2014-09-17 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

The Buddy Program at Hempstead Town Shelter is a “quadruple win” (which is twice as good as a win/win) because it benefits the dogs, adopters, staff and volunteers. Trainer and behaviorist Laura Garber uses a positive approach that works so well with the shelter population of 100+ dogs, most of them Pits, many of them long-timers, as well as with the humans at the other end of the leash. It’s such a success that she’s brought the “Buddy Program” and additional techniques next door to Last Hope, too.

Laura Garber, CPDT-KA, is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) and is certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), the first national certification for dog trainers. She is a mentor trainer for two online programs – CATCH and ABC Dog Trainers Academies – and is an approved AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) evaluator.


Trainer Laura Garber works with “Danny” during the Hempstead Shelter Buddy Program. Trainer Laura Garber works with “Danny” during the Hempstead Shelter Buddy Program. Her background is eclectic and academic. Before choosing animal behavior, she earned degrees in math and poetry from the University of Penn, studied computer science at Columbia and worked in computer programming for 10 years. Her studies stressed the animal science behind shaping and rehabbing behavior with positive reinforcement instead of dominance/submission methods as seen on TV à la Cesar Millan. (The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has recently released statements pointing out the adverse effects of this method and discouraging the use of punishment with choke, pinch and electronic collars as the first treatment for behavior problems.)

Before coming to Hempstead Shelter over two years ago, Laura was a behavior expert at the ASPCA in NYC and head of behavior at Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City where she set up PAL (Pitbulls Are Loving) which is the basis for the Hempstead Buddy Program.

Laura focuses on relationship training to build the bond between person and pet rather than competitive dog obedience because most owners desire a dog that is a pleasure at home and in public. “Training is the language that binds,” says Laura, “it succeeds when you teach the people, too.” Her former clients were in Hoboken, which is similar to NYC. She makes an interesting observation about Long Islanders who tend to hand the leash over to the trainer and want the problem fixed, whereas NJ and NYC owners readily become part of the solution. Laura thinks: “This may be, in part, because in urban areas dogs co-exist in tight spaces and must be well behaved right away in apartments and on city streets while in the suburbs we have more space.” Therefore, nuisance behavior like incessant barking and dog aggression, though unacceptable, may be tolerated longer by suburban owners. This idea was an eye opener for me and really merits more consideration because other factors are involved, too.

Shelter Director Mike Pastore comes to Hempstead after many years at NYC Animal Care & Control. “Our ultimate goal is to empty the place out in a good way. Over the years we do see fewer dogs coming into municipal shelters but they’re staying longer. At Hempstead the Buddy Program helps us place them appropriately,” he said. Laura Miller and Nora Kogelschatz assist Laura in the Behavior Department.

Buddy Program mini-lessons, pairing shelter dogs with volunteers and staff, work in conjunction with other systems set in place. Laura evaluates the dogs’ temperaments with the SAFER and Marder tests after they have been at the shelter three days. Then they are also given a color designation which denotes how easy they are to handle on walks. The ranking is “white, green, blue, yellow, red” with “white” being the most mellow.

Handlers get a color rating, too, based on their dog abilities. Only staff can walk yellow and red dogs, and move any dog aroused by the crowded kennel in and out for volunteers. Though they are not permitted to walk a dog more difficult than a blue, volunteers can buddy with a yellow “project” dog to reinforce skills learned in the Buddy Program. These dogs have signs that say “Buddied-up and Loved by___” which helps them to stand out to potential adopters.

“Danny,” a young Pit, is a Hempstead project dog. Running arouses him to inappropriate jumping and mouthing on leash. He is learning to walk, stop, automatically sit, and then he gets a treat. Gradually the gait speed increases with the same sequence and payoff until he internalizes self-control.

Learning impulse control is an important Buddy Program exercise. Laura says: “When dogs know what they should do, they are less likely to be frustrated. They spend about 10% of the day responding to human cues and the other 90% on their own.” In another exercise she waits patiently for a dog to sit without a cue and gives a treat as soon as he does. It’s a necessary companion behavior. “I want my dog to be included in as many aspects of my life as possible, which means she needs to sit beside me quietly as I speak to people,” Laura said.

When Laura explains positive reinforcement she uses an analogy of a soda machine versus a slot machine. At first you reinforce like a soda machine. Every desired behavior results in a treat. The constant payoff builds fluency. Later the reward becomes intermittent in the same way as a slot machine. The dog, like the gambler, develops a tolerance to losing because sometimes there is a very desirable payoff. Later on the rewards from treat training become intrinsic. Laura explains: “If you build a happy history, the act of sitting itself becomes reinforcing.”

“Look at the scary dog” is an intervention technique. Laura abides by the “two-second rule” saying: “When a dog locks gaze on a strange dog (or person) for more than two seconds, the dog is not thinking good thoughts. That’s the moment to break his concentration and get him to look at you. “Watch me, Danny” and the instant he does, he gets a treat.” She suggests that if the dog doesn’t turn to you, lure him with a treat. To be a level blue dog walker, a Hempstead volunteer must be adept at the “look at a stranger” and arousal protocol.

The Hempstead Buddy Program is shaping future best friends. Laura believes, “However long they stay with us, we’re enriching their lives by training while making the dogs more adoptable so they can go seamlessly into their new homes. By paying more attention, we learn more about each dog.”

Next week Part 2: More about the Hempstead Buddy Program and Laura Garber’s positive training philosophy.

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