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Best Friends statement re: dog training

For more than 35 years, Best Friends Animal Society has been committed to saving the lives of homeless pets and providing them with kindness and quality care between homes. We believe that the life of every living creature has intrinsic value and is not ours to take, nor should they be subject to death in shelters. This commitment is an expression of our organizational vision, “A better world through kindness to animals,” and our mission, “To bring about a time when there are no more homeless pets.”

Thirty-five years ago, an estimated 17 million dogs and cats were being killed in our nation’s shelters annually. Thanks to the tireless work of all those dedicated to ending this pointless killing, we have made historic progress. Still, dogs and cats are being killed every day simply because they don’t have safe places to call home. Last year, around 733,000 dogs and cats were killed for this reason, and that is unacceptable.

At Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and our lifesaving centers, we take in animals who are at risk of being killed. Many are special-needs animals, ones who require extra time and extra care for them to heal. We are committed to giving these animals the time and care they need to heal and find homes. We make a lifetime commitment to all our animals, which means they will always have a safe place at the Sanctuary, whether they live with us for their lifetime or whether they need to return at some point.

As nurturing and attentive as the Sanctuary is, it is not a home and so we work to find loving forever homes for as many animals as we can. This not only gives those dogs and cats (plus birds, horses, bunnies, pigs, goats — you name it) the loving homes they deserve, it creates openings at our sanctuary and centers to be able to save other dogs and cats from dying in a shelter.

Training is often key for achieving that outcome, especially for dogs. We use relationship-based training at the Sanctuary and at our centers. We are also aware of the fact that we have not had consistent success in addressing certain reactive behaviors that prevent people-friendly dogs with no bite history from being safely adopted to the general public.

More and more, it is dogs with this profile who are most at risk for being killed in shelters, as they are deemed unadoptable. They require special attention, and behavior training that places them in a race against limited time and resources to be helped through these behaviors and be ready for adoption to the public.

Consequently, many are coming into the care of Best Friends and our partners.

It would be foolish for us to believe that we have all the answers and arrogant of us not to look to see who, if anyone, is having more consistent success than we have had in helping those most at-risk dogs.

Best Friends has been working to address the dire situation of these dogs to develop or support a behavior modification program that will work within the real-world constraints of a shelter or rescue group. This would allow us to help our shelter partners to save more dogs directly in their own communities. It would also help us to place the dogs at our sanctuary and centers with these more challenging behaviors into homes more quickly, which is not only good for those dogs but also good for the additional dogs we are able to take into the Sanctuary as space is freed up.

As part of our exploration, we looked into the work of Aimee Sadler. We have known Aimee for many years and have consulted with her to bring her Dogs Playing for Life (DPFL) program to our center in Los Angeles. We have also featured her at our national conference numerous times. While some of her aversive training methods are controversial in animal welfare, they have helped to save hundreds of dogs who would have otherwise been killed because they were seen as unadoptable. By getting dogs with entrenched behaviors over the final hump to make them better candidates for adoption, hundreds of the dogs with whom Aimee has worked have found homes.

This year, we visited Aimee at DPFL’s Canine Center in Florida, and learned about the program, which serves only those dogs from shelters who are at high risk of being killed. The center practices positive training as their foundation and primary training behavior work. For some dogs, those for whom behavior modification techniques are not adequately addressing the problem, Aimee will try other approaches “using all tools and techniques to support animals to rewardable behavior.” DPFL stresses “adhering to the principles of learning rather than subscribing to any particular method” and describes their programming as “fully inclusive.”

On the strength of a first-hand report from our staff animal behaviorist, who holds a Ph.D. in cognitive science, we opened discussions with Aimee about a possible collaboration to work with select dogs who need additional help. However, prior to a final decision being made to send any of our dogs to DPFL’s center, and prior to a planned presentation of findings and discussions with staff, an outbreak of misinformation, rumors, unfounded accusations and confusion resulted.

Listening to the concerns of our staff at subsequent meetings, we have decided to replicate the structured, academy-style intensive training and behavior modification approach that DPFL’s center employs, but using Best Friends’ preferred relationship-based training protocols. Because we are taking this approach first, we are not planning to send any dogs to DPFL’s center at this time.

Again, Best Friends does not use aversive tools such as pinch collars or electronic collars, and we don’t endorse their general use because they can be dangerous and abusive in the hands of the public.

Best Friends has not and will not change our philosophy, which is expressed in personalized care, treating every animal as an individual. One only needs to visit Best Friends’ sanctuary to see the level of exemplary care and the loving environment that our staff, volunteers and visitors provide to the animals residing here.

We have always gone above and beyond to save lives and to provide quality care and healing to animals in need. Our work — from Hurricane Katrina and the Vicktory dogs to Hurricane Harvey — provides high-profile examples of this. But there are many thousands of examples of Best Friends’ dedication to lifesaving and loving care.

We will always search for the best solution based on an individual dog’s needs, to save the lives of dogs being killed in shelters. We remain open to other humane training methods and encourage the training community to work with shelters to develop scalable, time-bound training methods to help address the challenge that otherwise friendly, reactive dogs pose to rescue groups and shelters across the country. Best Friends will not be changing our position on dog training methods.

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