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    Training of pets, owners is SPCA's vision

    Reasoning that it will have fewer animals to handle if more adoptions stick, officials plan a training facility to help animals and people get along.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 22, 2001


    When it trains volunteers and new dog owners, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Pinellas County uses a chunk of the parking lot six spaces deep and a small classroom crammed with three tables, a couple of desks and several small animals.

    But in less than a year, the SPCA will expand its options with a $1.3-million, 10,000-square-foot education and training center.

    The need for the project comes from a change in philosophy, said SPCA spokeswoman Nora L. Hawkins. For more than 60 years, the SPCA has concentrated on shelter services, but now wants to focus on decreasing the need for those services.

    The county's SPCA takes in up to 16,000 pets each year. Nationally, 70 percent of the animals in shelters end up there because of behavior problems, development director Nina Berkheiser said.

    "What the board has lately come to realize is that the number's not changing and we need to be more proactive about animals going into shelters." she said.

    Hawkins thinks it all boils down to owners participating in good behavior training.

    "Many times people bring home animals and don't understand the commitment that they're making. The animals are highly trainable. It's just that people aren't taking the time," she said.

    Berkheiser said new owners often get overwhelmed.

    "People get really frustrated. Their couch is ruined and their blinds are gone and they've reached their limits," she said.

    To prevent such problems, the SPCA offers a free four-week behavior training course, called the Good Dog Social Club, for people who adopt dogs from the shelter. But hot, sticky weather and mosquitoes discourage some new owners from taking advantage of that service, said behavior counselor Donna Bainter.

    "In Florida, it's really hard to compete with the elements. We have a high drop-out because of the elements," she said Wednesday night, when only two owners made it to class.

    The same class was cut a few minutes short because of thunder.

    Bainter thinks that when the class is offered in an air conditioned facility, more owners will show up.

    Susan Robertson, who brought her 5-month-old chocolate Labrador, Baron, said the classes work. "We've gotten other dogs from here, and they've done real well because of the training," she said.

    Connie Brooks, shelter manager, said she noticed a difference in Baron's temperament. Three weeks ago, she said, "he was a rambunctious little lab. Now, look, he's sitting. He's staying."

    While new owners worked with their dogs, volunteers worked with shelter dogs to make them more adoptable.

    "The volunteers want to work on the dogs because people want a more sociable animal. We try to make them into dogs like Hoover and Bear so people want them," Bainter said, pointing to a speckled Catahoula mix and fluffy brown Labrador.

    The SPCA also offers seminars at the St. Petersburg Public Library and outreach programs for law enforcement personnel and social workers. Berkheiser said she hopes to teach most of those classes in the new education center once it is built.

    "We want to reach more people and want to bring them here so they have a better learning experience," she said.

    Aside from decreasing number of pets it handles, the SPCA hopes to increase the number of children reached by the education programs and become a regional site for other Florida animal shelter training programs.

    The new facility, which breaks ground Tuesday, has been funded through a campaign called "Compassion Counts," which lets donors honor pets or loved ones by purchasing plaques or tiles for the new building. So far, most pledges have come from private donors, leaving the SPCA about $250,000 short of its goal.

    SPCA information

    For information or to donate to SPCA's new education and training center, call the SPCA at (727) 581-3249.

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