Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 10
Ok, time to finish up. In Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 9, I talked more specifically about what I was doing (or not) during the craziness of last year, primarily focusing on the role NORMAN was playing at home (short version: driving me crazy) as well as being selected to move up to Yellow level. Which was good in that it gave me the tools to work with NORMAN (and ALFIE) at home. And bad in that I now had a lot of yellow dogs at the shelter to contend with too (and this was during the time of 2011 when we had a LOT of yellow level dogs).
I would note that I often joked with other volunteers that I often came to the shelter to get a break from my two crazy dogs at home. Because although there were lots of them and a lot of yellow dogs specifically at the shelter, there was the advantage that, after I worked with them, I could put them back. Mine, I didn’t have that luxury. Anyhow, this is probably as good a segue as I’m going to get to talk about yellow dogs in a bit more detail.
Yellow Dogs: Introduction
I briefly described yellow dogs in Part 6 of this series but want to go into more detail here both. I think if there is a single word I’d use it would be ‘unpredictable’. Because while BB dogs can have multiple issues, they are pretty much consistent on a day to day and minute to minute basis. They have those behaviors and show them all the time.
Sure, they can run quite the gamut (from being just above a blue dot dog all the way to sub-yellow) but they are fairly consistent across the board. Simply, it’s rare for a BB dog to surprise you after you’ve walked them once or twice. Usually, with regular training, if anything their bad behaviors go away and they get easier to handle. Occasionally, BB dogs (especially at the sub-yellow level) will escalate or start worsening and get moved up. But those are in the minority.
But this tends not to be the case for yellow dogs, especially when they first enter the shelter (our longer term residents are far more consistent). Rather, yellow dogs can vary day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute. A dog might be out of it’s mind (with pent up energy) on morning shift and show a host of bad behaviors and perfectly well behaved later in the day. A dog you’re walking that feels like a blue dog might get a smell and lose it’s ever loving mind out of absolutely nowhere. Everything is fine then you’ll see it stiffen, hunch and start zooming. And this can happen really, really quickly.
And what this means, more than anything, is that you can’t let your attention flag for a second with yellow dogs. Because in that moment you zone out, they will lose it and it all goes wrong. That’s on top of having the training techniques to be able to manage/handle such dogs. That’s on top of hopefully being able to work with them to get the behavior under control.
A lot of it is learning to read dog body language and signals because it’s better if you can stop the behavior before it gets out of control than manage it afterwards. It means getting a lot more attuned to the dogs and, again, you have to pay absolute attention at all times as well as learning/being taught what you’re even looking for in the first place. So what kinds of behaviors are we talking about?
Yellow Dog Behavior: Part 1
Yellow dogs tend to come in two primary flavors. The first are dogs who are shy, timid and terrified. Sometimes this is just a response to the shelter environment per se, sometimes it’s more entrenched (probably as a function of past life experiences). The others group are dogs that would have been called dominant in past times. Since that word is currently out of vogue, I’ll describe them as pushy.
They tend to push boundaries to see what they can get away with; kind of like really bratty children who’s parents let them run wild. Handlers or owners who don’t show strong leadership get overwhelmed by such dogs. You can usually get a feel for dogs who’s previous owners let it happen, those dogs are used to getting their way and often don’t respond well initially when you don’t let them get away with it anymore. They can throw what I call dog tantrums or get frustrated and start doing all kinds of bad things because they aren’t getting their way. Just like bratty children.
It’s important to note that those two categories of dogs require completely different approaches. The same types of training approaches overall that work best with pushy dogs will backfire completely with the shy/scared dogs. They will read almost anything of the sort almost aversively and retreat even further; even the mere use of a clicker may terrify them and too vigorous of a ‘yes’ may terrify them (any loud noise being scary to them). By the same token, if you use the techniques with a pushy dog that you’d use with a timid dog, you’d get steamrollered.
With the timid/shy dogs you have to go very slowly, use a lot of soothing words, start with very easy games (when dogs learn that they have some control over their environment through operant conditioning, they start to become more confident overall), and even use different games (such as targeting or touching, teaching a dog that approaching things is better than retreating from them). It can often take 15-30 minutes to even get them to come out of or go back to the kennel. You have to make them feel comfortable and safe and reward even the slightest movements in the right direction.
