Main Content

Training helps a shelter dog get adopted


Karen Owens, CPDT-KA®, is head trainer at Charlotte Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control in Charlotte, NC. Her position is made possible through a Foundation Train to Adopt grant. Today, she tells us how the program is helping make dogs more adoptable.



Killarney (pictured) is a medium-sized Boxer mix puppy that came to our shelter in late October. Her feet tell me she’s going to be a big girl someday. She has a sweet, eager face, big brown eyes and a big personality, but, oh, her jumping! She can launch her muscular little 38-lb. body off me, the walls, the kennel door or anything else within reach.

When I first met Killarney she was, as they say here in the South, a “hot mess.” She was beginning to display multiple signs of stress, such as excessive jumping, increasingly high arousal, barking, lunging and spinning. These behaviors were her way of showing me that she wasn’t coping well with the stress of shelter life.

When stress-induced behaviors are repeated for any length of time by dogs, they become part of the dog’s typical day-to-day behavior, and can continue after a dog leaves the shelter. We knew that, if not treated as an emergency, the negative effect of shelter life would have repercussions in Killarney’s behavior for many years to come.

Find out how we helped Killarney and watch a video of her after the jump.

This hyper-arousal can be addressed with intervention techniques from Sue Sternberg’s Train to Adopt program. The program provides a higher quality of life for shelter dogs, which reduces
stress and arousal; teaches the dogs basic obedience and good manners;
relieves frustration and helps them to become more adoptable.

After Killarney was processed into our shelter, she immediately got
kennel cough. Our kennel cough treatment is three to four weeks long, so even
though she had been referred to me for training at the end of October, I
wasn’t able to work with her until the beginning of December.

When I
retrieved Killarney for her first training session on Dec. 2, I
didn’t expect her to be able to focus. I thought she would show a lot
of pacing, panting and drooling — all signs of stress. But she surprised
me. She focused, settled down and was glued to me within a few seconds.
After just one session using the Train to Adopt techniques, Killarny
was leaning into me while I scratched her chest — she was calm, settled and
content. Her mental state was already improving.

This is not to say that training Killarney has not been a challenge. We
have had to work on many behavioral issues. Killarney was easily
distracted by most sights and sounds around
us. She had poor self-control and would lunge for a piece of food in my
hand whenever she saw it. She had become so used to constantly jumping
on people that the habit was ingrained and difficult to change. When I
reached down to pet her, she would mouth my hands and arms. Yet, with
all of these behaviors, amazing things happen when you give dogs like
Killarney great quality of life, training, patience and one-on-one

She’s learned “sit” with attention, at the door and for her food
bowl; “down” with a hand signal or the verbal cue; and “leave it.”
She also learned the “nothing” exercise, which is how to be calm and
appropriate for petting.

Killarney also started learning to use her nose and
utilizes her desire to hunt to find specific odors. She’s in a play
group with her new best friend, a Catahoula/cattle dog mix named Kilo.

nearly burst with pride the other day when Killarney gave a flawless demonstration
during a new-trainer workshop. She showed off her new-and-improved “sit”
(with no jumping before or after), “down” with a hand signal and word,
“wait” for her food bowl, “leave it” and, of course, the “nothing” exercise, which has quickly become her favorite skill to
practice. She loved being the star of the show. Here’s a video of one of her sessions:

Through training,
Killarney has been given the skills to be successful in a home. Best of
all, she’s finally been adopted! Killarney was adopted on Christmas Eve. I had a chance to meet with the family for a free training
session and they are wonderful.

These days Killarney is doing well in her forever home, with no major
problems or concerns. Her new mom wrote to me and said, “I’m
sure I have you to thank for her being such a good girl for us. Last
night I was even starting to wonder if she thought her name might be
‘good girl’ instead of Killarney!”

Dogs like Killarney enter a shelter with little ability
to cope with the stress of living in a shelter environment. Time and time again, we
find that we can preserve the mental and emotional health of these dogs
through teaching basic obedience, involving the dogs in play groups, and
including simple kennel enrichment such as a Kong filled with
kibble and canned dog food.

Killarney’s story ended wonderfully
since we were able to pull her back from the edge of succumbing to
frustration and stress. We could never thank the
Foundation enough for the gift they have given to Charlotte Mecklenburg
Animal Care and Control and hundreds of other dogs like Killarney.

Learn more about the Foundation’s Train to Adopt program.

Bookmark and Share

More Grants that Change Lives stories:

PHOTOS: The pitties were nestled all snug with their KONGs

The Foundation’s 2011 success stories

A grant helps a rescue group tame three feral kittens

A starving Boxer and her puppies get lifesaving care

Share this Article

Recently Viewed Pets