Open Paw seeks another ‘doggy’ first
Over the deafening sound of 60 barking dogs at the Berkeley Animal Shelter, internationally-known animal behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar was coaching a volunteer trainee as she entered a cage with Riba, a 50-pound pit bull.
“Remember, there’s nothing wrong with the doggy,” Dunbar yelled in a thick English accent as he closed the gate behind the trainee, “It’s just too friendly.”
Dunbar, whose long résumé includes a doctorate in animal behavior from UC Berkeley’s Psychology Department, has founded a nonprofit organization, Open Paw, that intends to launch a nationwide campaign to modify the behavior of kenneled dogs to make them more adoptable.
“We are going to change kennels from being simple animal warehouses to doggy universities,” Dunbar said.
According to Dunbar, who has written several books on dog training and hosted popular British television series “Dogs with Dunbar,” dogs are often surrendered to kennels because they have minor behavioral problems like barking when left alone, digging up the backyard or chewing furniture.
Dunbar said kennels often unintentionally contribute to poor behavior.
“In most kennels dogs are fed twice a day and usually after they’ve been jumping up and barking for three hours,” Dunbar said. “What does that tell the dog?”
Dunbar has been working with several associates and volunteers to develop inexpensive and effective training techniques that can be applied within the kennel environment. They are largely based on rewarding good behavior in individual dogs with “a bit of kibble.”
The re-training program includes volunteers going into the kennels twice a day and individually hand-feeding the dogs to encourage good behavior.
The volunteers are trained to recognize good behavior, which at first could be as simple as not barking or jumping, and then feeding the dog a single piece of food for each demonstration of good behavior.
“We’ve been designing training techniques that will have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time,” said Open Paw trainer Kelly Gorman. “A dog’s first choice is always going to be barking, jumping or swinging from a chandelier, but through rewarding good behavior we’re going to shift their priorities pretty quickly.”
But to change animals’ behavior, Dunbar said Open Paw must first change kennel policies. The kennels must agree to altering the animal feeding patterns and also persuade a host of other volunteer organizations to adhere to Open Paw’s theories.
“Animal issues can be very emotional issues,” said Citizens Humane Commissioner Sharon Melnyk, who is also on the Open Paw Board of Directors. “We’re asking people to change their way of doing things and people can be quite resistant to change.”
Berkeley animal activist Jill Posner said she has serious questions about the training techniques Open Paw is promoting. “There are a lot of people who just want to help the animals and they shouldn’t have to be required to go through a 20-hour training course,” she said. “They should just be able to show up and take a dog who has been shut in all day for a walk.”
Lisa Fine, the East Bay Humane Society’s director, has fully embraced Open Paw training practices. But the Berkeley Animal Shelter will apply the techniques along with several others, according to BAS Director Kate O’Conner.
Dunbar said volunteers who are unfamiliar with Open Paw training techniques can unwittingly undo behavioral gains if the dogs are fed or taken for walks on a non-reward basis.
“I understand these people are well-meaning,” Dunbar said. “But they are doing the dogs more harm than good.”
Melnyk said the changes Open Paw is suggesting will not be harmful to kennel animals and will only improve their chances of being adopted. “It truly perplexes me why some people would resist a program into which so much thought has been put.”
Dunbar said if Open Paw’s innovative theories are successful in Berkeley’s two kennels he will present the results at a national conference of kennel directors, dog rescue organizations and animal welfare groups this November.
Berkeley is nationally known for establishing the first public dog park and the first puppy training organization, founded by Dunbar in 1980.
“This could be another doggy first for Berkeley,” Dunbar said.
To date, Open Paw has 75 volunteers who have become familiar with kennel training through a four-level instruction course devised by Open Paw.
Kelly McGuinness, a volunteer coordinator at the East Bay Humane Society, said people volunteer for a variety of reasons. “A lot of volunteers can’t have animals in their apartments,” she said. “A lot of them are students who had to leave their pets back home.”
Berkeley architect Dana Carder said she decided to volunteer when she accompanied a friend who was adopting a cat.
“I saw so many animals in desperate need of attention.” she said. “I couldn’t adopt one because pets are not allowed in my apartment, so here I am.”
Bob Pool, who already owns three dogs, two of which he adopted from animal shelters, said he is volunteering because the job is very rewarding. “I just keep coming back for more.”
For more information about volunteering for Open Paw call the East Bay Humane Society at (510) 845-7735 ext. 11.