Happier Days for Shelter Dogs

March 6, 2012  

The Kennel Enrichment Program, pioneered by Casa Del Toro, helps shelter and rescue dogs avoid kennel stress


StubbyDog recently chatted with Laurie Adams, president and founder of Casa Del Toro Pit Bull Education and Rescue, about the Kennel Enrichment Program (KEP) she helped to create – a program that is now helping dogs throughout Indiana and beyond.

Q: What is the Kennel Enrichment Program?

A: Our Kennel Enrichment Program is a collection of very specific items that we provide for animals that are in animal shelters. We use items that focus on breaking up the very static environment that is kennel life. The items focus on not only the physical but the mental and sensory aspects of the animal.

The program works with all animals in the shelter, not just those that are available for adoption. We have an advanced team that works with the animals that are in the investigation or stray kennels, as most often those animals do not get the same interaction with people or the outside as the animals in the adoption kennels. By having two teams we are able to cover all of the animals in the shelter.

Many people think that if an animal has made it to the adoption kennel than it is home free and safe from euthanasia, but this is false. While it does mean the animal has passed a series of evaluations and is deemed adoptable by the shelter’s standard tests, it does not mean that the animal will be “home free.” Often animals that are on the adoption floor may sit for long periods of time before they are chosen for adoption. During this time, they see people come and go, and come and go. With every new person that walks by, the animal stands up, gets all wiggly, and sometimes people pass by without taking the animal outside. This can stress an animal out.

When you think about it, each animal may see up to 100 people or more a day. Not everyone will take the animal out, so the animal gets stimulated and then the people walk away. Experiencing this day after day, several times a day, an animal can get frustrated and or stressed out. Our program is designed for the volunteers to go in, look at the chart, see which animals have been taken outside – not only walked but actually given interaction with people one on one.

We work on things such as basic obedience and agility. By using interactive toys, we try to engage the animal’s mind and body. When the animal gets placed back into its kennel, the kennel is sprayed with a scent of the day. This keeps the animal’s mind busy. At the end of the day, the animal has not only been able to get out of its kennel but actually have interacted with a person.

The obedience learned also helps the animals get adopted. As people walk by or take the dogs for walks, they can see that the dog actually knows sit or stay or off. Potential adopters find this appealing, and it actually increases the chances of that animal to be adopted. In doing research on why animals are returned to shelters, we find that a lot of it is behavior. Having worked in an animal shelter myself, I have seen animals come back because they jump up on a person, or the adopter can’t get the dog housetrained – we work to bridge that gap.

Our main focus, however, is providing the animals with direct human contact and providing the shelter animals with a better quality of life while they await adoption or whatever outcome they have.

Q: How and why was the KEP started and implemented?

A: The program was created back in 2009 – 2010. I was employed by Indianapolis Animal Care & Control as a field supervisor. During that time there was a large animal fighting operation uncovered in Orange County, Ind. – more than 100 dogs were taken in. We [Casa del Toro] were asked by the Humane Society of the United States to help care for some of the dogs from this operation. We took in several of those dogs, and while we had them in our care, there were several of those dogs that were withdrawn and broken. They would not come out of their dens. They would not approach people.

I started to work on a series of things for them, specific things that would slowly help to engage them. I realized it was working! I began taking notes and applying the techniques to some of the dogs in the investigation kennels while I was at work. Again, I would see a change. I thought to myself, we can change things for the dogs! If I can do this at home with the dogs from the raid and see a change in them, and can see a change in the dogs that are held long term at the shelter, then this is something that we should be doing for all the animals that are held long term.

I began doing it without a manual or even a set of written guidelines. I approached the director of the shelter with the idea, presenting him with a rough draft of what I had in mind. I asked him if he would permit me to do this with the animals in the investigation kennels, if I could provide seasoned, dog savvy people to help me. He agreed to sit down with me, and he looked over what I had in mind and encouraged me to move forward on it.

So I did. We worked the enrichment program with the Orange County dogs, and while I was at work, I worked it with the investigation dogs. Soon, I saw dogs that were shut down and withdrawn come out of their shells and present very nicely. Even for those who I knew in my heart of hearts were not going to make it to the adoption kennels, they too had become more relaxed, not so stressed out and shut down. Those dogs actually learned how to just be a dog, and we let them.

Just be a dog – there’s something unbelievably hard to explain about how beautiful it is in watching a dog that was, for all his life, chained to a tree in the deep woods with nothing or no one, come out of his shell and discover that he can run! There is a moment when you work enrichment with the dogs that you can see that click – the one moment in which they connect that you are the source of that better life, the moment they emerge from the broken, lonely shell of a dog they were forced to be.

