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Tips for Tails: Making Training Decisions

When a dog arrives at the Dumb Friends League, we don’t always know its history. Sometimes, a pup is a stray, left in the night kennels or is a transfer, and the challenges they’ve faced are unknown. Even when a dog is relinquished by its owner, and we know more about his behavior and personality, if that dog exhibits behavior concerns or has a concerning history, he is evaluated by our professional behavior staff.

The League has a robust Behavior Training program that includes classes, training techniques, enrichment and a helpline. Lisa Mullinax, our behavior manager, explains how the League evaluates and works with dogs who are fearful or aggressive.

When an animal feels threatened, they experience high levels of stress. Fear and aggression are both threat responses. How a dog responds to stress depends on the immediate situation, their previous history, genetic predisposition and their environment. It’s our responsibility to make sure that the animals we place in the community are not so easily threatened by normal interactions and situations that they represent a safety risk. In addition, if everyday situations are going to cause a dog a level of fear that they cannot escape or avoid, we must consider their quality of life.

Why some dogs exhibit fear or aggression and others don’t is due to their genetics (e.g., if their parents were fearful, they can pass that to their puppies), the level and quality of socialization during crucial developmental states and their past experiences.

Behavior decisions

The League uses all information gathered about an animal when assessing behavior. This evaluation includes the animal’s history in their former home (if available), observations at the time of arrival and during the physical examination, as well as their behavior throughout their stay. If there are concerning behaviors reported from any of these sources, our Behavior Department reviews that information and performs an assessment and/or enrolls the animal in a behavior program. The animal’s next steps are determined by the information gathered.

Behavior assessment

We try to make a behavior assessment as natural as possible, recreating everyday situations such as being leashed, interacting with strangers, petting, handling for grooming or vet care, encountering other dogs and walking in new environments. We observe a dog’s behavior during these interactions and determine whether or not they have special behavior considerations.

Behavior programs for fearful and aggressive behaviors

During this process, if a dog exhibits behavior that is concerning, our K9 Courage program works with them to increase their tolerance for situations that caused the fear or aggression. While we cannot cure how an animal reacts when threatened, we can change how they feel about the situations that previously caused that stress. From there, we can counsel adopters on how to continue that work with their new dog so that they can be successful.

Behavior techniques

The League utilizes positive reinforcement techniques with dogs and cats. Methods include clicker training, which uses a sound to “mark” the moment a treat was earned. This approach speeds the learning process for all animals and is now widely used with domestic and wild animal species. There’s even a clicker-trained alligator, Bayou, at the Happy Hollow Zoo in Oakland! By combining this process with desensitization and counterconditioning, we are able to make fast progress even with animals that have no prior training history.

The Dumb Friends League offers kindness and compassion to pets at our shelters who need gentle behavior training to become the best possible candidates for adoption. If a dog has uncontrollable aggressive behavior, that dog will not be placed into a community. Our team of behavior specialists provides daily training and enrichment to pets in our shelters, making their stay as pleasant and comfortable as possible. We also collaborate with other shelters that have homeless pets with behavior issues. All our behavior services work toward achieving our mission of ending pet homelessness and animal suffering. Visit for additional information.

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