Wisconsin shelter helps troubled dogs into homes

Smiling dog standing on some colored tires
Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County forms K9 task force to support dogs needing extra help getting adopted.
By Liz Finch

Willard is not exactly a dog you’d describe as confident or outgoing. On the contrary, he is a painfully shy boy who spent much of his time at a Wisconsin shelter cowering in a corner of his kennel. Willard also happens to be exactly the kind of dog who spends weeks, months or even longer stuck in shelters across the country due to a range of factors.

“You can break it down to age, breed, color, medical issues, whatever, but the reality is that so many dogs just get stuck in the system,” says Lynn Olenik, executive director of Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County (HAWS), the shelter in Wisconsin that served as Willard’s temporary home. “It’s a national problem and within our shelter, I’d say some 40% of our (dogs) fall into one or more of those categories.”

To help those dogs, HAWS pulled multiple departments together into a specialized program called the K9 task force. The program aims to help dogs who have been at the shelter for more than 20 days, are older or medically challenged, or have specific physical or behavioral characteristics that often get in the way of them getting adopted.

Staff and volunteers enthusiastically embraced the idea of the program and started building out plans to help the dogs, but HAWS needed one final piece to make the K9 task force a success: funding to hire a part-time coordinator.

In May, HAWS was able to put that last piece into place after it received a $15,000 grant from Best Friends. The grant required HAWS to positively impact the lives of 150 dogs by the end of the year, but expectations are already being surpassed, with 100 dogs completing the program and moving into loving homes — including Willard.

HAWS volunteers help Willard gain confidence

“Willard was the most shut-down, fearful dog I have ever worked with,” says Cindy Szymek, who is part of the K9 task force volunteer team. Prior to that, she was a “2.0” dog walker at HAWS, which means she handled some of the more troubled dogs. “For the first week or two I couldn’t even go in his kennel, so I would toss treats and not look at him when I would pass by.”

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When she was finally able to enter Willard’s kennel, she still took it slow — tossing treats and not making eye contact. After three or four days of this, Willard decided they could be friends.

“He let me put his leash on and we went for a walk,” Cindy says. “It wasn’t a long walk because he was afraid of the cars and leaves and the people, but after a while, his true shining personality came out. It took him some time to warm up and become the dog I knew he could be. Willard was at the shelter for a few months before he was adopted, and now he is living the life he deserves.”

A program with multiple moving parts

Cindy had a lot of hands-on time helping Willard come out of his shell, but she wasn’t the only one who contributed to his success story. That’s because the philosophy behind the task force is to employ varied resources and expertise and create individual progress plans for each dog. “These dogs have complex problems that require an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lynn says.

It was that multifaceted approach that drew the attention of Liz Stamper, Midwest regional strategist for Best Friends and spurred her to offer HAWS the grant.

“The K9 Task force specifically provides and encourages all departments to work together, to share information and to provide HAWS’ dogs with the very best opportunity to be adopted,” Liz says. “And I really loved how they were using the community to help make it a success.”

There are two major pieces to the program. The “mod squad” component has existed as a volunteer behavior modification program since 2010. That team works on shaping behavior in shut-down dogs, teaches manners to overly exuberant dogs and oversees play groups where dogs develop social skills.

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While the mod squad experienced some success with the dogs, Lynn says it was evident that one program was not enough. So, HAWS pulled the whole shelter together under the umbrella of a task force that includes all departments at the shelter, from leadership to marketing to adoption services.

These various teams work collaboratively to provide the dogs with behavioral work, in-kennel enrichment, adoption counseling, foster support, veterinary intervention (when necessary), and even facility improvements, such as setting up visual barriers on the kennel doors to cut down on stimulation from other dogs passing by. Not only that, but HAWS is carefully tracking its data and building training materials with plans to share them with other organizations.

“The fact that they are looking beyond their own shelter walls is an example of how invested our partners are in changing the entire landscape of animal welfare,” Liz says.

Dogs thrive thanks to individualized approach

After the dogs in the program are evaluated by the HAWS behavior team, staff and volunteers have a plethora of tools available to help build the dogs’ skills and confidence, including play groups, classes and field trips. HAWS also imposes nap time in the shelter by turning off the lights and closing the kennels for a short time to allow the dogs a break from the constant stimulation of people and other dogs walking by.

Volunteers also make use of HAWS’ second location at the nearby Schallock Center, which has pet training programs and a private, five-acre fenced dog park.

“No idea is dismissed until we have a chance to try it out,” Lynn says. “We try hard not to say that we’ve tried that already and it just doesn't work. I’ve found that if staff or volunteers are committed to an idea, it will usually fly — even if it seems completely weird at first.”

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Being open to suggestions keeps volunteers committed — and coming back. “If volunteers like what they are doing, they’ll tell their friends or bring in a daughter-in-law to walk dogs because she likes to walk dogs,” Lynn says. “Volunteers want valuable work, and I believe in giving them something to do that is valuable and letting them do it without a ton of restraints.”

That’s another element that stood out to Liz when she read the HAWS application: a willingness to trust volunteers. “So many shelters and groups have behavior dogs that are staff-only because of fear of liability,” Liz says. “But here's a group that's proved volunteers can do the same amount of work, the same quality of work and have the same passion as everyone else to get these dogs into forever homes.”

A happy outcome for Ben and HAWS volunteers

Larry Russell fits neatly into that description of a committed volunteer. He was first inspired to help the shelter back in 2013 when he saw the photos and videos posted on HAWS’ website and Facebook pages. “When I saw the smiles on the dogs’ faces, their wiggly butts and tails, and the happiness of the volunteers in the videos, I knew I wanted to be part of it,” he says.

Though Larry experienced many successes during his work with the task force, there’s one dog who stood out: a tricolor hound mix named Ben, who had been with HAWS for more than a year.

“I am baffled why some dogs are adopted quickly while others remain in the shelter much too long,” he says. “Our challenge with Ben was to socialize him, take him out on field trips, engage him in play dates and provide him with appropriate enrichment to enable him to survive in the shelter environment for so long.

“None of the work with Ben was flashy or spectacular or headline-grabbing,” he adds. “But for myself and many of the volunteers at HAWS, his adoption day was filled with many smiles and tears, knowing that he finally found his family.”

No surprise there, because that’s the kind of result that keeps countless animal advocates doing the work. It’s also the kind of result that keeps Liz on the lookout for the next innovation to save shelter pets and put them into homes where they belong.