Misleading Assessments Part One:
Strategies For A Positive Outcome
By Kama Brown
Whenever possible, scheduling a visit with a new client and their dog is a great way to set everyone up for success. When dog owners and employees are given accurate information about a dog’s behavior, negative incidents and extra stress can more easily be avoided. Part one of this two-part article will present assessment strategies that keep owners happy and employees safe. Part two of this article will outline training plans for accommodating unwanted behaviors that arise after a dog has been accepted into care.
1) Decide, as an establishment, which unwanted dog behaviors you are going to accommodate.
Make guidelines for how to assess dogs for certain behaviors and how to accommodate the dogs who have these behaviors. Decide ahead of time who will be doing the accommodating and what the extra charges will be.
Create the guidelines as specifically as possible. For example, instead of saying, “we do not accept dogs with a bite history” say, “we are unable to make accommodations for dogs over 15lbs who have a history of biting people or dogs who have bitten severely enough to break skin and cause lacerations”. When it comes to guidelines, the more specific, the better. Being specific with employees about which dogs are allowed prevents owner frustration and keeps everyone safe.
If you want to accept dogs with behavioral challenges and training needs, create a system that allows only experienced staff members to handle these behaviors. Specific guidelines coupled with an employee training process, which includes having new employees shadow experienced employees, can greatly reduce the need for extra safety trainings.
As much as possible, create an environment that reduces the unwanted dog behavior from being able to happen. For example, if a dog becomes aggressive at the front of a kennel when another dog is being walked by, create a visual barrier for the kenneled dog or walk other dogs out another way. If a dog does well with other dogs in the daycare yard but won’t come back inside, use a smaller play yard or keep the dog on a long line.
Preventing the dog from being able to do an unwanted behavior is the key to implementing successful training. Even if an experienced employee is working with the dog each day, the training will not stick if the dog is practicing unwanted behaviors or becoming anxious and upset at other times. Running a facility this way promotes safety for everyone and builds an atmosphere that produces excellent dog handling skills. When employees are aware of how their small actions affect a dog’s behavior, they can more easily advance to working with difficult dogs.
2) Make sure the assessment looks specifically for the behaviors that need extra accommodations.
I recommend a four part evaluation that includes time with the owner, time without the owner, time in the kennel with food or a toy/bone, and time around other dogs.
Give the owner an idea of what will be included in the evaluation and what you will be looking for. Here is an example:
Welcome! Here at Happy Dog Kennel we want your dog’s first day to be stress-free and fun. Introducing your dog to group play, sharing toys and settling in for meals are done slowly to set your dog up for success. Putting dogs quickly into new situations can cause them to react in a way that isn’t usual for them. While they may not be participating in every activity we offer on their first day, they will get a chance to tour the facility with their nose, meet our incredible staff and test their IQ with enrichment toys filled with treats. If something seems too scary or exciting for your dog, we will tell you! With your dog as our guide, we will build canine confidence and find the right accommodations to ensure a safe and happy experience each time.
Finding quality care for dogs can be difficult and clients may find the idea of an evaluation stressful, so labeling evaluations as introductions can relieve that stress. It can be difficult to do an accurate assessment of how a dog will respond long–term when they are put into multiple situations in a single afternoon. Many times, initially aroused dogs will do just fine in daycare given proper adjustment time. Dogs may also be so nervous on the first day that they are “shut down” and show very little behavior but become snarky with dogs as time goes on.
Keep the conversation open with dog owners and employees about how dog behavior can change. When in doubt, explain the full situation to the owner. If a dog seems tentative meeting employees during the first day evaluation, do not tell the owner that the dog was “good” or “happy”. Telling the owner that the dog handles something well, only to later say that the dog is growling at people, will create the conclusion that it’s not the dog, but the people.
If a dog is tentative on their first day, specifically say “Zoey was tentative when she met new people. Is that usual for her? She may need more time to adjust to a new place with so many sounds and smells. I’ll let you know how she seems next time.” This type of conversation keeps the owner in the discussion and gives them the chance to offer input.
When the owner brings the dog in for the evaluation, simply spend ten or so minutes letting them describe their dog, while you observe the dog’s general demeanor. At each stage of the evaluation, take a mental note of whether the dog seems nervous, happy, or overly excited. I keep the dog and owner off to the side of the incoming busy area, but I don’t go into an entirely separated room. Some questions are important to ask in person, even if they were already asked on a written form. Ask specifically if the dog is on any medication, currently going through a training program, or has ever bitten a person or animal.
After the owner leaves, take the dog around and allow them to sniff the areas they will be spending time in, before directly encountering other dogs. If daycare is currently in session, let them sniff other areas as much as possible before kenneling them. Sniffing gives dogs information about new places and is a natural stress reliever. Make sure the dog has a chance to meet multiple employees and make mental notes on how the dog responds to each new person.
After sniffing and meeting staff members, evaluate how the dog responds to meeting just one other dog. If the dogs are playful, give them a few minutes to play and then give both dogs a break. After an hour or so, evaluate the dog in a group of dogs.
While the dog is taking a break in-between the single dog meeting and the playgroup, evaluate how they respond to being given a food filled toy or a bowl of food. Slide the food or toy towards the back of the kennel and come back in a few minutes. Call the dog to the front of the kennel and give them a treat when they do. Dogs should happily leave food and food-filled toys for a chance to leave the kennel or receive a treat from a person. If the dog refuses to come when called or interact with staff members while he has these items, make a note of that, as these could be signs of resource guarding or food aggression.
Have one assessment report for the owner and another assessment for the staff. The owner should be given the simple and direct assessment results. Tell the owner how each introduction went and if the dog seemed nervous, happy, or overly excited. If the dog was aggressive in any situation, ask them how the dog usually responds.
For example: “When we gave Rex a toy, it was hard to get it back from him, even if we offered him treats. Does he usually give up his toys at home?” Owners are generally very honest when asked direct questions about their dog’s behavior; the key is to be as specific as possible when asking them. If it turns out that Rex doesn’t have toys at home, or is also possessive of his toys at home, let employees know not to give Rex toys when he visits and to be aware if he is chewing on one.
If the owner is interested in changing the behavior, print out some simple training sheets (some good ones are available at www.ForstaDog.com) and let the owner know you have experienced employees who can create a training plan while he’s visiting. If the owner says that Rex doesn’t seem to possess his toys at home, evaluate him again at the next visit, but still let employees know to use caution.
3) Share the evaluation and training plan with the owner
as a productive approach.
Once you’ve decided which unwanted behaviors your business can accommodate and you’ve asked the owners about the behaviors you saw, create a training plan. Be as specific as possible.
For example: “When we introduced Jack to one other dog, he seemed happy. He was able to come when called and loved getting a treat. When we introduced him to a group of five dogs, Jack seemed nervous and/or overly excited. He didn’t seem to hear us when we called and he didn’t want to eat our treats anymore. Since you’ve told us this behavior is normal for Jack, we want to use the opportunity to create a training plan. During each visit, Jack will spend time with another dog one-on-one. After a rest in his kennel, he will go into the group yard with a trainer. The trainer will use a long line, special toys and positive reinforcement to reward Jack for coming when called and ignoring the other dogs during training. As visits go on, the trainer will set up a two or three dog playgroup with Jack off-leash and slowly work up to being able to come when called around all five dogs.”
Whenever an accommodation is needed, offering a training plan is an opportunity to charge appropriately for the extra time employees will spend with the dog, while giving the owner a positive plan forward. Offering options regarding a dog’s care is a great way to build client trust, strengthen employee skills and create a happy place for dogs, while increasing sales and safety.