Providing a Pawsitive Start
MHS innovative training program definitively answers Billy Crystal’s famous question, ‘Is it better to look good or to feel good?’
The next time you visit the Michigan Humane Society to adopt a furry family member, be sure to ask about the pet’s progress in the new MHS in-shelter training program called Pawsitive Start. Unlike most training
programs, Pawsitive Start does not target physical fitness but rather emotional and mental well-being. Therefore, the most promising results are not toned muscles or a slender physique but happier, healthier animals - and the program is literally changing lives.
Last summer, MHS launched the groundbreaking Pawsitive Start program with the dedicated support and expertise of a few committed volunteers, or “pet personal trainers.” The objective is two-fold: first, to reduce stress on dogs and cats that can result from being in a kennel environment, and second, to build up their “brain muscle,” or problem-solving ability.
Traditional training programs featuring lessons on “sit” and “stay” have great value, but MHS goes further by motivating dogs and cats to embrace useful “in-home” skills that will greatly reduce anxiety and negative behavior. This is critical, as behavior problems remain a top reason for animal surrender throughout the country.
Examples of these new skills for dogs include pressing an “Easy” button on the floor, responding to “Go lie down on the mat,” and filing their nails on a specially made board. Cats learn to come to the front of their
cages to greet visitors (a skill especially important for shy cats), go willingly into a carrier, and even give a “high five.”
“In our experience, even most cat lovers assume cats can’t be trained,” says MHS Behavior Consultant CJ Bentley, who was the driving force in developing Pawsitive Start. “So, when our cats give a high five, it really gets the attention of potential adopters.”
New challenges broken into several training steps engage the animals’ minds by teaching them to problem-solve. In stark contrast to human fitness programs, tempting food rewards are freely given as motivators.
“By [the trainer] breaking the new behavior into small steps, any dog or cat can learn,” says Bentley. “And when they do, it’s exciting. They look at you as if to say, ‘Hey, I got it! I press this here, and you give me a treat. Let’s do that again!’ As they learn to reason through a process, they become more focused and even have fun.”
Not surprisingly, Pawsitive Start trainers are motivated by the progress they see in their furry trainees, and the program is fortunate to have the assistance of more than 80 regular volunteers, as well as the enthusiastic support of MHS staff.
“We are extremely pleased with how the program is helping our dogs and cats,” says Beth Chamberlain, facility director for the MHS Rochester Hills Center for Animal Care. “We’re finding the animals stay healthier due to reduced stress. And their calmer demeanor and better focus on visitors make them more appealing to adopters, so they tend to find homes more quickly.”
CHESTNUT’S STORMY START
If a homeless dog ever needed a Pawsitive Start, it was Chestnut. Last fall, the 35-pound, dark-brown Labrador retriever mix was one of several dogs transferred to the Michigan Humane Society from the Texas ASPCA because of the overcrowding that resulted from Hurricane Gustav. Chestnut had experienced more than her fair share of stress before her arrival at MHS. The staff immediately noticed that Chestnut was having a difficult time in the adoption center environment; she couldn’t relax, and it was affecting her health, as well as her chances for adoption.
“Our sessions with Chestnut focused on exercising her mind and body, incorporating training with her
favorite rewards, such as playing fetch,” says Terri Mallett, behavior specialist for MHS.
Through the diligence of her personal trainers, including Mallett, after two and a half months in MHS’ care, Chestnut got the ultimate reward: a loving home with a woman and her resident granddaughter.
“I love being a part of a program that directly helps improve the lives of animals like Chestnut,” Mallett says. “Now she’s returning the favor by bringing joy to her new family, who send occasional updates on her continued progress. It’s really great to see we’ve made a difference.”
SUCCESS BEYOND OURWALLS
According to Bentley, “Many of the dogs surrendered to MHS for behavior reasons are highly intelligent, but since they were never trained, cannot problem-solve or reason they simply react. It’s not surprising that they could drive their guardians to the end of their ropes. In the end, adopters see that these dogs are smart they just needed a chance to learn.”
The program’s benefits extend beyond the adoption center walls, notes Bentley.
“Adopters leave with a calmer, less stressed pet who will be ready to engage and learn the house rules. This sets a foundation for a strong human-animal bond.”
Pawsitive Start also serves as a platform to educate pet guardians that not only can dogs and cats learn new skills, but it’s vitally important to exercise pets mentally, as well as physically, to help prevent problem behaviors.
“Twenty minutes of positive mental exercise can tire out an energetic pet as much as a mile run,” Bentley says. “That has implications for helping keep pets in their homes for a lifetime.” Now that the program is underway and creating success stories every day, MHS has set a bigger goal.
“We believe Pawsitive Start addresses a need across the country,” says Bentley. “Our next step for the program is to share it with other animal welfare organizations, so even more animals benefit.”
PET BEHAVIOR RESOURCES
For free advice on pet behavior issues, call the MHS Behavior Help Line at 248.650.0127. MHS offers a variety of dog and cat training tips online at www.michiganhumane.org/behavior. To bring Pawsitive Start to your animal shelter, call CJ Bentley at 248.283.1000, ext. 135.