In contrast, the pushy dogs require more of a NILIF (discussed in Because We Let Them) or I Hold the Resources/leadership type approach. They have to learn that to get what they want (treats, toys, outside, playtime) they have to do what you want first. This eventually teaches them that they don’t get to do what they want when they want and that being polite (or at least showing self control) brings good things and that being impolite gets them nothing. They have to learn to keep control to get anything from you.
I’ll be honest that, in the last 9 months or so that I’ve been working at yellow, I’ve found that I am more comfortable/successful with the pushier dogs. I think it’s a function of working so much with NORMAN along with my own temperament and I’m a little bit better at establishing strong boundaries and rules with the pushy dogs to get them to back off.
Mind you, I can work with the shy ones, at least to some degree but my focus on efficiency tends to make me lose patience; there are too many other dogs to get out for me to spend 30 minutes getting a dog out of the cage or trying to build confidence. At most I’ll walk them, try to reward even small movements of confidence or approach, and I tend to let them control the walk and the movement so they feel as if they have some control.
But that’s about the extent of my involvement in general. We have other volunteers who are just amazing with the more timid dogs. They have the temperament and the feel and the motivation so I’d rather let them do the heavy lifting on that one. I know my strengths, they know theirs and that’s why it’s good that we are all at the shelter.
But with the pushy dogs, I can get them out of their cage easily (making sure they aren’t freaking out before I leash them up) and work on impulse control the entire time from start to finish. I make them settle down before running through every door (I make the really crazy ones give me a sit), I do NOT let them drag me down the hall and I’ve found that the first couple of minutes is where you establish who is in charge and if you let them drag you to the runs, the rest of the walk is awful; you have to establish who’s in control immediately.
If you don’t, the dog takes over and I see other volunteers complaining about certain dogs pulling them across the field; dogs I never have a problem with. Frankly, I would rather them pee on the floor then think they can drag me anywhere. In the field, I’ll be a tree for as long as it takes until they come back to me, even if it means we only get 10 feet into the field before we turn around. Eventually they figure out that being calm is the only way to move forward and it’s the only thing that works.
But because I’ve focused more on the pushier dogs, that’s what I’m going to describe next.
Yellow Dog Behavior: Part 2
Yellow dogs are often ferocious leash pullers. They are used to getting their way which means going where they want when they want. Since many are on the larger size this can be a tough combination; some volunteers can’t physically handle such dogs for a lack of strength or sheer body mass. Even with the EZ-walk harnesses that we use yellow dogs can be tough to handle sometimes.
Some of them don’t interact with humans well, they are aloof or whatever and have to be taught how to bond, recognize or pay attention with humans. The same dogs may show a variety of other behaviors including leash biting, nipping at clothes (which can often turn into biting), lunging or height seeking (where they jump up at you with sort of a head pump to try to get you to move back and yield ground). A lot of it again is trying to establish who’s in charge. If they can get you to yield space to them or whatever, they win (apparently horses are doing the same thing when they lean into you). Often yellow dogs will get overaroused during play (or overarouse themselves) which can lead to leash biting, nipping or other default behaviors that have worked for them in the past.
Many of the yellow dogs are reactive (a term we prefer to aggressive). They will lock onto another dog (at distances ranging from a few to 100 feet) and lunge, bark and go nuts. Sometimes this is aggression in terms of wanting to fight (oddly this often comes out of fear, scared dogs figure a good offense is the best defense and attack out of fear to drive the other dog off; ALFIE did this) sometimes it’s wanting to play but not knowing how to do it politely or appropriately (yes, there are good and bad dog manners). It’s not uncommon for our yellow dogs to be otherwise completely well behaved but to be extremely reactive.
Our longest term resident, and my current favorite, Jack (formerly Captain Jack, due to his loss of an eye which makes him look like he has an eyepatch) is an example of this. He’s a total goofball, lovable as hell, walks pretty well on the leash, and rarely pulls; but he’s big and he’s extremely dog reactive. So he stays at yellow.
