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"You have to please, please watch this show!" Ellen DeGeneres has said about Dogtown, a reality series on the National Geographic Channel. The show is filmed at a no-kill shelter in Kanab, Utah, that takes in hundreds of dogs deemed unadoptable. Training and behavior consultant Sherry Woodard, 45, is part of a team that figures out how Dogtown's staff and volunteers are going to rehabilitate these shelter rejects and find them homes. When she's not traveling the world giving guidance to other shelters and humane societies, Woodard lives at Dogtown (part of the 3,000-acre Best Friends Animal Sanctuary) with her son, Donal, 22, and four dogs and five cats. We asked her to share some of her techniques.
LHJ: How do you reform these problem dogs? It seems like magic.
SW: It isn't magic at all. Many of the dogs simply lack skills, and we teach them skills by making them part of our families. It's called relationship-based training. Many dogs are aggressive because they don't trust people. We use positive reinforcement since physical force, pinch collars, and choke chains can have negative results.
LHJ: You make these dogs part of your family? Does that mean you bring these "unadoptable" animals home with you?
SW: Absolutely! Sometimes I even have them sleep on my bed. By making them live in a house you teach them manners. The staff and I employ our own pets as role models. Rescued dogs watch how the other dogs enjoy being petted, how they love us and trust us, and that helps them progress and become normal family pets.
LHJ: Isn't that dangerous?
SW: You certainly have to be careful, and not all dogs are ready for a home visit immediately. You start out by keeping enough distance so that the dog doesn't react and then you slowly lessen the distance and reward him with treats for not reacting.
LHJ: What was your most difficult case that turned into a success story?
SW: One huge success was Animal, a small black terrier we rescued from a puppy mill. This dog had spent his whole life in a small cage with no human contact. When we first got him we had to handle him with welder's gloves -- he was spinning and biting in every direction.
LHJ: What calmed him down?
SW: We hand-fed him, which quickly taught him that good things come from humans. It's a great technique anytime you adopt a dog. With Animal we had to take baby steps. At first he wouldn't eat from our hands so we had to place the kibble near him. Eventually he let us close enough to pet him. After seven months of socialization he was ready to be adopted.
LHJ: Any other Dogtown techniques that regular pet owners can use?
SW: Animal had a destructive chewing problem. We solved it by taking away his food bowl and stuffing all his kibble in a toy -- that motivated him to chew on the toy instead of our phone wires. Another technique that keeps dogs out of trouble is teaching them to trade. You pick something the dog likes, such as a toy. Then you get an extra-good treat, like chicken or steak or cheese. When the dog goes toward the item it values, you say "trade" and offer the treat, getting the dog to leave the item and come to you. You practice it again and again, so when you're out in public and your dog goes after a chicken bone or a hot dog in a child's hand, all you have to say is "trade" and he'll come to you.
LHJ: You talked about "practicing manners" with your own dogs. What does that mean?
SW: Think about learning a foreign language: If you don't use it, you lose it. To have fluent language or fluent behaviors we need to practice. I make sure all my dogs sit for treats, wait without moving while I carry the groceries in, and walk well on lead. This kind of daily practice helps well-behaved dogs stay that way.
LHJ: Any advice for pet owners based on your work with dogs in crisis?
SW: Make sure your dogs remain social for life. One person shouldn't be their everything. Get them out and have them interact with people of all sizes, ages, and colors. Board them in a kennel occasionally, make trips to the groomer, have the veterinary technician walk them out of the exam room after a checkup. I did a lot of work after Hurricane Katrina and I soon realized a lot of people's pets were terrified simply because they had never been handled by strangers. Emergencies happen and our pets need to know it's okay to be without us.
LHJ: What message would you most like to get across to pet owners?
SW: People need to understand that owning a dog is a long-term commitment. Many dogs live close to 20 years. And any dog you bring into a home is going to need plenty of interaction and an education. Fortunately, dog training is actually easy. You don't have to go out and spend money, either. There's information online and it's free.
LHJ: What can people do to help solve the overcrowded-shelter situation?
SW: Volunteer! A few obvious ways are to walk the dogs, transport them to their new homes, or foster them overnight. But you can also take their photos, write up their bios, do the laundry, help the shelter improve its Web site or go out and collect used towels from hotels so that all the animals have bedding. There are a million ways you can help that don't even require you to touch the dogs.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2009.