Kansas animal shelter staff sees dogs in a new light

Group of dogs in a play group, some in a purple kiddie poop
By changing the way staff members evaluate dogs, Helping Hands Humane Society gains valuable skills for saving more lives.
By John Polis

Penney, a 9-month-old stray dog, was scared when she arrived at Helping Hands Humane Society in Topeka, Kansas. With hackles up, she made it clear that she didn’t care for strangers by lunging and barking at anyone who came near. And she struggled mightily when caregivers, without much success, tried to put a leash on her.

But Penney’s need to protect herself from everyone around her would be short-lived, thanks to the staff learning new ways to help dogs who enter the shelter scared, defensive, or exhibiting other behaviors that make it difficult to match them with new homes. With caregivers using newly acquired skills to bring out the best in Penney, she soon learned they were there not to harm but to help her.

The dog behavior training, or mentorship, is part of Best Friends’ effort to help shelters save more lives and take the country to no-kill by 2025. Since completing the staff training, Helping Hands has revamped the way it evaluates dogs.

“The biggest problem was that assessments weren’t capturing how a dog might behave in a more relaxed setting,” says Tierney Sain, Best Friends national shelter support specialist, who led the mentorship. “We were able to work with the staff to, among other things, adjust their temperament testing to be more natural, a little more like real life.”

The resulting changes have made a world of difference for Penney and other dogs, who are getting new leases on life when, not long ago, they faced a much more uncertain outlook.

New tricks for an ‘old dog’

Margaret Price, the long-serving manager of admissions and animal care at Helping Hands, admits she was lukewarm about changing an established way of assessing dogs. But she’s the first to extol the benefits of a different approach, how it has helped her team get better results with dogs at the shelter, and how it’s even lifted spirits among her team members.

“(The mentorship) was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I mean, I’ve been here for 23 years, and, you know, I was that old dog learning new tricks. We’ve learned so many new things to help us save more animals, and we received a wealth of other information as well.”

[Animal shelters work smarter to save more lives]

The biggest change was making sure Helping Hands dogs were assessed in a relaxed environment that was more like life in a home than life in a shelter. That meant observing dogs off-leash.

“This was all new for us,” says Margaret. “We had done everything on-leash and in control of the dog the whole time. Now after working with Tierney, we do a lot of off- leash training whenever it’s safe to do so. It’s made us see the dogs in a different light.”

Instead of just answering predetermined blanket statements on behavior, the staff engages the dogs in activities they would naturally encounter outside of the shelter. This includes meeting new people and other dogs, playing with toys, and going for walks. Staff carefully document behaviors in the shelter database so that information is shareable with other team members and with potential adopters.

Playgroups help dogs shine

Helping Hands also put some of its staff through a course on playgroups, which Tierney says serves as valuable enrichment for dogs. “In playgroups, we try to match dogs with the same style of play ― rough-and-tumble players together and maybe shyer or more dainty ones together. By putting dogs in various social situations, it really improves their quality of life.”

“I’ll be quite honest,” Margaret says. “When Tierney and I first spoke about dog playgroups as the next thing, I was hesitant. But the trainers did a great job, and we liked it so much that we started right away. I even sent our instructors a text the very next day showing them our first playgroup in action.”

One of the dogs who really shined in playgroups was Penney. “At first, she would greet and stand around,” says Margaret. “After several playgroups we learned her style was to chase and be chased. She started being more social with people and dogs and progressed to where she would come and jump for attention. She took treats. Playgroups really built up her confidence.”

[Helping small animal shelters has a big impact]

Two other dogs also made great strides in playgroups ― 3-year-old Mitzi and 1-year-old Nikita. Mitzi, who did a lot of charging and barking in her kennel, has improved so much in playgroups that she’s already ready for adoption. And Nikita, who displayed fear by baring her teeth, is showing improvement by being less defensive.

“Nakita is walking and exploring the play yard more and more,” says Margaret. “She comes to see us when not in playgroups. I feel if we keep working with her, she will eventually be ready for adoption.”

Playgroups are on the Helping Hands schedule five days a week, and plans are to increase to seven days as soon as staffing permits. 

Dogs’ success boosts staff morale

The changes in how the shelter handles dogs has had a positive effect on the staff, too. “There hasn’t always been hope here for some of these dogs,” says Margaret. “But since we’ve trained with Tierney, progress has been a great influence on the staff, especially the vet techs. They have the closest relationships with all the dogs who come in.”

That boost in spirit extends to Margaret, too. “Having a plan to work with these dogs has helped my own morale so much because we know we can help them. Now when I have a playgroup with dogs, I guess you could say I feel great joy.”

Margaret is glad to be trying a different approach with the dogs these days. “(Tierney) showed me that old dogs can learn new tricks,” she says. “I’ve learned to do so many new things ― things that will help all of us do the right thing for the animals and save more lives.”

The future is bright

Following the mentorship with Best Friends and armed with new skills to help more animals, the staff at Helping Hands Humane Society is looking hopefully to the future. And despite the challenge of being filled to the brim in 2022, Helping Hands’ save rate increased to 83% from 81% in 2021. “Our team was so determined to help these dogs that we amazingly were able to achieve this increase despite the many challenges,” says Grace Clinton, Helping Hands director of philanthropy.

And then there’s Penney, who for purposes of this story might be the face of Helping Hands’ progress. Thanks to a caring staff that is better equipped to help dogs like her, she chilled out, accepted people, and is happy in a brand-new home.

“She was adopted by a single lady who loves her, and she’s getting used to living with a cat,” reports Margaret. “She’s a sweet girl and doing great.”

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