He’s one of those dogs who is super consistent behaviorally because he’s been with us so long. He won’t ever surprise you, he just has that one major behavior (and a list of restrictions including no small children, no dogs and no cats which is why we haven’t found him the perfect home) that keeps him at yellow. But he’s also one of those dogs that is pretty well adjusted to the shelter. He hangs out on his bed, we get him out consistently, he gets a lot of socialization and playing tug when we have time.
Mind you, it’s not just dogs or cats or squirrels that set dogs off. Some dogs do this in response to cars, or bikes, or buses or men with hats or mustaches or whatever happens to be their personal trigger. So you’ll be walking a yellow dog in the field and someone will come riding down the sidewalk on a bike and suddenly you have 50+ lbs of muscular fury losing it’s shit completely out of nowhere.
Sometimes yellow dogs get what we call the zoomies. They smell or hear something (or just flip the crazy switch in their little brains), hunch over and start running in circles like they are out of their mind. Sometimes this leads into other arousal behaviors, sometimes they just chill out of their own accord. The former more than the latter. It would be sort of funny to watch except for the fact that you’re attached to the zooming beast by a 6 foot lead.
But sort of the point of what I’m getting at is that, to handle yellow dogs, you have to be prepared to deal with any and/or all of these behaviors. Which is what I got in yellow class. Which was good, again not only for the shelter but because, for the first 6+ or so months, NORMAN showed almost every behavior I listed above. And before I come back to NORMAN, I might as well address a question that may be on your mind.
Dogs Have Teeth and Claws which are Sharp
A question I get from time to time is whether or not I’ve gotten bitten during my time volunteering. And up until I started walking Yellow dogs the answer was no. As I’ve mentioned, the Austin Humane Shelter doesn’t work with dogs who show actual aggression towards humans; of course, accidents do happen. And since moving to yellow I have gotten bitten or clawed three times where it had to be written up (any time skin is broken).
Frankly, on top of whatever ability I have working with pushy yellow dogs, I also seem to have a propensity for bringing out the worst in dogs. I don’t know if it’s because I’m reckless, moving too fast or overconfident but I’ve managed to find problem behaviors in altogether too many dogs. I’ve even joked that I want to know who holds the record for most dog bites so that I can break it; this is not found to be amusing for some reason. And it’s actually not funny as any skin-breaking bite gets the dog sent into rabies quarantine for 7-10 days which is a huge stress for the dog. It may be a minor issue for me but it’s bad for the dogs all around.
But in one two week span I swear that I got every potentially problematic dog to come after me. One jumped up with an open mouth and caught my oblique on the way down, breaking skin. Writeup, dog gets sent to rabies quarantine. Another, a huge monster of a dog, decided to come through my torso to get her toy, clawing me. No broken skin, no write up. Another dog got my finger when I was dumb enough to try to get a sit holding a toy she wanted. She lunged at the ball, caught my finger and broke skin. You get the idea.
Mind you, it doesn’t bother me that much, I take it as the price for playing. And someone is eventually going to find out if a dog has an issue; might as well be me. That’s what happens when you work around what are ultimately wild animals (domesticated or not) in a high stress environment. I will say that that was one behavior that I did not have to deal with at home. ALFIE was a bit touch sensitive and would snap very early on but he’s over that. And he has very good bite inhibition. NORMAN is mouthy as hell (and strong to boot) but also has good bite inhibition as well. Which was the only way I could think of to bring the topic back to….
NORMAN: Part 2
As I mentioned, had he stayed at the shelter NORMAN would have been a yellow dog. It was part his age, part his breed, part his temperament and assuredly part of his background. They had found him as a stray at 4 months old and he had probably not been well socialized (many dogs learn proper behavior from littermates and their moms).
