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Shelter staff, volunteers collaborate on animal socialization, behavior programs

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Lorna McKim, a volunteer at the Bonnie L. Hayes Small Animal Shelter, says hello to Milo, a pit bull mix.At the Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter, a high vacancy rate is a sign of success.

That’s an indication that most, if not all, dogs, cats and small household pets in and around Washington County have homes, are attended to and — ideally — loved by their owners. The Hillsboro shelter achieves that success from time to time, but plenty of stray, neglected, injured and abused pets invariably find themselves needing attention.

With the help of about 150 active volunteers, the shelter’s staff strives to go beyond the basics of shelter, food, water and injury care. Through innovative approaches such as a dog socialization/behavior program, an Adopted Dog Academy and spay-and-neuter services, shelter staff and volunteers go the extra mile to help abandoned or lost pets be as healthy and ready for adoption into a stable home life as possible.

“We bring in about 4,000 animals into our shelter a year,” says Deborah Wood, manager of Washington County Animal Services and the shelter. “All of those animals are stray dogs and cats from Washington County, plus an average of about 50 animals a year in neglect/abuse/hoarding cases.”

On a given morning, she adds, “we never know if there will be animals brought in to the shelter ... if owners are reclaiming their pets or if we are going to receive a call from the police for help.”

The socialization/behavior program harnesses the shelter’s volunteer force to help domesticate wayward pooches.

“The dogs that come to us are often under-socialized,” Wood says. “In order to be good candidates for adoption — and to have a happy experience if they are in our adoption program for an extended time — they need training in specific behaviors. They learn basic commands if they are here for long, learn to walk nicely on a leash and learn general self-control — not jumping on people, etc. Of course, all the training is done with positive methods.”

Jennifer Keene, the shelter’s certified professional dog trainer, heads up the Open Paw program, matching volunteers with dogs while providing effective training tools and strategies.

“It’s a structured volunteer training program,” says Keene, who has a master’s degree in education. “It’s based on working with dogs in as consistent a manner as possible. In aiming to have much better consistency, (dogs) stay calmer and that helps (volunteers) work faster.”

About 25 of the shelter’s 150 volunteers are working in a pilot training program with four pit bulls Washington County Animal Control officers seized last summer into protective custody from an Aloha residence.

“It’s their only job to work with these four dogs in the pilot program,” Keene says. “We lovingly call them the Fab Four. It’s great to see them go from lunging, barking and scared to everybody’s favorites. They’re the easiest to get in their kennels, the most polite. They’ll stand to get their harness on — just a lot of positive outcomes.”

Given the common age window in which the shelter receives homeless pets, the term “socialization” is a bit of a misnomer.

“Dogs that are very frightened of people, (the window) for socialization typically closes at 16 weeks (old),” she says. “At the age we get them, they’re often adolescent dogs. Seven months and 2 years is a common profile. If they’re fearful, or reactive to something, it’s a sign of classical (owner-influenced) conditioning.”

One recent session focused on teaching dogs a variety of tricks.

“It stimulates their mind and teaches them how to learn and interact with people,” she says.

Dr. Allison Lamb, who joined the shelter as staff veterinarian in June 2013, emphasizes the integral role of socialization and caretaker bonding to pets’ overall well-being.

“I want to make sure my department always maintains good conversation with the socialization part of it,” she says.

In addition to emergency and routine medical treatment, Lamb performs spaying and neutering procedures as well as implanting microchips so pets can be tracked if they get lost.

“What we do can be very stressful,” she says. “It’s hard to pick out what (the root of) behaviors are. Is it because of (physical) pain happening, or the underlying personality of an animal? The only way we’re going to keep animals physically healthy is if they’re behaviorally healthy as well.”

With the pilot socialization program a success, shelter staff aim to expand it to include more volunteers as well as pets in need.

“We know some of the things we can do to implement the program. Now we’re figuring out how to do that with all dogs in the program,” Keene says. “The cool thing is that more of these are becoming standard practices. In some (localities) that are not like here, they automatically euthanize certain dogs.

“(Innovative socialization programs) seem standard in our area,” she adds, “which is awesome.”

For more information about the Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter, visit co.washington.or.us/HHS/AnimalServices/AnimalShelter/.

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