Model behavior

October 31, 2018

Innovations in behavior rehabilitation help shy and fearful dogs build confidence and trust

By Mary Tan


Sahara shook and cowered in a Mississippi animal shelter. For months potential adopters walked by her kennel without stopping to meet her. The shelter was overcrowded and filled with confident, energetic dogs, so the meek, red and white Staffordshire Terrier mix was easy to miss.

She had come to the shelter after roaming the streets of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, picked up by a local animal control officer. When she arrived, shelter staff discovered her collar was embedded in her neck. Volunteers and staff removed the collar and treated her painful, infected wounds.

But Sahara’s emotional wounds were harder to treat. Shelter staff selected Sahara for a transport to Animal Humane Society, where she could get the rehabilitation she needed to prepare for a new life with a loving family. 

In July, the 33-pound canine made the 1,100-mile journey to AHS in Golden Valley, where her medical treatment continued. But Sahara exhibited the same behaviors in Minnesota she had in Mississippi — crouching in the back of her kennel, shaking, and burying her head when veterinary technicians attempted to pet her. It was clear she wanted to be invisible to those who came in contact with her.

For the first few days at AHS, Sahara showed no signs of improvement. She didn’t want to leave her kennel, especially when a leash was attached to her collar. 

Liv Hagen, who leads the behavior modification and rehabilitation program at AHS, knew Sahara needed additional help to overcome her fears.

Hagen embraced the challenge. Last year her team helped more than a thousand dogs and cats overcome behavioral issues in preparation for adoption.

Poppyseed and Lyla
Molly, Poppyseed, and Lyla playinig with Liv

Learning by example

Sahara’s rehabilitation started with daily visits with adoption preparation volunteers. They would spend time sitting with her, hoping to make her feel more comfortable. Still unable to get Sahara out of her kennel, Hagen started spending one-on-one time with her.

At the same time, Hagen was also seeing firsthand how Animal Humane Society’s new group housing prototype was helping dogs with similar challenges. 

Opened earlier this year, the habitat prototype houses up to six dogs at a time and includes a shared space for socialization and play as well as individual dens for rest and sleep. “We had wonderful success with some of the shy and fearful dogs we put in that space,” says Hagen. “Spending time playing with other dogs helped them come out of their shells and learn how to relax and be dogs.

But Sahara wasn't ready for that kind of environment. "Her behavior was so severe I didn't think she would do well with the high energy levels in the habitat," says Hagen.

Dogs with their families

From top to bottom, Carli Lavavich and Poppyseed, Hennen family and Molly, and Molly McCabe and Lyla.

Then inspiration struck. Hagen and her team were working with two other dogs — Labrador Retriever mixes Chance and Lyla — who were almost as shy and fearful as Sahara. "I thought 'What if we could create a version of the habitat just for them?'"

The dogs were living in individual kennels in a behavior rehabilitation ward, so introducing them was as simple as opening the kennel doors and allowing them to meet in the corridor. "It was a small space, so there was some concern if they didn't get along, but the potential rewards outweighed those risks," says Hagen.

The first to emerge was Chance, who immediately greeted Lyla. The two began playing, but an apprehensive Sahara stayed behind in the safety of her kennel.

“Sahara perked up her head, so I knew she was interested,” says Hagen. “The next day we had a magical moment. Chance walked into Sahara’s kennel and coaxed her out. They started to play immediately and soon Lyla joined in the fun."

It quickly became apparent that Sahara would do whatever Chance and Lyla were doing, so they went to veterinary checks and behavioral sessions as a trio.

After several days of continued rehabilitation and playtime, all three dogs were ready for adoption. All three were adopted within a week.

Hagen was thrilled her idea worked. “Dogs tailor their behavior to meet the needs of other dogs, which is exactly what happened with these three. I can’t tell you how excited I was when this happened. It was an emotional moment for me.”

New beginnings

Sahara, now known as Poppyseed, lives with Carli Lavavich, her adopter, and Roo, another dog adopted from AHS. “When I saw Poppy I knew she would be the perfect companion for my pit bull, Roo, who was also a shy dog when I first brought her home,” says Lavavich.

“Poppy follows her younger sister around, and Roo is teaching her how to play and have fun. They’re both such sweet dogs. It’s so fun to be around them and watch them grow,” adds Lavavich. “I have a soft spot for these special animals.” 

Chance, now called Molly, lives with the Hennen family, including two young children, two cats, and another dog. 

“We knew she was shy and fearful and it would take time to work with her, but we also knew she was right for us,” says Fred Hennen. “Everyone in the family is helping her feel protected and loved.”

Molly McCabe came to the shelter to meet another dog she had spotted on our website, but after meeting Lyla, it took only minutes to realize they were perfect for each other. “I knew she was the one,” says McCabe. “I suffer from severe anxiety, so we’re going on a mental health recovery journey together. Lyla is slowly gaining more confidence every day."

Liv and dogs

Success stories

Poppy, Molly, and Lyla are not alone. AHS staff and volunteers have helped nearly 15,000 shelter animals through the adoption preparation program, which was created in 1992. The adoption preparation program is geared toward dogs that show signs of stress in shelter, display shy and fearful behaviors, and avoid interacting with people.

Today, every animal that comes to AHS is assessed by a behavior specialist. "We have specialized programs to address all kinds of behavioral challenges, from cats with litter box issues to dogs who are jumpy, mouthy, and possessive," says Hagen. She and her team — including more than 40 volunteers and fosters — work with animals for weeks and even months to help them succeed. 

If you're interested in learning more about your pet's behavior or are looking for behavior help, check out these pet behavior resources.

In addition to adoption preparation, AHS offers four other programs to address behavior challenges. Possessive pooches helps dogs who guard food or valued objects. Courageous kitties works with owner-surrendered cats with a history or being friendly, but are shy or fearful in shelter. The office cats program offers alternative housing in staff offices to help fearful cats become candidates for adoption. And finally, fresh start helps cats with a history of litter box issues. 

AHS can successfully address most behavior issues, but a small number of animals experience severe stress that is triggered specifically by the shelter environment. To help those animals, we partner with local rescue organizations who can support animals in long-term foster care.

The success of these behavior programs has helped reduce euthanasia dramatically over the past decade, says AHS President & CEO Janelle Dixon. 

“Investing in expanded behavior programs and advanced medical treatments and partnering with other rescue organizations means we can help even more animals,” says Dixon. “As a result, we were able to place more than 95 percent of the animals who were entrusted to our care last year.”

Dixon is grateful for the community support that makes this intensive, specialized work possible. “We’re learning so much from the habitat about how to help animals. This is just one of many success stories so far — and we’re just getting started.”

The families of Poppy, Molly, and Lyla are excited about the future and what it will bring for their new furry family members. They know there’s a long journey ahead to give the dogs the confidence they need, but it’s all worth it. 

It’s worth it for Hagen, too. “I went into this profession wanting to make a difference for animals. These three went from being heartbroken, homeless dogs to family pets who will be loved and cherished for who they are. There’s no better validation than that.”

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