by Brooke Kansier
Lansing Township News Staff Reporter
Lansing’s Capital Area Humane Society is going above and beyond basics like food and vet care. Their staff’s emphasis on behavior and training is giving many dogs a second chance.
“Training is a huge priority here,” said CAHS Behavior Manager Samantha Miller. “It’s a way we can look to save more lives and make those lives better.”
The shelter’s training program has grown significantly over the course of CAHS’s 15-year lifespan and now includes intensive programs like mental exercise and obedience training.
“The more training we can incorporate, the more likely we can adopt our dogs out, keep them adopted and keep them happy while they’re here,” said Miller.
A dog’s training begins with a behavior evaluation shortly after they arrive at CAHS. This tests the animal’s personality and flags any warning signs or behavior issues the dog might have, such as anxiety problems or guarding of food and toys.
“Basically, we take them into our behavior room, and we see what toys they like, if they are social with us and come to greet us,” said Miller. “We touch them and pet them.We see how they behave with other dogs. If they have any issues, we go from there.”
If any issues are identified, the training staff works with the dog to overcome them, whether with gradual training and socialization or other confidence-boosting exercises.
“If you have a really fearful dog, for example, a good thing to start out with would be basic training to build their confidence,” said Miller. “Then slowly we’d begin to incorporate things like socialization to get them comfortable with us.”
Trainers also work with dogs that have issues such as hoarding and guarding things like rawhide bones or their food bowl.
“We will gradually introduce higher-value food and approach them and give them something better than they have in their bowl,” said Miller. “So they learn that approaching doesn’t mean we are going to take their food. We want to change the way they think about people coming near their bowls.”
Helping the dogs get over issues like this not only makes them safer and more adoptable, but according to Miller, introduces them to variety of households they might not have succeeded in before.
“If we work with them through their food, it makes it safer to send them home with families with children. It opens up a whole other group of people to adopt the animal that might not have before,” she said.
Many dogs at CAHS are able to be put up for adoption right away pending their behavior evaluations. Occasionally a dog is held back in order to receive more training, particularly if he is not ready to be placed in a home or put into the shelter’s kennel environment.
“If we have a dog that we don’t think is safe to adopt out yet, we will keep them unavailable while we work with them through these issues,” said Miller. “Other dogs with problem behaviors can be labeled high-priority dogs. These dogs can go up for adoption, but our staff still gives them a lot of work.”
High priority dogs that exhibit anxiety or confidence issues or food and toy guarding receive special attention.
“High-priority dogs are worked with every day, so they have a lot of training,” said Miller. “If you adopt a high-priority dog, they are going to know all of their basic commands, they will have plenty of obedience training, and we also work on leash and crate training.”
Trainers at CAHS work on these issues with various training methods, and also pass tips and training options to adopters.
“If there’s something we can work on, like food, or they guard their rawhides from people, we can work on that. If they go potty in the house, adopters can work on that in the home. We just give them the right guidance,” said Miller. “We work on it, and we can find a home that is appropriate for them.”
According to Miller, the most important part of training is making it a positive experience, especially with high-priority dogs.
“We don’t want them to get bored,” she said. “We try to keep their sessions fairly short, and we use a lot of praise and treats.”
Other methods of keeping training interesting are doing different things every time, such as socialization, obedience training, basic commands and mental and physical exercise.
Obedience and command training
“All of the dogs need basic command training, they need enrichment and then obedience training,” said Miller. “It helps them to get adopted.”
Command training includes everything from sit and stay to tricks like play dead and roll over. It often makes dogs more appealing and also gives them a constructive outlet, mentally and physically.
“We like to teach them tricks, like sit and shake and roll over,” said CAHS volunteer Lisa Burch. “We keep cards on their runs explaining what tricks they know, and it can really help them catch the attention of someone looking to adopt.”
Along with tricks, the staff works on things like leash and crate training, correcting behavior such as jumping and demand barking and teaching basic household manners.
“Nobody wants to adopt a dog that’s jumping or mouthing, or doesn’t know basics like ‘Sit,’” said Miller.
“It’s really valuable to have a dog that shows manners and is polite,” said CAHS volunteer Connie Kapugia. “It helps them get adopted, sure, but it builds their confidence and gives them mental exercise, too.”
Another important duty staff members and volunteers have is to make sure the dogs are exercised, whether via walks on CAHS’s backyard trail, free exercise in the shelter’s outdoor run or by playing fetch with volunteers.
“There’s a nice mile-long trail around the property we use to walk the dogs,” said Kapugia. “We also play with them in their kennels and in the behavior rooms.”
“It’s great to get them out of their kennels, and it let’s them have some fun and some fresh air. They get to go out and just act like dogs,” said Burch.
Physical exercise is not only good for the dogs’ health, it also gives the dogs a chance to unwind and socialize.
“It keeps them from going stir crazy,” said Burch.
While physical exercise keeps the dogs active and healthy, mental exercise keeps their minds strong and builds confidence.
“Mental training is something we do with a lot of the dogs because it’s fun,” said Kapugia. “When the dogs are in a kennel environment like this, it’s really good for them to get that mental release, and to be able to let go of their stress.”
One of the common mental training methods used at CAHS is nose work.
“When a dog uses their nose, it activates a lot of senses. It would almost be comparable to a person sitting at a desk and doing mental work. You leave and you are tired, but not physically tired,” said Kapugia. “That is what happens when we bring them out and do the nose work.”
Nose work generally involves a trainer hiding treats around the room, such as under a towel or behind a box or piece of furniture. The dog then has to sniff out the treats on his own.
“It builds confidence in the dogs, like a lot of the training we do here,” said Burch. “It also keeps them happy and much calmer than they’d be without it.”
Socialization is another important aspect of helping the dogs become adopted and stay adopted. Socialization needs to be done between dogs and their fellow canines, as well as with cats and humans.
According to Burch, a lot of the socialization training at CAHS is done by volunteers.
“We will sit with them in their runs and just pet them or play with them, sometimes for thirty minutes or more,” said Burch. “They get to know your voice, as you walk through. They look at you like, hey, come play with me first!”
“It changes your personality. When you look at the dog and you pick up on their personality, their happiness, it’s just so relaxing, it’s calming, it’s rewarding,” said Kapugia. “It just lifts you up.”
Socializing dogs can prevent aggression and anxiety around other dogs or people. Due to the dogs’ environment in the kennel, it is particularly important to socialize them positively with other dogs.
“When the dogs are in their kennels and see other dogs passing, it creates a negative association with other dogs,” said Miller. “So when we get them together in positive lights they can have more good experiences with dogs.”
One of the biggest ways trainers at CAHS do this is by utilizing playgroups.
“Playgroups are when we put the dogs with other dogs they get along with,” said Miller. “They can play in the yard, they can run around outside. Its good for mental stimulation, it’s obviously good for physical stimulation, and it helps them relieve some stress, too, on top of socializing with other dogs.”
Playgroups are normally done at CAHS every Friday, and the trainers try to do as many pairings as they can.
“The more playgroups we do, the more we learn about them, so we can match them even better the next time,” said Miller. “We want to be making sure the dogs get some interaction and some training. We want them to be happy and comfortable.”
Those interested in adopting can check out available dogs and cats at CAHS or stop by the shelter’s next adoption events.
“You develop a relationship with the dog, and you can just have a good time with them,” said Burch. “When they go it’s sad, but you’re really glad at the same time.”
“It gets hard to leave at the end of the day,” said Kapugia.
You can find a map to CAHS here.