New dog training program at Best Friends

Most kids don’t exactly look forward to taking tests. Their attitude would likely change, however, if they received a favorite snack or goodie for every question they got right.

There’s a new training approach at Maggie’s Mercantile, one of the dog buildings at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Best Friends dog trainer Tim Molina explains, "Every interaction that we have with a dog becomes a training interaction." Whether a caregiver is heading in to sweep the floor, or simply say hello, they bring a small amount of food with them to reward good behavior.

Innovative food rewards for dogs

Now, this is not a treat binge for the dogs. It’s actually their normal daily food portions doled out strategically. Each morning, caregivers fill a bucket of carefully measured food for every dog. From that point on, they find creative ways to use the food in positive-reinforcement training.

For example, if a caregiver approaches the play area and the dog stays quiet and calm, that’s enough to earn a "treat." Learning to keep calm when people approach is one way to help increase their chances at finding a home.

Dogs targeted for the program are those who need help with various behaviors that might make it harder to find a home. Say, for example, you have a dog who dislikes having his paws touched. It doesn’t take many times touching the paws while simultaneously giving him some tasty food before the dog starts to associate good things with paw-touching. "It works, and it works fast," Tim says.

Dog food puzzles add enrichment

Some food is set aside for food puzzles as part of an enrichment program that goes with training. Dogs need to use their brains. As Tim explains, "Give your dog a job to do or they become self-employed." Some of those self-employed jobs could be digging, chewing, or constant barking. At Maggie’s, however, there’s always plenty to do.

Food puzzles are only the beginning. Staffers also work hard to stimulate dogs’ other senses. "We play a lot of classical music," says Tim. When the music plays, the dogs relax noticeably. "It really does help them."

Dogs’ sense of smell is also a biggie. Caregivers spray a different scent for the dogs each day. Sometimes lavender, sometimes vanilla, or perhaps they’ll burn incense. To a dog, this aromatherapy is every bit as exciting as hitting the movie theater might be for us.

Dogs developing skills

With every interaction becoming a positive training experience, the dogs are developing excellent skills.

Consider Candace, a dog who was once so high-strung she would barely sit still. Not many adopters will spend time getting to know a dog who’s bouncing off the walls. "We had to teach her to be calm," Tim says.

Through the structure of the program, they trained Candace to first sit on her bed for a treat, then lie down. After a month of constant work, they helped Candace relax to the point where she dozed off one day. This was huge for her. They’d never seen Candace sleep before. "She has this great loud snore," says Tim.

Nowadays if an adopter comes by to meet Candace, they’ll find a much calmer, happier dog waiting to say hello. "I think it’s a huge testimony to the program," says Tim.

That one skill may be all she needs to find a home, which would be better than a treat any day.

Read about how to find a dog trainer.

Photos by Molly Wald