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Charm school for pets

The Humane Society has adopted a program that teaches shelter pets more adoptable behavior.

Published March 26, 2007


CLEARWATER - Imagine a pet shelter where dogs sit quietly at the gates to their kennels, wagging their tails as prospective owners approach. No barking, jumping up or pawing at the gates.

Where cats are friendly, walking toward visitors, retracting their claws when handled, maybe even sitting to be petted.

That's the vision of Open Paw, a training program adopted by the Humane Society of Pinellas in October that aims to teach basic manners to animals before they ever leave the shelter.

Started by a nonprofit in California, the program is designed to reduce the suffering and euthanasia of unwanted cats and dogs with a simple but intensive strategy: Better-behaved animals are more likely to be adopted and more likely to adjust well to their new homes.

Already, shelter officials say they're seeing a difference: Trained dogs wait calmly when potential dog owners approach their kennels.

"With Open Paw training, the dogs we train are going out so fast that we are constantly training new dogs," said Gail Armstrong, director of shelter operations.

Officials are also on the lookout for volunteers - of all shapes, sizes, colors and abilities - who are willing to stop by the shelter and give treats to the animals so that they get used to all kinds of people.

"When somebody walks up, they know they are going to get fed and it relaxes them," said kennel and maintenance supervisor Jon Golly, who designed a feeding tube for volunteers to use to feed the dogs. "It's amazing how they react to it."

Positive reinforcement

Open Paw's premise is simple: Reward animals when they behave well. Ignore them when they don't.

As Armstrong and Golly walked out toward the kennels Wednesday, something was largely missing: barking.

But then they reached a row of mostly pit bullterrier mixes, like Hula. A brindle with a white muzzle and a black nose, she jumped up on the fence, barking loudly.

New dog?


Hula stopped barking, so Armstrong gave her a treat to reward her quiet composure.

But soon the dog jumped up on the fence again, and Armstrong turned away from her. "I'm not going to reward that," she said.

With four paws on the ground, Hula rubbed her side on the gate and Armstrong smiled. "That's a cute, adoptable behavior, so I'm going to reward that," she said as she gave the dog another treat.

In the next kennel, Roger, a burnished gold Labrador retriever mix, was sitting quietly at his gate.

"Roger, you're such a patient boy," Armstrong said and gave him a treat.

Before long, Armstrong had a whole row of six dogs sitting or lying next to their gates, quiet.

"We've got model dogs now," she said to the group. "You guys are being so good."

Rudy, another brindle pit bullterrier mix, seemed to chime in with a bark.

Armstrong next worked with adult cats, rewarding them for approaching her in a friendly way, even getting them to sit for treats.

"I am the most amazing cat trainer in the universe," she said, giddy at their performances.

Then staff members met with Kellyann Conway, a professional animal trainer who volunteered her time to teach. The day's Open Paw lesson: training dogs to exhibit good behavior when people enter or leave their kennels and when people clip leashes on their collars.

Conway and her training partner, Traci Theis, also developed PetsIncredible, a program promoted by Animal Planet and distributed on a DVD that pet adopters take home. It features positive-reinforcement training techniques for most common pet behavior problems.

Just after the training, the staffers got a reminder of why their work is important for older animals needing a home.

A car pulled up with fresh competition: a box full of kittens.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at or 727 445-4170.

[Last modified March 26, 2007, 07:32:50]

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