Shelter – part 2 is pleased to present part two of a four-part tale by pioneering educator and author Karla McLaren.
© Karla McLaren 2014

continued from March 7 post…
We work to keep the dogs calm and quiet in their kennels, but it’s hard because so many new dogs come in regularly, and the cement-and metal kennels amplify their noise powerfully. Today, all the kennels are full – some with two or more dogs who came in together, so we’ve got more than eighty dogs here.  If even ten percent start barking, the noise can be deafening and very stressful for everyone (there’s a huge jar of free earplugs in the lobby; it’s that noisy). My greet-and-treat visits are a way to calm the dogs, and they’re a central part of kennel training and socialization, with a rhythm that’s so predictable that the kennel vets know it by heart.  On my first pass through the kennel, everyone gets a hello and a meaty treat no matter what they’re doing or not doing.  I want each dog to see people as fun, and to look forward to my next visit.  Some of the more savvy dogs predict the desired behavior – they sit calmly and meet my eyes – and I praise them clearly so that the other dogs can hear.

On the second round, the dogs have to perform in some way for their treat.  Any of these three behaviors – sitting, being calm, or being quiet – merits a treat.  And the dogs really can’t fail – even a terrier who leaps all over her kennel like a tiny tornado can at least calm down a little bit.  I help the hyper dogs by making a great show of hunkering down next to their kennel and using hand gestures while I ask “Can you get down?”  Most of the dogs will follow my lead, and the trick is to reward them as soon as they manage a desired behavior.  For some dogs, I have to wait until they stumble onto something – anything – desirable, but if I have patience, I can catch even the most chaotic dog in some form of a correct behavior.

The key is to ignore – completely – any bad behaviors, and reward good behaviors as soon as you see them.  Rewards don’t have to be food as they are at the shelter; petting, hugs, and praise are just as effective.  We use delicious desiccated liver treats at the shelter as a way to ease the general depression that plagues shelter dogs.  Food is not the best kind of love, but it gives the dogs something to look forward to and some bright spots in their stressful days.

On today’s second round, nearly everyone is figuring out which behaviors are required before the treat is given.  Some hyper dogs can’t stop barking, and some dogs clearly don’t know the “sit” command, but I catch everyone doing something right, and praise them all with a hearty “good dog.”  Today, something unusual pulls my eye to a small dog in one of the kennels near the entrance, which is where the cutest, smallest, and most adoptable dogs generally are.  This one is a sleek, sable-brown little girl named Peaches who squirms around joyfully in her kennel like a tiny harbor seal. She pushes herself nearer to me as I pass, so I kneel down and peer in as I pet her beautiful brown forehead, which she pushes up to the chain links of her kennel door.  She rolls over to show me her belly, and I see a lumpy umbilical hernia pushing up through her skin, and the strangest leg conformation in her hind quarters, but she won’t stop squirming long enough for me to figure out what’s going on.  Her kennel card doesn’t mention anything. I stoop down and kiss her on her nose, which is small enough for her to poke almost completely through a chain link, and I promise to come back.

I head down a T-leg of the kennel rows toward the home of the silly Nana.  She’s a gigantic Saint Bernard with a kidney condition that requires daily medication, and she’s been here a while.  Her owner couldn’t afford to take care of her, so she’s here waiting for someone with a big house, a big yard, and a big wallet for her meds.  Though some dogs become despondent after a long time in the kennel, Nana, who has been here for three months, is endlessly cheerful.  Nana thinks the greet-and-treat game is very funny, and she’s put her own spin on it.  Because she’s so huge, she can rise up and see over the cement walls of her kennel (they’re 6 feet tall).  When Nana sees me approaching, she likes to rile up the other dogs and get them barking.  When I arrive at her kennel, though, she makes a great show of sitting very prettily and being ever so quiet while the other dogs display their very bad manners.  I thank her loudly for being quiet, and I make “shush” gestures at the other dogs.  I usually treat Nana twice in each round – once on the way into her kennel row, and once on the way out.  She’s so big that my little cracker-sized treats are probably just a drop in a bucket!  On round three, I’m going to see if I can get her to stop riling everyone up, even though I do appreciate her excellent sense of humor.

As I near Milton and Jake and the chain again, I wonder how Milton will view me this time – what his approach will be.  This second treat is supposed to act as a kind of exchange between me and the dogs; it’s a prelude to entering into a working relationship.  Some of the dogs already have this figured out – they’re in graduate school.  Some, like the wildly leaping terriers, haven’t even entered preschool, and they’re going to need a lot of work.  But with Milton, I wonder if there’s even a hope of getting him anywhere near the idea of a relationship.

When I reach Milton’s kennel, I approach him in the proper way: I kneel down to his level and present the side of my body to him – I don’t face him.  Many dogs see face-to-face approaches and largeness as a threat (if one dog faces another and tries to make himself appear larger, that’s often an invitation to a fight in dog language).  I also don’t bare my teeth, extend my hand, or poke my fingers into Milton’s kennel.  Those are also threats – they’re aggressive moves, and Milton requires politeness, space, and respect.

to be continued next week…

for part 1:
for part 3:

Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.

The Art of Empathy

What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life.  Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you.