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Phoenix Blog Competition: Learning Compassion

By Charleen Cordo

© Can Stock Photo / ESIGHT

For 15 years, I worked at an established training and adoption facility for shelter dogs at a facility for mentally ill youths. The dogs, who mostly came from a rural community, I felt that, judging by their behavior, had not always been treated very well.

Many of them had worms or were prone to eating anything they could, some had mange, and most were just not very healthy. Among the behaviors they exhibited were jumping up, shyness around the approach of hands, lack of leash manners, and fearful urination. All of the dogs, upon evaluation, showed a desire to be with people but were insecure.

After much trial and error, I came up with a plan that was both enriching for the dogs and for the youths I worked with. The process brought out the best in the dogs to the point that they completely different dogs at the end of the 10-week training period. The following was the result:

  1. We first and foremost groomed the dogs and kept their environment clean.
  2. We tried our best to keep a routine that was easy to follow (e.g., out for a walk first thing and take them to the same spot to potty followed by praise and treats – this was repeated four times a day).
  3. We integrated short training sessions using positive people interactions, clicker training and treats.
  4. We introduced the dogs to each other one at a time until we were sure they were going to get along and then ended each work session with free play session.
  5. The dogs, after about the second week, were used to the routine and could be let out of their pens without leashes to all go potty together.
  6. We were fortunate to have many business offices that the dogs could visit, as well as a variety of animals to interact with and outdoor areas to run and play. This played a big part in their socialization and they were able to go in and out of buildings, up and down stairs, and meet a variety of people.

New Tricks
When we finished the training, the dogs completed the Canine Good Citizen test and were all successfully adopted out to families. We followed up with the adoption, making sure all was well. During this entire process, I feel our main accomplishment was the bonding that occurred between the dogs, their trainer, and me during the process. By the end of the program, all of the dogs accepted grooming, went potty on cue and were crate trained.

They were allowed to investigate, play, do agility training, interact with numerous people, and play games, and also learned to pay attention to what was asked of them. Their fears were addressed by allowing them to investigate on their own. They were never forced to do something that they felt uncomfortable with. We also played a variety of music for them.

It was so nice seeing the dogs become confident and willing to investigate and learn new behaviors like tricks. For me, routine was the key as well as treating each dog as an individual who was allowed to express their wants and fears so they could become a confident, happy individual – as opposed to being pushed around and forced to do things.

My experience in this program was truly rewarding and enlightening. The youths involved learned compassion and the dogs became happy and personable. We also had a lot of laughs and many of the boys went on to continue their work with shelter dogs when they left the facility.

During my 15 years there, we successfully adopted out 240 dogs into homes. Amongst the dogs was a dog who alerted the father of a paraplegic boy as to when a seizure would occur, a dog who got help for his owner when he needed medical help on a walk, and a dog who became a boat dog with his guardians.

I provided ongoing assistance to the families who adopted the dogs to make sure they were settling in their new homes. I am proud of my success using “throwaway” boys and dogs and having them both benefit exponentially from their joint interactions.

*This post is an entry in our Phoenix 2020 Writers’ Competition. All winning, runner up and selected entries are being published here on the BARKS Blog and in upcoming issues of BARKS from the Guild. For a fully immersive educational experience in animal sheltering and rescue, join us at the Pet Professional Guild Annual Summit in Phoenix, Arizona on September 17-21, 2021.*

About the Author
Charleen Cordo of Be SMART Dog Training in Aurora, Colorado, has been training with force-free methods since 2002. Upon attending multiple professional conferences and workshops, she implemented the methods she had learned about with the shelter dogs and pet dogs she was working with, since there were no other trainers in her rural community. Working with mentally ill youth and helping them relate to and train dogs was the most fulfilling experience of her. She currently conducts private training sessions in clients’ homes and participated in Nosework and Freestyle dance with her own dog as she works to become certified in canine massage.


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