My newsletter offers three sections: “Shelter Tales, ” “Out in the Yard,” and “At the Writing Table.”
When I started out posting, it was about bugs and writing, with a few micro-memoir pieces about the outdoors and a sprinkling of book reviews mixed in. Then, in June 2021 I wrote my first blog post on my work with the dogs at the local animal shelter, and it’s been all about dogs ever since. I didn’t slip into a neglect of bugs and other things – I decided to stick to dogs so the blog would be more focused and it would be in line with my unpublished novel, Lucky. But I still love bugs, and of course writing. When I learned about Substack, I saw a publishing platform that would offer a chance to write about dogs, pollinators, ants, gardening, writing, and everything in between in a way that could make sense to the reader.Come visit, here’s the link!
One of the things about working with shelter dogs, and there are a lot of “things,” is that when I work with a dog for a while and they get adopted, I’ve gotten used to the behaviors they exhibited in our end game: a reliable sit, waiting at doors, no jumping on me, no trying to charge out the kennel door when I’m coming in or going out. I’ve helped them become a dog someone wants to bring home, and off they go.
Dorito, a deaf cattle dog, was alert and attentive from the first day I met him, pictured here. He also jumped, grabbed at clothing, went bonkers if you reached for him, spun and darted and dashed when he was on leash, and was earning the reputation of being an all-around brat. But over the course of 7 sessions in 4 weeks, he learned hand signals for sit, down, touch, come, look. And he made up a variant of kick-ball fetch that showed just how smart he was – he’d retrieve the ball, bring it to the top of a slope and let it roll down to me. If he saw it wasn’t going to get right to me, he’d run to it, correct its course and go back to the top of the slope. Over time, he went from a bundle of behavior problems to a joy and was adopted by a family who knew his breed. He went home with them to become part of a trio of family dogs.
While I was still working with Dorito, I began working with Mowgli. When I met him, Mowgli presented a big challenge at his kennel door – whether you were going in or trying to leave, he scrambled to get out. As it turns out, a big dog can get themselves into narrow spaces, and Mowgli was skilled at pushing his way through.
But out in the play yard, he chilled to the point of being aloof. It was clear that people were just his ticket to get outside – hanging out with you was not on his agenda at all. He didn’t play games, he didn’t sit or come when called, and “wait” wasn’t an idea he’d ever come across. But he learned it all, including stellar manners when you’d get him or return him to his kennel. After months at the shelter, he was adopted.
Even though I didn’t work with Dorito for nearly as long as I’ve worked with other shelter dogs, they were such intense sessions – and I spent so much time researching how to work with deaf dogs – that it seems we must have met for many more times. Mowgli I did work with many more times – 29 visits over 4 months.
Working with shelter dogs like this is a time commitment, it’s an emotional commitment, and it takes up a lot of mental bandwidth. After a year and a half and over thirty dogs, with about half that number being individuals I worked with at a pretty intense level, I’ve learned an essential truth about working with shelter dogs – there will always be another dog to work with. So the dog I’ve intentionally formed a bond with exits my life, and I start on building a bond with a new dog.
The contrast between the dog that just found a home and this new dog can be pretty stark. To be honest, it can be a challenge to make the shift – I need to set my expectations back to zero and build from there based on my observations. It can be discouraging when a new dog seems a very long way from showing the kind of behaviors that will help them get adopted. I have to remind myself what a whirling dervish Dorito could be, how aloof Mowgli was when I met him, how aggressive Gils’ greeting behavior could look, how timid Karen and Buddy were. It was work to get them to a good place, and it’s going to be work to get this new dog there, too.
Sometimes when I’m starting up with a dog, I stand outside their kennel and look at them barking at me, or throwing themselves against the kennel door, or backing away as though I am one scary being, and for just a second, I think, “Seriously? From scratch, again?” And then I see this new dog as an individual. I watch them and start figuring out how we’ll start. I put my foot sideways in front of the kennel door to block it from swinging out and hitting me when I unlatch it, and head in. It is a new day, a new dog. Game on.
Sometimes when a family is interested in a dog, they opt to foster first rather than move right to adoption. That’s pretty common – and completely acceptable – at the Potsdam Humane Society. After all, we’re all hoping for a great match. Gils has impressed some folks, and that’s no surprise: he’s a dog with heart and smarts. So fingers crossed that he and his foster folks do just fine together and they move on to adoption!
