the root of the actual problems.

    Example: This dog is “dog aggressive”. What does that say about the actual behavior? Is he barking/reactive? Is he fighting? Who is he fighting? When? How badly does he hurt other dogs? Has the dog ever been around other dogs without incident? What else was happening when the incidents occurred? Was the dog on/off leash? These are the details that matter. One dog can be in 100 fights and not injure anyone. Another dog can be in one fight in their life and cause serious injury. When you say the dog is “dog aggressive”, all you are doing is lumping him/her into a category, and attaching all the baggage that label includes.

    “Food aggression” is no different. Is she guarding kibble? Rawhides? Bones? What about guarding toys or bed/sofa space (which are often related)? What does the dog actually DO when she “guards”? Does she bite the person when they reach their hand in? Does she break skin? Does she growl first?

    If I tell you a person is aggressive, what does that tell you? Very little. Is Donald Trump aggressive? What about Mike Tyson? What about Charles Manson? I’d say all are “aggressive” in different ways but if you didn’t already know who they were, what would the term “aggressive” really tell you?

    So the point in abolishing the term aggression would be to get people describing behavior and not loading dogs up with unnecessary baggage.

  4. Steve,
    Thanks for the dialogue. I am happy to respectfully agree to disagree. I will go out on a limb here and suggest we do agree that humans create the behavior issues we as trainers have to find solutions to. The only reason I can find in locating the root is that if the human owner doesn’t change it’s behavior, behavior modification by a trainer in most cases is an exercise in futility. Let’s use the common definition “hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another; readiness to attack or confront”. Just because a dog shows a readiness to attack of course it doesn’t always mean the dog will, re ritualistic behavior. There may be different reasons a dog becomes aggressive. There will always be different degrees of aggression in different dogs, but it doesn’t change the base line. There can be many different reasons a dog may show us hostile behavior over it’s food dish but there are few techniques to extinguish the behavior. At the slightest display of aggression I am compelled to extinguish such behavior. I attach no baggage, that is what uninformed reactive people do. I am neither an advocate for euthanasia or an advocate for saving them all. I base my decision solely on whether the dog has the ability to comply and learn the behavior modification needed to ensure public and other pets safety. I am guided by Pavlov and BF Skinner, “Treat the behavior not the mind” Skinner. Unfortunately through no fault of their own sometimes the very difficult decision to euthanize is the right decision.

    Personally based on a 40+ year life study of aggression I never came across a dog who had 100 dog fights and no injuries were incurred. Even if the other dogs sustained no physical injury surely they we taught a lesson in cruelty. Psychologically they can become fearful of other dogs and even begin to display aggressive ritualistic behavior hoping to avoid another conflict. Again there can be a multitude of reasons dogs display varying degrees of dog aggression, but only few techniques to extinguish the behavior. Respectfully in conclusion no matter the reason or degree aggression is aggression.

    I am up for a further exchange of positions and ideas maybe we can have a chat over a beverage sometime. I did leave you a message on your phone on an unrelated issue, when you get a moment please give me a ring. Kind regards, Doug

  5. My lesson learned this week no more texting a dog conversation it is too reactive ‘)! With all due respect the plan is Obedience TRAINING. Through obedience training when can then more easily make the desired behavior modifications. Are you looking for a syllabus, perhaps a handbook? I am not demanding AAC use my plan and never have. As you know Hammond listed a trainer position then rescinded it. I don’t care whose plan it is …. GET ONE from a qualified trainer and lose the trends, fads and gimmicks. AAC has no program, APA ‘s is lacking or inept and both are failing long stays.
    Long Stay Program
    Build an agility course and Lose Dog Pack Play
    AAC has 4 behavior team members X 4 assigned dogs each per day = 16
    Head trainer 6-8
    Qualified and interested volunteers = variable
    Each person maintains a training journal to be reviewed frequently by head trainer
    Statics: sit down stand
    Heeling and recall
    In motion: sit down stand
    Indifference to other dogs and social manners

    Initial lectures: What I can’t teach you, leash and collars, compulsion and heart in hand corrections, learned behavior and the power of, drives: use, capping and breaking, training dynamics, super bonding techniques
    The 3 3’s of training 1. 3 things it takes to meet our goals 2. 3 phases of training 3. the 3’s of operant conditioning, positive, negative and zero reinforcement
    Begin field training
    Each dog will have 2 handlers during phase one and phase three of training
    Some unwanted behaviors will be lost during training some may need more work after foundation obedience

    All dogs in the program or not will be taught to sit before feeding or leashing up
    no more free feeding destroying food drive … food guarders will receive behavior mod to extinguish the behavior

    Due to the cancer I haven’t been very active for the last couple of years. During recovery I was willing to volunteer my skills. I can no longer afford to just volunteer my skills, just like you or anyone else I like to get paid for my knowledge. I am not unique folks with my skills tend to stay breed and sport specific and don’t want to deal with shelter dogs.

  6. I don’t have time to address your thoughts line by line – but I just don’t think you are understanding the day to day realities of dealing with dog behavior in the shelter. You probably disagree with that and that’s fine. But you seem to think logistics are easy to figure out – I promise you logistics are a major challenge.

    But lets imagine that you are right and you have a plan that can improve everything. Maybe had you offered to present a one hour lecture about ‘the power of drive’ to volunteers/staff back when you were in recovery and willing to work for free, you would have been more successful in spreading your message. Instead of just spewing rhetoric about everyone’s incompetency, demonstrate some VALUE. Then people will listen.

    APA! is doing tremendous work with their behavior program. In fact, A LOT of what you proposed is already being done. Is the program perfect? Absolutely not – I don’t think even they would say it was perfect. But I work with a lot of the long stay dogs post-adoption and I can confidently say the majority are coming out pretty damn well prepared for the real world – much more than I’ve seen in the past. As far as AAC, I honestly don’t really know what they are doing behavior-wise right now. I’ve had enough conversations with them that I believe they’re doing their best to figure things out. But yeah, I wish they would have hired an experienced behavior expert – I think maybe the importance of that is being under-appreciated. But I’m a behavior guy so maybe I’m biased.

  7. My first encounter and volunteer work at a shelter was in 1979. I was on the City of Austin’s Shelter “trainer willing to work with aggressive dogs” list for nearly 10 years. I also have experience with kennel dogs. I am quite aware of and experienced with shelter/kennel behavior. I have also heard most all of the excuses made. I never said APA does everything wrong. I looked several times and saw no meaningful program: the number and length of long stays is testament to my charges. Spewed rhetoric to some, the inconvenient truth for others. APA behavior team members are assigned dogs, so maybe the logistics aren’t as difficult as you would like to make them out to be. Training 4 dogs twice a day should not take more than 3 hours. Maybe you can show me some of these dogs you speak of sometime. How true are you to Morgan’s Canon?

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