A little while later we received the Enrichment for Victims of Cruelty Award from Partners in Shelter Services (BADRAP and Animal Farm Foundation), and with that award came a $1,000 grant for us to use on the program at Indianapolis Animal Care & Control. We were given a small closet-sized room to begin our program. We cleaned it out, painted it, and off we went.

It wasn’t long before a really great gal from another group, Shawna Ping, started to volunteer with Casa Del Toro and specifically got involved with the Kennel Enrichment Program. Shawna has since become an official board member of Casa Del Toro. She was instrumental in taking the notes and ideas that I had, and together we started doing more research. Shawna compiled all the information together and created the manual we now use for the program. When volunteers come into the program, they can pick the manual up and know exactly what to do, so there is no time wasted for volunteers. We wanted the program to be as time efficient as we could make it so that the animals get full use out of the time the volunteers.

Since the inception, we have been able to work the KEP program with not only the dogs at IACC but with dogs from two animal fighting operations in Indiana. In 2010, we received a $10,000 grant from the Humane Society of the United States so we can continue to spread KEP work to other Indiana shelters. We have six one-day long workshops planned for Indiana shelters for 2012. We’re excited to get this program into the other shelters across Indiana so we can keep helping pit bulls in Indiana.

Q: Can you tell the StubbyDog community about some of the enrichment toys the volunteers use with the dogs?

A: We use a variety of enrichment toys – simple toys made from PVC pipes with holes drilled in the sides so that kibble can fall out as the dog rolls it around. We make good use out of old T-shirts, tie knots in them and make toys or scent rags. We have items donated to the program, such as Busy Bones, Kongs, etc. The Kongs we get at a super discounted rate from the Kong Company. We have used items such as regular brown paper bags to hide kibble in, cardboard boxes and paper towel rolls – all of which we only give when supervised.

We also use agility equipment, which a couple of our volunteers made from PVC pipes. Of course, nothing beats a good old-fashioned ball, but in reality it’s the simplest of homemade toys that we find the most entertaining and engaging for them. Really we use very little money for this program. We utilize a wish list we created on Amazon, and we made a Facebook page where we give updates and keep people informed on what we are doing in the program. When people can see what you’re doing, they are more than willing to help. You just have to ask.

We utilize a dry erase board in our enrichment rooms that helps each volunteer know where the last one left off; they check the board each day for any new updates on dogs that may possibly be presenting some issues, and they work on those issues.

Our only set back is that we need more volunteers. It’s not an easy job; it’s real work. We are constantly trying to recruit more and more people. It’s a revolving door at times, but we have a very dedicated core group of folks that regardless of how big the task might seem at times, they are dedicated to not give up. I could never have asked for a better set of volunteers than what we have in that program – true heroes in my eyes, without a doubt. It’s only because of their hard work that this program has been successful, and as we move into 2012, it’s my hope that we can get more people involved – the animals need them.

Q: How is KEP helping pit bulls in the IACC?

A: We have been told by some people who have taken the dogs from the shelter to the offsite adoption events that the dogs behave much better, which in turn makes for quicker placement and adoption.

The dogs also present better in the kennel. The KEP volunteers are able to spend more time with the dogs, especially the ones in the investigation kennels and can better help identify dogs that may be presenting signs of kennel stress and intervene to prevent that from escalating, resulting in less euthanasia of perfectly great dogs. Through the time spent with the dogs in the KEP program, the volunteers are able to give more detailed information to potential adoptive families.

Q: Why is KEP important for the pit bulls at IACC?

A: Kennel enrichment is important for any animal in any shelter – animals are social animals who thrive on human affection. Pit bulls, as we all know, thrive for human affection, yet in a kennel, they are deprived of that. We know that shelters are over worked and underfunded, but we can’t let that be the reason why we fail to provide the animals within those walls a better quality of life while they await the next step in their lives, whatever that step may be (and maybe even more so for the animals that we know will not be going to the adoption floor). The reason they have landed in the shelters is not their fault – we, as humans, have failed them someway (maybe not you or I, but a human).

We have to get in the mindset that, the old out of sight, out of mind doesn’t apply when you have a living, breathing animal. We might not be able to save the lives of all the animals, but we certainly can make sure that the quality of life that they have while they are in a shelter is the best that it can be, not in just providing the animal with food, water and a sleeping area, but providing the animal with the tools they need to handle the stress of shelter life, to step in and be that bridge that assists that animal – give that animal the dignity that he deserves. You do not have to have a huge rescue or even foster an animal to save its life: You can be the volunteer of a shelter KEP, you can be the one who says, “Today this animal is going to be stress free.” At the end of the day, it matters – it all matters.

If you would like information on how to set up a program like this for your shelter, please email Laurie at [email protected] or Shawna at [email protected] They would be more than happy to help you get started.

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