And I was dealing with all of it. NORMAN was definitely on the pushy end of things, he’d height seek and did quite a bit of leash biting. He was also what I call ‘play reactive’, he’d lock onto a dog 50 or more feet away and just lose his mind, barking, whining and lunging. He didn’t want to fight (that was ALFIE) but wanted to play so badly that he’d lose control. He’d also throw what I refer to as tantrums. This was usually during training, I’d be working with him on something and he’d decide that he deserved a treat and if I didn’t get it for him he’d start jumping and barking at me to let me know of his displeasure.
He also got crazy cases of the zoomies both inside the house and out. We’d be out for a walk, he’d sniff a patch of dirt and just lose his shit. He’d start barking, and lunging at me or running in circles or trying to play/fight with ALFIE, and now I’d have 80 pounds of dogs on two leashes that were all tangled up and I’m trying to keep them from killing each other as ALFIE is snapping at NORMAN who is jumping at me.
Or we’d come across another dog and they’d both go nuts. NORMAN wanted to play and ALFIE wanted to fight and I’m trying to drag them away until they calmed down….And it was just exhausting. Even if NORMAN didn’t lose it, the leashes would get tangled (often kicking off an episode) as they went opposite directions and I was just exhausted. I thought about dropping the leashes a number of times, almost hoping they’d just run away. It was bad and it really took it out of me.
This was overlapping with the yellow class and, with new leash walking techniques in hand, I had to move to walking the dogs separately to get them under control. I’d take them each out every morning for 30-45 minutes to work on loose leash walking, teach them when they could and couldn’t go sniff. And I was working on their reactivity around the neighborhood as best as I could. I knew where the dogs were and could use them to play the click to calm game with both dogs. About the only good thing was that the constant walking was at least keeping me lean.
But combined with some bad shoes, pounding the pavement was making my knees ache. This was also about when I was supposed to start the buildup for the next season of skating/cycling and, frankly, I just lost interest. If you’ve wondered why I haven’t obsessively described my preparation for skating or cycling this year it’s because I’m not doing either. I haven’t skated in months nor ridden my bike and I’m apparently ‘retired’ again (just training for ‘health’ or whatever, not exactly sure). At least for this year. There may be more going on than that, I’m not entirely sure.
Please Don’t Leave Me
Of course there was more than this. NORMAN had some separation anxiety and I had managed to poison his crate by using it incorrectly. So I’d leave the house not knowing what I’d come home to. He wasn’t completely house trained so it might be shit all over the house. Or he’d go nuts and destroy something.
Both ALFIE and NORMAN are chew beasts and NORMAN can destroy just about anything. But I’ve finally trained him to only chew appropriate toys. ONe he loves are my old skate wheels. They are soft enough to be chewy but resilient. Still, this is what he does to them. On the left is one of my inline skate wheels. On the right a urethane skateboard wheel.
One day, he dug a 6″ square hole in the carpet by the front door one day (dogs apparently try to dig their way out of the house to get back to their master) when he got stressed out. One time both dogs managed to get into a bottle of yohimbine and they both went nuts. The main room was covered with diarrhea and they had just gone ballistic. I wish I had it on video.
Every time I left the house, I’d be afraid of what I’d be coming home too. I felt almost trapped, I wouldn’t/couldn’t risk being away more than about 3 hours and about the only other place I went was the shelter (as I mentioned above, I joked that I came to the shelter to get away from my own crazy dog) and then go home to mine. But between the various disasters at the shelter and having moved up to yellow, it was a lot less fun than it had been. I had high stress dogs at home and high stress dogs at the shelter and for several months I really wasn’t sure that moving up had been the right thing to do.
Even inside the house playtime would get out of control and every time I sat down to even try and get work done, the dogs would be tying it up or knocking shit over. And it just didn’t seem to be improving and it was frustrating me. Mind you, this was due to a misconception I had formed based on my work at the shelter.
I’d often only see a given dog once a week or so and, in the interim, 20-30 other volunteers would work with them. So I’d be seeing these big jumps in behavior every time I personally worked with the dog. And this gave me unrealistic expectations about NORMAN and ALFIE (who I was training daily) until I realized the mistake I was making.
