2014-09-24 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

The Buddy Program Part 2: Last week’s “Pets” (available at www.massapequapost.com) described how the Buddy Program, which trains dogs and dog lovers at Hempstead Town Shelter and now Last Hope, is getting positive results with positive reinforcement. This week we will delve deeper into the protocol established at both shelters by behaviorist and trainer Laura Garber.

As Laura says, “Training is the language that binds dogs to their people. It builds the relationship. Once dogs learn how to learn, they continue to learn more quickly.” Through every interaction a dog is learning something, whether that something is positive or negative. Learning is all about making mental connections. Dogs, like kids, figure out quickly which behavior is acceptable with which person. That is why the same dog may jump on certain handlers (who reinforce the bad trait), and walk like an angel next to others (who reinforce calm behavior).


Laura Garber demonstrates Hand Targeting” during Buddy Class at Last Hope. Laura Garber demonstrates Hand Targeting” during Buddy Class at Last Hope. The “cookie drop” is an exercise Laura teaches to keep dogs from jumping up. Think of the treat as manna from heaven. Your hand lowers the tasty morsel toward the dog’s nose as if your hand is a bungee cord. If the dog jumps to grab it, your hand goes right back up toward the sky. As soon as the dog sits or downs quietly on his own, he gets the treat. The trainer’s up and down motion reinforces the dog’s behavior. If the pup doesn’t make the connection, you can guide him by stepping on his leash. Once the dog gets it, you change direction and try bringing the cookie toward him from the side with a horizontal zoom. This motion is a bit more difficult for dogs to grasp.

Another exercise called “Hand Targeting” helps dogs, especially scared shelter dogs, become more comfortable with human hands near their faces. There are so many situations where this tolerance is important. First the handler makes his hand appealing by rubbing it with a treat, and then moves his hand toward the dog’s nose. Once the dog touches the hand, he says “Yes” and uses the same hand to give the dog a treat.

“Go Find It” is an easy game that can engage a frightened or inactive dog. It can also be a necessary distraction when a dog is staring and about to react to a strange dog. The handler breaks off small pieces of treats and drops them nearby, saying “go find it.” Most dogs cannot escape the power of their own nose to reel them into the game.

The retired teacher in me can’t help but compare positive dog training to classroom management, especially when Laura reminded us that “a dog’s quiet behavior often escapes attention even though this behavior should be rewarded. Consider how many times your dog will need to sit quietly at your side.” Similarly in school, teachers spend so much time correcting students that misbehave that the well-mannered kids tend to be ignored. She also cautions about diluting the power of the cue by repeating yourself. It should be “Sit;” not “Sit, Sit, Sit,” which is just like in school.

At the end of each Buddy Program lesson, Laura holds a de-briefing session to go over the evening’s exercises, review happenings during the week and discuss problems with specific dogs. Some of the Hempstead volunteers are in the midst of studying the online ABC training course and Laura mentors them. Danielle, a volunteer, said: “Buddy Class experience helps me understand my dog better. I enjoy meeting like-minded people with the same devotion and dedication to dogs.” There are always more than 100 dogs at Hempstead Shelter so there are white boards with lists of dogs that need work overcoming arousal, stranger/novelty and resource guarding issues. Protocols to help them are called “treatments.” Each treatment is recorded with a check mark.

There are also lists of dogs that are good parallel walkers, dog players, “chillaxers” (the Hempstead term for dogs that would rather not play but just chill out), dogs good with cats and dogs good with small dogs. The good dog players are used to test new dogs undergoing temperament evaluations.

Participating in the Buddy Program helps transform some dogs. The volunteers talked about “Pumpkin,” a Pit, who at first had to be carried down the hallway to go outside. She began to enjoy the classes and has since been adopted. Katie, a volunteer, spoke about “Acis,” a Hound mix: “Acis never knew play or had any pleasant people experiences until we started working with him. At first we thought he was deaf. I brought him a toy back from my vacation.” He has blossomed but is still looking for a home. “Acis” went to the Bellmore Street Fair on Sunday with the shelter.

Laura feels the biggest problem when teaching others how to train is getting everyone to be consistent so positive messages are reinforced in the same way, and so progress made is not undone. This is part of the reason for the color system matching shelter dogs’ ease or difficulty of walking with the ability level of the handler. She also believes that there must be a consistent mindset when placing dogs in homes. Although temperament tests are snapshots in time, they help make recommendations about whether certain dogs could be with small children, teens or just adults. “Before a dog can be placed with young kids, we need to know that the dog is bullet proof,” she insists.

We often say that we wish we knew a shelter dog’s past, but Laura reminds us that “in the end, behavior is behavior. Any time I’m faced with behavior problems, I try to envision what the preferred behavior would look like; then I try to break the bad behavior with proper and positive management techniques.” She and others are sharing these skills via the Buddy Program.

For Adoption: Hempstead Shelter and Last Hope are next-door neighbors in Wantagh. “Rudolph” #8613 is a long-timer at Hempstead Shelter who attended a blessing of the animals last weekend. He is listed as a good parallel walker and good dog player. “Rudolph” helps test new dogs at the shelter. Call 516-785-5220. He met “Timmy,” a wonderful Last Hope Corgi mix, at the blessing. “Timmy” is great with kids, dogs and cats. Call 631-946-9528.

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