Next up for me? I started right up with three 5 month old puppies – all somewhat shy and all leash-adverse due to their lack of experience. The more outgoing two have been adopted, but as of this morning, Buddy is still there. Read more below and check out this quick video: he’s really a smart, good-natured boy: Buddy shows off “sit”
When you visit a shelter and the dogs start barking, you might get the impression that chaos reigns. And you might think that this environment isn’t very conducive to dog training. But you’d be wrong, at least at the Potsdam Humane Society Shelter. Here’s a video of PHS staff member Pedro H. DeSouza working with our boy Gils on the cue “down:” VIDEO of PEDRO and GILS working together in the PHS dog park.
That nice job with consistency and follow-through on Pedro’s part pays off – Gils understands what’s being asked of him and is happy to oblige. “Yes” serves as the marker word that Gils has correctly followed the cue, “down,” and the treat is the reward. Gils also knows the cues “come,” “sit,” “touch,” and “shake.” Gils has a tough-guy look, but he’s also a smart boy who will reward the person who gives him a home and, hopefully, continues with his training.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written about the dogs at the Potsdam Humane Society. There’s been some turn over there – which is an excellent thing. Of the dogs I’ve visited with and written about, Pepper, Angel, and Lizzie have gone on to new homes. They’re nice dogs, but as it happened, I didn’t work with them very much. I visited a lot with Teddy and Gils.
Great news about Teddy – this excellent boy has found a home! His new person posts on Facebook about their wonderful new life together, and they seem a good match. Yay!
Meanwhile, Gils is still at the shelter. He knew “sit” and “down” really well when I met him, and we’re working on “wait.” I discovered today that we have more success when I cue him to “wait” (hold his position) when he’s lying down. From now on, I’ll start our “wait” training sessions when he’s “down.” But today I got a nice photo of him holding “sit.”
Gils is one of those dogs whose great personality doesn’t really shine best in the kennel hallway. But get him out of the kennel hallway and you’ve got a treat-motivated, attentive dog who loves to play with soft toys (here’s a sample: Gils’ Play Drive). Hopefully someone will take the time to get to know him. He’s a good boy.
When dogs first come to the Potsdam Animal Shelter, they typically spend about three weeks in the intake wing for assessment and essential care. Gils, a two-year-old who arrived at PHS the second week of November, spent two months there. Why that long? Here’s the description of Gils on the shelter’s Facebook page,
“Gils came to us underweight, starving and with an understandable mistrust of the creatures known as humans.”
He needed the extra time to get used to the idea that people can bring good things into his life. The staff mentioned him as a dog I might like to work with. Given Gils’ rough start, the plan was that I’d meet him with a staff member along.
I suppose this is where I’m supposed to build suspense about that first visit. But given Gils’ sad start, I’ll jump right to the good news. Check out this video of Gils in the Annex. to see for yourself how far he has come. Then check out the photos below.
Bu that’s not the vibe Gils was giving off when I first saw him. His adoption kennel is right next to Teddy’s, one of the two dogs I usually visit these days. Here’s a reminder of who Teddy is –
At first, whenever I’d stop at Teddy’s kennel, Gils would bark wildly as though he were trying to scare me away. If you don’t recognize this behavior as possibly a coping strategy for dealing with stress, it can be a very convincing show of ferocity. But I ignored the show, and he soon learned that when I stood in front of his kennel and asked him to ‘sit,’ I’d give him a treat when he sat. He was still barking some, but the serious tail wagging when I turned my attention to him was a give-away that he was learning I could be trusted. (And I don’t mean the slow wag that can signal anything from “Hi,” to “Mmmm, what’s this person up to, maybe I’ll bite them.” I mean the kind of tail wag that’s got the velocity of windshield wipers set on high).
This week I got my chance to do more than talk to Gils from the other side of his kennel door. I happened to come in with Teddy at the moment a staff member discovered Gils’ kennel had just turned into a poopy mess. I offered to take Gils outside to make clean-up easier, and she got him out of the kennel and we did a hand-off. Gils was happy to go with me; I was happy to discover that although he was a puller when it came to leash behavior, he wasn’t too powerful for me. We headed for the Annex where play and good times commenced.
Gils has lots of personality and with all that extra skin he sometimes has the look of a plush toy dog.
When I started volunteering at the shelter, I had some early success in training dogs in the basic cues that would help them be more adaptable in a home environment and therefore more adoptable: sit, down, wait, leave it, look, touch. I could teach them to take treats gently and to greet me without jumping up. I knew how to do that from the obedience and agility classes I completed with my dog, Gudgeon. But I also needed reminders that would help me fine-tune my training, and I needed new information that would help me advance it.
For online inspiration, I turn to Victoria Stillwater, a high-profile trainer whose popular “It’s Me or the Dog” television episodes condense the path to great results into what she acknowledges are deceptively short time frames. Still, for a dose of cheer leading and excellent basic guidelines to dog training, the show works. Her website offers a greatly expanded window onto the wisdom she has to offer.
