Day in the Life: Animal behavior technicians

Behavior technicians

Did you know that the Dumb Friends League employs a team of animal behavior technicians who work with thousands of homeless pets every year? Behavior training isn’t teaching animals to sit and stay when you’re working in an animal shelter; it’s helping fearful, anxious and under-socialized animals become the best possible candidates for adoption.

So what does a “typical day” look like for someone who works in our Behavior department? No day is a typical day, but every day they work to transform the lives of shelter pets.

Round one

Much like a group of doctors, we start the day with rounds—a discussion about animals the team has been working with and their progress through our behavior programs. Several options are considered as each animal is reviewed: Do they need more behavior sessions? Are they ready for adoption? Should we consider sending them to a foster home so they can have quiet time away from the shelter?

Tux, a timid Australian shepherd, became a topic of discussion. He was under-socialized and kenneled with another fearful dog, so the team suggested introducing him to and possibly kenneling him with a social dog.

How can pairing Tux with a social dog help his progress? The social dog can help him gain confidence by witnessing positive interactions with people. He’ll be more likely to investigate what’s happening when he sees another dog display relaxed behaviors around people.

Staying below the threshold

After rounds, we set out to work with Tux. We start with clicker training—a positive reinforcement training technique that uses a clicker and treats—to get him a little more comfortable being around us. Zoe, a behavior technician for the Dumb Friends League, speaks gently to Tux while offering treats. Eventually, Tux accepts treats from Zoe’s hand—a very big step for a dog who was previously unhandled by people.

Happy with Tux’s progress, Zoe decides to introduce him to a social dog named Arthur, a bouncy, active Australian cattle dog mix who may be able to help Tux learn how to trust people.

We keep Tux in his kennel and introduce him to Arthur, who remains outside of the kennel. It quickly becomes obvious that Tux is interested in his new friend. Zoe continues using the clicker and treats, along with Arthur’s presence, to gain Tux’s trust. He continues to take treats from her hand, so she decides to use this opportunity to introduce a leash.

It’s not uncommon for the Dumb Friends League to take in dogs that have never walked on a leash. For a dog like Tux, just accepting the presence of a leash is a big step. Shortly after the leash makes an appearance, Tux begins to retreat and lose interest in treats and his new friend. Feeling Tux has reached his threshold, Zoe decides it’s time to end the interaction.

Zoe explains the idea of staying below the threshold. “It’s no different than a person who has a stressful day and overreacts to what would otherwise be a minor form of stress—another driver cuts you off in traffic and you lose your cool, for example. By keeping your stress below the threshold, these minor annoyances will remain minor.” This concept applies to animals as well.

Hellos and drive-bys

Now it’s time for a drive-by—an initial session with a fearful animal. We find a kennel that appears empty but actually contains a tiny Chihuahua hiding beneath her bed. Zoe says that we are going to begin with some basic click and treat associations, pairing the presence of people with high value rewards. Later, she will see what treats the pup decided to eat and do the same thing again.

Isn’t this just rewarding the fearful behavior? Zoe has some wise words to help make sense of this. “Imagine you’re afraid of spiders, so I show you a spider and hand you a $20 bill each time I show you a spider. Handing you the money won’t make you more afraid of spiders; in fact, you may become a little less afraid eventually.”

These drive-bys are a chance for animals to get used to having people around until they begin participating in regular behavior sessions.

Zoe’s day doesn’t only consist of working with animals; she works with people, too. Educating owners is an important piece of the Dumb Friends League’s mission of ending pet homelessness and animal suffering.

Today, she’s working the Pet Behavior Helpline—a one-hour phone consult with a behavior specialist to get training advice to answer common behavior questions and help modify a behavior concern. This is a service that is offered for free to any pet owner, even if the animal was not adopted from the Dumb Friends League.

Cats need training, too

When people think of behavior training, they automatically think of dogs, but cats can also see huge benefits from behavior training.

While Zoe handles the behavior helpline calls, Celeste, another behavior technician at the Dumb Friends League, heads out to do Feline Fortitude sessions with shelter cats.

Feline Fortitude is a behavior program specifically designed for cats and kittens that are fearful, under-socialized or un-socialized. These animals are not yet available for adoption.

Our first visit is with Barney, a 7-month-old red tabby who is under-socialized but already responding well to the sessions Celeste has done previously.

Hot dogs and baby food

We’re all more motivated to do something when ice cream or pizza is the reward as opposed to a salad, for example. Pets are no different! When doing behavior work with animals at the Dumb Friends League, we use high-value treats—a tasty food that is more likely to motivate the animal. We’ve found that most dogs will work for high-value foods like cheese and hot dogs, and most cats will work for baby food. If you’re training at home, try different treats to find out which your pet responds to best.

We head over to visit Barney who, through trial and error, Celeste has discovered prefers dry cat treats over baby food.

Barney has been largely unhandled by people, so Celeste’s goal for this session is to touch and pet him. Using clicker training and Barney’s treats of choice, we begin with targeting—a behavior where the cat touches an object with his head or nose. Celeste uses her finger for the targeting. Each time Barney touches his nose to her finger, she clicks the clicker and rewards him with a treat.

Next she uses a targeting stick to introduce Barney to the idea of being touched. She scratches his neck area with the targeting stick, clicks and then gives him a treat. After repeating this process a few times, she feels he is progressing well, so she moves on to the next level.

This time, Celeste uses her hand to pet Barney. The red tabby appears to enjoy the chin and neck scratches and again is rewarded with a treat. She decides to try petting him along his back; this move makes him a little more nervous. She does this only once more and ends the interaction to keep him below the threshold.

We visit several other cats, all in different locations around the shelter. We do more targeting, some with the goal of just accepting the treat and others who we try to pet.

Turn the page

In addition to working with cats, Celeste is on pages today. This means if someone is in the middle of an adoption and an animal has behavior issues, either in the shelter or in previous homes, we will page her for a behavior consult. This can cover high-energy dogs, fearful cats and any other behavior concern in between.

During the consult, the patron receives handouts as well as one-on-one time with the behavior technician to ask questions and learn as much as possible before adopting the pet. By providing the consultation before the adoption is complete, the hope is to set up the people and the pet for success in the new home—yet another step in helping the pets we adopt out stay in their new homes.

Rewarding work

The behavior team comes from a variety of backgrounds, but in the end, they all want to make a difference in the lives of animals. Each day, their work transforms anxious and fearful shelter pets into confident and happy candidates for adoption.

After spending the day with them and having the chance to get a small glimpse into what they do, it’s clear that Dumb Friends League behavior technicians are truly changing the lives of thousands of homeless pets each year. And for that, we are all grateful for them.

Where are they now

The Australian shepherd, Tux, is currently spending time in a behavior foster home where he can learn to trust in a quiet home environment.

Our helper dog, Arthur, was adopted shortly after assisting us with Tux’s behavior sessions.

It was determined that Barney needed surgery to remove one of his eyes. After recovering in the shelter, he became available for adoption and quickly found a loving home.