Shelter Behavior Manual, Level 1


Purpose & Objectives


The purpose of this training is to improve life at the shelter for both the dogs and the humans! Knowledge is power and the more we understand about dog behavior, the more effective we can be as their handlers, trainers, and advocates, and the more positive & FUN our interactions will be!


  1. To learn clear and consistent techniques for handling our dogs, ensuring that staff and volunteers are trained in the same methods and approaches and veterans are able to help reinforce those methods for new volunteers & staff.
  2. To use small changes to create big results. Quality of life is directly proportional to the behavior we see in our dogs. We will answer the questions, “What can staff do with the time they have to improve quality of life, positively influence behavior, and create more adoptable dogs?” and “How can volunteers best use their time to focus on the dogs who need them and their particular skill set most?”
  3. To provide clear and actionable information that enables staff and volunteers to walk, interact with, and meet the basic needs of most shelter dogs.

Dog Body Language

What is the dog saying to you and how are you using that information?

Dogs offer clear communication if we pay attention and learn to understand their language. Reading their body language and responding appropriately is key for both positive reinforcement and prevention of unwanted behaviors.

Promote Appropriate Behavior

Mark and reward behaviors you do want, and soon the dog will repeat them often. When the dog makes a socially appropriate choice and responds to your cues, use the verbal marker “Yes” and reinforce with a resource that dog finds valuable in that moment. Resources may include a treat, toy, affection, play, etc.

  • Dog looks at you before crossing through a doorway. You, the handler, mark with enthusiastic “Yes,” treat, and walk through the doorway together.

Redirect Unwanted Behavior

While we always want to catch the dog doing something good, sometimes we need to help him when he makes a choice we don’t want. While it’s better to redirect behavior before it starts, work diligently to help the dog to the right choice at any stage of the behavior. When dogs practice inappropriate behaviors, those behaviors can become habits difficult to change and likely to escalate.

  • Dog starts to jump on you as you approach. Stop your approach and ask for a sit instead. Only approach her while she remains seated, and reward her calmly when you get there.

Reinforce Calming Signals

“Calming Signals” are actions dogs use to diffuse tension or avoid conflict: yawning, licking, turning away, sniffing the ground, play bowing, freezing, sitting, walking in a curve, etc. We can reinforce this body language to promote behavior we want. Watch for these signals, use them to create successful interactions, and reward the dog for making socially appropriate choices.

  • Dog walks in a curve and sniffs the ground while returning to her kennel instead of engaging with other barking dogs. Support her by responding to her signals (walk her in a curve and give pause when she needs it) rather than pulling her toward the kennels.

Recognize Eye Contact

Eye contact is an invaluable behavior to reinforce. If a dog checks in with you, he is asking for guidance and approval. When you work with the dog to reinforce his natural tendency to engage with you, you will see these behaviors repeated.

  • A dog turns back to look at you while you’re out on a walk. Praise and reward her for checking in every time she checks in; this is the key to loose leash walking.


Doggie Drawings, Lily Chin,!freeposters/ckm8

Suggested Reading:

Human Body Language

What are you saying to the dog and how is the dog using that information?

Communication goes both ways and dogs are probably way better at reading us than we are at reading them! It is imperative that you are always aware of what message you are sending to the dog and what behavior that message will elicit.

Think of these as your golden rules for every interaction with the dogs:

  1. Model the behavior you want. We want our dogs to follow our lead, to be willing to work for us, and to offer us focus and self-control. The energy we project determines if we earn that behavior from them. If you model calm confidence, you will see different behavior than if you are overly excited, nervous and tense, in a rush, or confrontational and overbearing. This applies to your body posture, tone of voice, and how you project your mood. Moderating our own behavior can be one of the more difficult parts of working with dogs, but it is also one of the most effective ways to get results. Remember to breathe!

  2. Establish and communicate clear boundaries. Dogs don’t know what is expected of them until we show them. Ask the dog clearly for the behaviors you want and ignore or clearly and promptly redirect those you do not.

    Anything the dog wants is a resource (sniffing that tree, attention from you, access to toys & treats, verbal praise, affection, playing a game, a car ride, exiting the kennel, etc.). Use access to those resources to establish boundaries: good things happen when the dog is polite, good things disappear when he/she isn’t.