On and On and On and On
And this went on with me for months and months. Through the end of December and into 2012. I wasn’t able to travel for Christmas since I wasn’t comfortable boarding the dogs; I’m not even sure that they are boardable given their behavioral issues. Various people who had to listen to me bitch suggested that I rehome NORMAN. And I did consider it, I wondered if I wasn’t in over my head and it just wasn’t fun. Thing is, you sign a contract that says the dog goes back to the Austin Humane Shelter and I had two issues with this.
The first is that it felt like a copout; I had just moved up to yellow level at the shelter and supposedly knew how to train these beasts. And I couldn’t make headway with my own little monsters. Giving up on NORMAN would have felt like too much of a failure. Fine, maybe that’s the wrong reason to have not done it but it was my reason.
The second issue was that I couldn’t have bared to see him at the shelter had I taken him back. He would have been confused and scared seeing me and it would just have destroyed me. This was really driven home to me earlier this year when our own Captain Jack had been adopted. And I was there the day his family had to bring him back; and I was the first one to take him out to the field afterwards.
And the dog that I had only ever seen be pretty happy and contented spent the entire time in the field whining and crying and looking around confused. He didn’t know where his owners were, or what was going on. He’s fine now, mind you, but it was really tough to watch even acutely. I just It was the final straw that told me that, good or bad NORMAN was mine to keep. I had taken him in with some understanding of my obligation and, damn it, I wasn’t going to let him down or give up.
Mind you, when it was time to move into the new house, I did think about shipping him off to outer Mongolia.
It Gets Better
And gradually, day by day and week by week, things settled down. The disasters at the shelter finally resolved and they are actually making a concerted effort to keep the number of yellow and orange dog numbers manageable. As I’ve gotten more experience and practice with the dogs the shelter isn’t nearly the stress that it was. I haven’t even gotten bitten in a couple of months now so that’s good.
And NORMAN has finally come more under control. Some of it is just getting older (he’s about 15-16 months, which is doggie teenagerdom) and some of it my relentless training with him. He can still get overaroused from time to time but he’s learning to turn it off most of the time. And leash walking is about 95% reliable with both of them.
ALFIE walks at my left, NORMAN at my right and they almost never break position unless I tell them ‘free’ (which means that they can go sniff or do whatever). They can still get wound up with other dogs, especially if we come across them without warning within about 10 feet. But that’s manageable. NORMAN will throw the very occasional freakout but they are few and far between now. And he’ll settle himself down almost immediately if I ignore him or call ‘Red light’.
NORMAN hasn’t had an accident in the house in months and will reliably wait to potty and/or let me know when he has to go. Thank god. More interestingly, I’ve seen changes in ALFIE’s behavior. He’s also getting calmer overall, he’ll try to initiate play (bringing me a toy he likes) but if I don’t engage he’ll lay down on the floor or couch most of the time. His time around NORMAN has made him more confident. Around other dogs and overall. And I think he’s been a calming influence on NORMAN; in fact I can use him as a teaching tool treating him for doing something calm and relaxed and letting NORMAN figure out that that’s the way to a treat himself.
He’s even picked up behavior patterns that he never showed before. For exmaple, he never so much as tried to jump up on me until he saw NORMAN do it and figured it looked like fun. NORMAN also likes to burrow under the covers to sleep; ALFIE used to freak out if I threw a blanket over him. Now they fight to get under there first. My pack, finally, is normal; or at least as normal as it’s going to get.
I’ve even half thought about a third dog although I do know better. NORMAN needs to be at least 2 years old and I need to be finished with both of their overall basic training before I even consider it. Not that I don’t see dogs at the shelter that wouldn’t fit my goal of building an army of mildly mentally deficient white dogs. Anyhow.
So it’s been a long way to get here but it’s all good. The shelter is more or less back to normal function; frankly compared to last year I’m not sure anything could compare craziness wise. We’ve had a few minor blips but nothing to match any of last year. My dogs at home are under control, we’ve got a regular stream of new yellow dogs (and volunteer numbers are coming back up so we aren’t stretched so thin) and I’m back to having fun and helping the dogs again. My own dogs keep me endlessly entertained and I get to help the other dogs too. So I can’t complain. Nor do I want to.