Each year, thousands of animals find their way into the care of Gwinnett County’s Animal Shelter. Finding good homes for as many as possible requires more than just feeding, sheltering and then waiting for the “right” person to find just the perfect pet. The internet allows the public to see the faces of the many of the cats and dogs who are put up for adoption each week, but sometimes, high-tech solutions need some real-people assistance.
Enter Cathy Bruce, Certified Pet Dog Trainer and owner of the Canine Country Academy based in Dacula. Having worked with Gwinnett Shelter’s Lieutenant Mary Lou Respess in the past on talk shows and during presentations as panel members addressing animal behaviors, canine training and pet overpopulation, Bruce had another idea. She proposed bringing the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) training program to the shelter in the hopes of making some of the dogs more appealing for adoption.
The C.L.A.S.S. was implemented at the shelter in July using shelter personnel and volunteers to teach the dogs some basic life skills. Sit, down, stay and loose leash walking are the basics for the B.A. skills certification. The program also teaches social skills such as meet and greet, taking treats from strangers, and waiting for permission before going through doors and getting out of cars.
Actual training began on Aug. 15 with 10 dogs chosen to participate in the program. Of those initial 10, nine were adopted and one rescued after the training showed them to be sociable dogs, but before they could complete the program. The shelter reports that those participating in the program were more calm and relaxed in their pens than many of the other dogs. Since the first week, 28 dogs have started the program and 18 of the students have already been adopted or rescued. The C.L.A.S.S. program is designed to last six weeks, but Bruce has worked with the volunteers to create an accelerated four-week curriculum to expedite the training and maximize the potential for quick placement in a good home.
On Oct. 6, two students were tested for their Bachelors Degree by Bruce. The two students, Mandy and Gigi, and their trainers were put through their paces while their new owners watched from the sidelines.
Mandy, a blonde Lab-mix, has been at the shelter since August. A stray, she had some anxiety disorders exhibited by chasing her tail almost constantly. Her trainer, Jennifer Echols, explained that she chewed at her tail and was somewhat withdrawn. Certainly not an appealing dog for a potential owner. After a few weeks of training, however, Mandy has one of those “open grins” that seem to typify a happy dog. Sociable to almost a fault, she was ready to be the center of attention to each person in the testing room. Although Mandy wasn’t giving up her age, Respess suggests that she is probably around 3 years old and is a completely different dog after the positive reinforcement brought about during the training.
Unfortunately, her exuberance could not be contained during the testing and though she didn’t graduate with her BA, her new owner received some guidance to continue her training. He was very pleased with her loving nature and great attitude, so lacking the diploma, it was still a “win-win.”
The newly adopted Gigi came back to the shelter for her opportunity to shine. Though marked with some Rottweiller coloring, there is also a good bit of Border-Collie intensity to Gigi. Walking into the room through the door, she was perfectly attuned to her trainer, Jorie Stephens. Stephens, who met Bruce when she trained her own dog through the Academy, says that Gigi has also been at the shelter since August. “No one even asked to see her” during the months that she was there.
Respess says that Gigi came in matted and dirty; there was no evidence of that stray in the well-mannered dog that was put through her paces during the testing. Sitting on command, shaking hands, discounting distractions of the testing and focusing on her trainer, Gigi became the FIRST C.L.A.S.S. certified dog in the state of Georgia.
Bruce explained that all of the dogs who have gone through the program will benefit from the day-to-day reinforcement of living in a home.
Upon receiving the reward of “good girl” praise and a healthy treat, Mandy and Gigi left the shelter with their new humans to begin their lives as well-behaved family pets. And the next class of students found their way into the training area with their trainers and a chance to be a superstar.
But then, given the opportunity, aren’t they all?