  3. Be present. If we expect focus from the dogs, we have to engage with them too. If you are distracted, in a rush, or less than enthusiastic about taking out a dog, the dog is going to read that and react accordingly. Create positive interactions with a dog by finding ways to connect with him and stay engaged during your time together. When we are engaged, we’re more likely to catch subtle cues and facilitate positive behavior than if we are only paying cursory attention.

  4. Speak their language. Successful dog handlers can affect a dog’s behavior by using language the dog understands and reinforcing their positive communications to us. Imagine feeling stressed and anxious and having someone put a reassuring hand on your back, a gesture you understand and appreciate. You can use calming signals and your body language to affect your dog’s behavior by positively impacting his emotional state. Is the situation stressful? Try a big yawn. Lots of barking dogs as you approach to put a dog away? Try walking in a curve instead of straight on. Does the dog seem intimidated if you face her? Try turning your body 45 degrees away from her. Often you’ll notice your dog, or other dogs around, will mimic your actions.

  5. Further Suggested Reading

Kennel Routine: Removing From and Returning to Kennels & Pens

First impressions matter.

Good kennel manners help the dogs show well to potential adopters. Regardless of how well-behaved a dog is outside its kennel, dogs who jump, spin, bark, or gate climb have a much harder time getting adopted than dogs who are polite on approach. The kennel is where most adopters see the dogs so we need to help them look their best in the space that’s serving as their temporary home. Teaching the dog a good “kennel routine” creates a dog who is a joy to take in and out.


Your initial approach to the kennel is both a training opportunity for the dog and your first opportunity to gain their trust. Your body language helps the dog understand right away that you are a friend, which is especially important for our fearful pups!

The rule is simple: only approach the kennel when the dog has “four on the floor”, whether standing, sitting, or lying) quietly. As you approach, if the dog isn’t doing one of those behaviors, stop and turn your back. Resume your approach as soon as the dog has resumed four paws on the floor, but continue only as long as the dog remains quiet.

Your body language as you approach matters too. First, check your posture, facial tension, and breathing. Are you stiff? Breathing tensely or rapidly? Soften your body and soften your face. You should appear confident but relaxed. If in doubt, take a deep breath and exhale, try yawning, and give your whole body a little wiggle to loosen up. As you approach, avoid constant, direct eye contact, which is considered rude behavior in the dog world.


Remember that “four on the floor” rule? It applies for each step. Enter the kennel only if the dog is sitting (or standing calmly, depending how far along they are in learning kennel routine) quietly. On kennel doors that open inward, block the entrance with your body as you enter and close the door behind you. If the kennel door only opens outward, close the dog into one side of the kennel and enter through the other, opening the guillotine with your hand after you have entered. You may also use a slip lead if needed to prevent any potential door darting or loose dog incidents or toss treats into the back of the kennel and enter as the dogs moves away from the door to eat them.


Expect four on the floor for leashing and harnessing too. The leash goes away anytime a dog gets jumpy or mouthy during the leashing process. As you put a dog’s equipment on, try to avoid looming over them or engaging in restraint or body posture that can be interpreted as threatening. This is especially important for fearful dogs, dogs unfamiliar with touch, or easily overstimulated dogs.


In the final stage of kennel routine, dogs should sit and wait until released to exit the kennel, even with the door open. As they learn, however, we can scaffold them. On the first run through, we may only ask that they stand politely as we open the door. Next time, we may ask for a sit before finally progressing to wait. To train this, we slice our exit routine into baby steps. First, we may just lift our hand to the door. If this is too much for the dog, we will take our hand down until they resume their position. We repeat this process as we move to the latch, opening the door just a bit, opening the door to exit, and releasing the dog with the word “Free.”

Each step will get faster as dogs learn their kennel routine and what is expected of them. The goal is a dog who sits politely for approach, leashing/harnessing, and exit, making your time together more enjoyable and leaving a great impression on adopters.

Leash Skills

Good leash manners = adopted dogs.


Using the right equipment sets both you and the dog up for success. Equipment used at the shelter includes martingale collars; Easy Walk and Freedom harnesses; Gentle Leaders; carabiner clips; and double ended leashes.