But when I have a training issue to puzzle over and want the step-by-step-by-step path to great results, I look to the McCann Dogs website.
Of course, both of these links will lead you to ample opportunities to spend your money – but there are also many, many free videos that you can easily access online. Here’s a link to free videos by McCann: McCann Videos.
I’ve visited with several dogs at the shelter who’ve made progress in their behavior and/or in reducing the level of stress they experience. For some of them, like Belle, Cedric, Dorito, Donnie, Mowgli, and Teddy, I think it’s fair to say they made progress in part because of the time I spent with them. That’s not because the conditions are ideal or because I have any training secrets up my sleeve. I just work on my training skills and try to offer the dogs positive guidance to better behavior. I also work to fit in some quiet, loving time to help them feel more secure.
I love dogs, but believe me, nothing I do besides offer affection comes naturally. When I encounter a behavior that stumps me, I scour my books and the Internet for ideas on how to improve my training.
Any willing person can make a real difference in the life of shelter dogs. (Or cats, if you’re a cat person.) If you think this kind of volunteering might be for you, I hope you’ll contact your local shelter and give it a try. And if you have a dog and aren’t sure how to deal with a behavior or move beyond teaching them “sit,” I hope you give those free videos a try. And, of course, I’ll be glad to hear about your experiences with training and to get your recommendations for the training resources you’ve tried.
I don’t know how others were spending the last couple of days of 2021. But I can tell you how I was spending part of them – more time with the pups at the shelter! I usually spend about an hour at the shelter, visiting two dogs, one at a time. But these are holiday times, and the day before 2021 ended was a three dog day – I hung out with Pepper, Teddy, and Lizzy.
I’ve already introduced you to my sweetheart, Teddy. let me introduce you to Pepper.
When I take her to the shelter dog park she stays about 5 feet from me at first and then ventures further. I thought this was a sign about how people-oriented she is. And while I still think she is very affectionate and will make somebody a loving companion, I got a different idea about her when I took her up to the Annex for the first time. Check out her reaction to the park bench with its dog sculpture –
She’s the first dog who has reacted to that wooden dog as though it were a dog. Now I think when we’re in the park she sticks close because she hasn’t had much life experience. She was dubious about the agility tunnel as well, but she knew just what a metal folding chair was for – dog perch.
Pepper is a friendly, not very big dog. Makes her a good candidate for adoption . . . here’s hoping.
Next up was Teddy – he’s pretty business-like in the dog park, if you catch my meaning. I did get him to do a few zoomies before we headed to the Annex. And there – well, Teddy hits that room like a kid hits a play ground. He galloped a wide swoop then charged through the tunnel and to the park bench where he spun circles under the bench then popped to the other side of the bench and did circles there before galloping back in my direction. For Teddy, the Annex is FUN. A few minutes of that and then he’s ready to settle in for some serious cuddling. He is one sweet boy.
On the way back to the shelter building we met another woman coming out. She is an amazing human being – she sets a chair by a kennel door and reads to the dogs. Teddy wanted to go to say hello to her, and she was all smiles. “He’s so different on leash!” she told me. And it’s true. If you walked the kennel hallway and that was your only sight of Teddy, he’d be just another shelter dog going bonkers at the sight of people. You’d only get a full idea about him if you got him away from that setting. Fingers crossed that someone takes the time to do that.
Last but not least, is Lizzy. This photo gives some sense of what she looks like, but you’d have to see her in person to appreciate the subtle blush of red that runs through her coat.
In earlier posts, I’ve compared hanging out with the shelter dogs to teaching. Here’s another way they are similar – as a teacher, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever discover if you made much difference in any one students’ life. But sometimes, you’re pretty darn sure you did. I’m sure the woman who reads to the dogs makes a difference in their lives, and I’m sure the time I’ve spent with the various dogs has made a difference in their lives. I find myself wanting to give a sales pitch for hanging out with shelter dogs, but I’ll leave it at this – I hope in 2022 many more people discover the pleasure of visiting animals at a shelter.
Okay, I may say this a lot when I start working with a new dog, but I love Teddy! Besides simply showing me his sweet personality on our first visit, he checks off a lot of the “I could adopt him” boxes – he’s mid-sized, he’s pretty good on leash, he’s affectionate, and there seems to be a limit to his energy level. These pluses don’t erase the barriers to my adopting a dog – for starters, I’m away from home a lot, and I have a yard with a shape that doesn’t lend itself to fencing. But those barriers are no defense against falling in love, and I just have to toughen up and focus on helping Teddy get to a place where he can make a good impression on someone else.
