Thursday, May 6, 2010

Giving dogs a "Pawsitive Start"

Faith plays with her "Easy Button"

Big, small, fluffy and furry, if it barks or meows, I want to cuddle it. I love my own cat, Lina, so much that she travels with my husband and me on many of our frequent trips, contentedly sleeping in her beloved cage in the back seat.

When I see or hear about an animal that is mistreated, I fight back tears. I don't even want to discuss the ASPCA commercial where Sarah McLachlan's music is played while images of cats with missing eyes and scrawny dogs fill the TV screen. And damn SNL for making fun of it!

So it was natural for me to volunteer with an animal rescue group at some point.

I chose the Michigan Humane Society, not to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The organization has adoption shelters in Detroit, Westland and Rochester Hills and is funded solely from donations. It takes in every animal that is dropped off at its doors, boasting a nearly 100 percent adoption rate. It has even taken in an alligator that was found in Detroit!

While the shelter has an open admission policy, it does evaluate the animals and ensures that they will not pose a danger to the public. Those that would pose a danger are euthanized, but there is no time limit for how long healthy animals can stay.

The society scores high marks for the work it puts into the animals it houses. Every night, volunteers from the Pawsitive Start program work with the dogs.

As I waited for the group, I meandered through the adoption center, looking at all of the dogs and cats that needed homes. An eight-year-old black mammoth of a lab steered me to her cage with her dopey brown eyes. I wanted her. Badly. I can't have a dog now because I'm not home enough to take care of one. But I thought at least for this night, I could pretend.

When the volunteers arrived, I learned that animals get one-on-one attention while learning problem solving skills. Some of the things the trainers work on is having the dogs repeatedly go to their blanket and hit a red button on the floor. When the dog completes the action correctly, one trainer hits a clicker so that the dog recognizes that he or she has acted appropriately. Then, the dog is rewarded with a treat.

My mind wandered a bit as the hand-held device clicked every few seconds, and I imagined myself using it on children, or even husbands. I nearly laughed out loud thinking of using it on my husband and rewarding him with a potato chip after he folded the laundry. "Yes, right! Do it Again!"

I learned other helpful training tips as well: Treats should be small, otherwise, the dog gets lost in the act of chewing and won't remember why he or she is even getting the treat at all. Also, dogs respond best with positive reinforcement. If a dog is misbehaving, such as jumping on someone, it's best to disengage from the dog and leave the room, rather than pushing the dog away.

For my part, I learned some other useful training techniques, while providing treats and love to the dogs. I also mopped up the floor after each dog was through, so that there was no contamination. Since I was a newbie, it was more of a learning experience.

The volunteers, who spend hours with the dogs, love these animals.

"The hard part for me is seeing good dogs stay here week after week," one volunteer said. Their devotion is apparent as they rub the dog's bellies and stroke their ears after training is done.

It wasn't easy watching the dogs being led back into their cages, alone and without a companion to cuddle with under the cover of blankets. I missed Lina then.

But there are ways to help these animals find homes. While the Pawsitive Start program is full at the moment, the society can always use other forms of help. Monetary donations and pet supplies are always welcome. The society also has opportunities for animal lovers to walk the dogs and it is seeking cat trainers.

To learn more about the Humane Society, visit

1 comment:

  1. This is a great program and provides a learning lesson for all dog owners, which is that positive reward training reaps benefits beyond teaching the dog a new trick or command — it stimulates their brain and drains energy. To have such a program in a shelter environment greatly improves the quality of life for these dogs and also betters their chances for adoption. I'm glad you went out there, Val!