Handling the Leash

When handling the leash, we want to communicate to the dog that we are working together while allowing them to make choices. Holding the leash too short does not allow the dog to make any decisions or learn desired behavior but rather relies on physical strength to control the dog. Giving the dog the full length of the leash, however, puts the dog too far away from the handler for effective communication and safe use of space.


Too often we rely solely on the leash to control the dog, forgetting that we should be keeping the dogs interested and connected with the handler, even as they explore the environment. Use your body language, voice, and even training games to remind the dog that you are working together. Make sure you are rewarding eye contact any time a dog checks in with you. If you are no longer able to get the dog’s attention, it is time to re-engage.

  • Premack Principle: : This is the theory that a high probability behavior will reinforce a low probability behavior. If a dog wants to do an activity, he’ll be more likely to do something less desirable to get to do it. For example, a dog wants to sniff a tree and their response is to drag you towards it. Using Premack, you will stop, wait for the dog to check in and put slack in the leash, and reward him by walking over to sniff the tree together.

Loose Leash Walking Techniques

  • Be a tree. This means exactly what it says. If the dog starts pulling, the walk stops. When the dog puts slack in the leash, the walk resumes. Timing and consistency are key. If you allow the dog to pull for a while, the dog learns that sometimes pulling works. As soon as the dog puts slack in the leash, immediately resume the walk to teach the dog that’s what you want.
  • Change direction. This technique allows the handler to scaffold the dog by putting the slack in the leash for them. Rather than stopping when the dog pulls, turn and walk in the other direction. This puts the dog behind you and gives you the opportunity to move forward while rewarding them (maybe verbally, maybe with treats) for walking on a loose leash. If the dog starts pulling again, repeat.
  • Stray dog. This technique is used to keep the dog on his/her toes and more engaged with the handler. Vary your pace and direction so the walk becomes more interesting and the dog has to anticipate your movement and work harder to stay with you.
  • Creating patterns in walk. This technique is derived from the simple pattern game, “1,2,3 Treat!” By establishing a specific walking pattern that ends in a repetitive reward, you simplify the often difficult task of loose leash walking for the dog.

Enrichment & Quality of Life

There is no better way to prevent undesirable behaviors from developing and/or escalating than through providing enrichment and quality of life! So many of the behaviors we see in the shelter environment are due to stress. But the good news is, there’s much we can do to help!

Basic Needs

Dogs should, at all times, have the following:

  • Fresh water
  • A soft and clean bed/den area
  • Enrichment (at least 2 enrichment toys at all times)
  • 3 timely potty breaks each day
  • Consistent feeding schedule
  • Medical needs addressed immediately
  • Reinforcement that their kennel is a safe place.

Meeting a dog’s basic needs is the very foundation of their quality of life. If we are not meeting this need, everything else we do, all the training in the world, is just a layer of paint on a crumbling building.

Quality Enrichment.

Once the basic needs are taken care of, quality enrichment becomes the primary tool for preventing and addressing behavior issues. Dogs need daily physical and mental stimulation to maintain their mental health in a shelter setting.

All the Toys: In addition to interactive feeding toys (Kongs, Kong Wobblers, Buster Cubes, Atomic Treat Balls, PVC Pipe Toys, etc.), dogs should have a variety of playthings in their kennels: at least one comfort item to carry around (the stuffed toys, durable for heavy chewers) and at least one toy to chew (i.e. Nylabones for more orally focused dogs). Rotate toys frequently to offer variety & keep dogs interested in them.

Fun in the Shelter: You can have lots of fun outings right here in the shelter! Play fetch or work on recall in the play pens, make use of the agility or obstacle equipment throughout the shelter, hide treats in cardboard boxes and do some simple nose work, borrow an interactive puzzle toy to work on together from the Volunteer Office, or play some training games & build adoption skills!

Downtime: Studies show that shelter dogs get less than half the amount of sleep natural and healthy for their species. Helping dogs relax in their kennel space or on field trips is one of the most important things we can do for them. The key to helping a dog relax is for you to relax too. Activities can include TTouch, massage, gentle petting, softly talking to the dog or reading aloud to them, playing some soothing music, misting an interesting scent into the kennel and letting it dissipate (calm enrichment activity with natural, slow resolution), or even doing some simple stretching. Focus on relaxing yourself and inviting the dog to join you.