I think Teddy’s been in some version of dog pound / shelter since October, but he came to the humane society where I met him in November. Dogs spend some time in the intake kennels before they are available for the public and volunteers to meet. I didn’t see him when he first came in, but the shelter photo of him offers some idea of his past.
Whether he was so skinny because he was mistreated, or was lost and not finding much to eat, or was too stressed out to eat isn’t known. He’s gained weight now, and looks like an entirely different pup.
The Annex building is a pretty recent addition to the shelter facility. On days the dog park is too muddy, or the weather is too cold, or the wind keeps us out from under the big trees that surround the dog park, the Annex is a blessing. The dogs get to run and we all get to stay warm and dry. There’s some agility equipment in the room, and to my surprise, on our first Annex visit, Teddy headed right over to the tunnel . . .
Teddy really likes the tunnel. I think he likes to be be enclosed. On our third visit, the tunnel was resting against the park bench and Teddy went to crawl under the bench by going behind the tunnel. The tunnel rolled away and Teddy seemed very surprised. He recovered though, and settled down under the park bench.
When I first saw the park benches in the dog park, I figured they were for the people. I definitely use the benches, but I learned that the dogs had their uses for the benches, too.
As far as Teddy goes, I think he likes the security of being in the tunnel or under the bench. Once he gets to his true home, I suspect he’d like a crate as a home base. In the meantime, I’ll visit, work him through the commands he already knows, “sit,” and “down,” and continue working with him on waiting at doors – he’s already pretty good at this and has quit using his nose as a battering ram to get on the other side. We’ll work on “look,” and work on getting him to move further when I cue him to “touch” my hand.
Because he came in with no history, for some cues I can’t be sure what he knew already and what’s new. On our last visit I discovered he’s very reliable when I ask him to “sit,” and then “wait.” I walked the full length of the room, and he stayed put.
Whether the cue “wait” was new to him or not doesn’t really matter. The lesson I take from the time I spend with Teddy is that he’s attentive to verbal and visual cues, he’s treat motivated, and he’s a loving dog. Despite that Boxer/Pit Bull tough guy façade, Teddy is very affectionate. He flashes a wonderful smile that communicates his pleasure in hanging out with a person. But capturing that smile with my phone in one hand while I pet him with the other is proving tricky. I’ll work on it!
I’ve been working with Mowgli since the beginning of August. We had a short interruption when a couple took him home but discovered he was not the right dog for them. The manners Mowgli had gained over time fell apart a little – and that’s no surprise given the rapid changes in his life. His good humor remained, though, and his manners got right back in line and were improving.
While I was worrying that Mowgli wasn’t going to find his person, someone else was keeping an eye on him. She arranged to come meet him, and, to everybody’s delight, she took him home to live with her!
Mowgli is a shy dog, especially with men, and he lacks confidence – he is not a dog who will run to you looking for affection when he first meets you. While he does need someone who will take the time to earn his trust, his friendliness and intelligence shine through during training sessions. Fortunately, the woman who came to visit him saw his potential.
Mowgli is an intelligent, spirited companion with a great sense of humor. Hopefully he’s found his true home.
On my third visit with Cedric, I sat on the floor and we embarked on him giving me the sniff test and me gently rubbing the side of his face for short sessions. He took treats more easily, and it seemed that we were starting up where we left off, not starting over.
I decided to move on to hooking the leash to his collar. He stood still for that, and I took the time to loop the leash under his chest and back up through his collar. I knew the extra handling this involved would add to his discomfort, but the prospect of Cedric slipping his leash while we were outside and launching his shy self into the world wasn’t one I was interested in. If this maneuver set us back and delayed going outside, so be it. He stood well enough for it, but when I was done, he backed off to the safety of his bed and averted his gaze.
I averted my gaze as well, and spoke to him quietly. It didn’t take him much time to look me in the eye and let me know he was still game for what came next.
I wasn’t sure that he still wouldn’t decide against bravery, but when I stood up, his response was clear. He stood up too, and joined me at the kennel door. On the walk to the shelter dog park, he was a little swervy on leash, but never tripped me up or jumped up or forged ahead. In the park he did some zoomies, and when I ran, he ran with me. He looked very happy, and even playful for a small window of time.
But his zoomies tended to take him far from me, and he went to the park gate to go back well before my twenty-minute timer would have gone off. My response was to join him at the gate and get him to reengage in play by running so he’d run with me. He was, I’m happy to be able to report, willing to be drawn back into happiness. I take that as a sign that, with experience, Cedric will build up some endurance for having a good time.