Easy Training Games for Adoptability and Enrichment

  • Treat for Calm: A simple, fun way to create a quiet, stress-free (or less stress, at least) kennel environment is to reward the dogs for calm, quiet behavior. It is also a great way to impact multiple dogs in a short amount of time. Several time a days, walk through the kennel area, and hand out treats to any dog who is standing, sitting, or laying quietly. If you come to a dog who is barking, jumping, or showing any other behavior than calm quiet, pause for a second to see if the dog will offer the behavior on his own. If not, keep going to the next kennel, but come back from time to time to try to catch him being good!
  • Gate Games: These are done from outside the kennel. Reward sits, downs, and eye contact by providing treats and verbal praise each time they execute the task, whether prompted or offered. You may find as you do this that the dogs in the nearby kennels fall quiet and begin to work for the treats as well – include them in the game! This is a simple way to reward and reinforce calm shelter behavior and increase adoption chances! As the dog(s) master these basic games, increase the duration of the behaviors and the distance from which you can ask for them.
  • Basic Behavior Plan for Shelter Dogs: All dogs living at the shelter should immediately start learning important skills like Sit, Down, Nose Targeting, Wait at the Door, and all the skills listed in the Basic Plan. This is important part of a dog’s mental enrichment while also increasing his adoptability.
  • Tricks: Teaching dogs tricks serves the dual function of giving them cute stuff to show off to adopters and skills that can be used to help them navigate real world situations. Plus, it’s great enrichment! We definitely recommend dogs learn the basic cues sit, down, stay, wait, target/touch, come/recall, and swing but fun stuff like shake, high five, roll over, spin, and play dead have great applications too!
  • Greeting Visitors to the Shelter: This is a great way to help the dogs show themselves off to potential adopters and practice their manners. Be sure to reinforce polite greeting behaviors. Ask the dog to sit and have them show off any tricks they know. Be aware of the dog’s individual needs and watch their body language to make sure that they are comfortable in the situation.

Resources, Programs, and Sharing Information

Diva says sharing is sweet! (Almost as sweet as donuts.)

Where to find info on dogs?

All AAC dogs’ notes and official records are stored using the Chameleon database which can be accessed via computers in the shelter.

How to get more training?

Austin Animal Center offers ongoing training opportunities for staff and volunteers and Dogs Out Loud welcomes AAC staff to our training opportunities as well:

  • GivePulse: AAC posts all training opportunities and pertinent info here so make sure you join!
  • Playgroups: Contact Josh to assist with playgroups & learn more about dog/dog dynamics!
  • TTouch: DOL offers bi-monthly TTouch (confidence building, calming, & communication) classes Sunday evenings at AAC in partnership with TTouch Austin. Email for more info!
  • DOL Group Classes: DOL holds group training classes for behaviorally at-risk AAC adoptables and alumni Sunday mornings at 9am. Email DOL if you’d like to join as a handler or assistant!
  • DOL Behavior Workshops: DOL offers the following workshops on a rotating basis to AAC staff & volunteers: Shy & Fearful Dogs, Whoa Doggie!, Unruly Adolescents & Young Adults, Leash Gremlins Need Love Too: Helping Reactive Dogs, and Shelter Enrichment Made Easy and Effective. Watch GivePulse for announcements.

We also recommend you check out our online resource library and follow us on Facebook for easily accessible tips, info, & opportunities!

Meet & Greets and Facilitating Adoptions

Send those doggies home!

Adoption Matchmaking

For all of the creative marketing and events we do, the most effective way to get dogs adopted is for a person who knows and cares about that dog to introduce them to a potential adopter. Even if they are not the right match, they may know someone who is. Take the time to make connections with potential adopters. Talk to them about their lifestyle to get an idea of which dog might fit well with them, help the dog show off what he/she knows, and do your best to ensure every pup gets to put his/her best paw forward!


Social media and word of mouth get dogs adopted! Share your photos and fun, positive stories about the dogs on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest, YouTube … whatever forums you use! Our personal experiences and cute photos can help promote a positive image and better understanding of shelter dogs and of dogs in general. It’s also a great way to recruit fosters, adopters, and volunteers!