Shelter Behavior Manual


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 safely and comfortably manage, support and adopt out dogs with varying behavioral needs.

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 away from kennels rather than fence fighting with a neighbor. You, the handler, mark with enthusiastic “Yes,” jog away and give a treat.

Redirect Unwanted Behavior

Most dogs have a “tell” or precursor behavior they do before they do something naughty. Watch the dog closely and redirect potential unwanted behaviors when you see the tell. When dogs practice inappropriate behaviors, those behaviors can become habits difficult to change and likely to escalate.

  • Dog who is mouthy when excited turns to you with a glint in her eye. You notice this behavior and toss treats on the ground away from your body or redirect her to a toy.

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 when a car passes. You tell her “Yes” and offer a treat. She will be more likely to check in with you when the next car passes.


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 and confident energy, 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.

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.

Further Suggested Reading

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! Take a stroll through The Thinking Walk out front, 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!

Field Trips: Field trips are awesome!!!! They give you fantastic bang for your buck by naturally setting up varied training scenarios and socialization opportunities while giving the dog a break from the shelter and making them visible to a whole new set of potential adopters. Do be aware of the dog’s individual needs and make sure the field trip will be a positive and safe learning experience.

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.
  • Relaxation Protocol: This can be done inside or outside the kennel. The RP teaches self-control, focus, and self-calming behaviors in the face of distraction. You will find a copy in your packet.
  • Treat, Retreat: Do this activity with fearful dogs from inside or outside the kennel. Toss a treat towards the dog just at the edge of the threshold he/she is comfortable approaching. We do not want the dogs leaving their comfort zone to get the food, but rather building their confidence to approach freely. After the dog eats the treat, toss another farther out, giving the dog the opportunity to “retreat.” This helps prevent them from freezing and teaches them how to leave a situation rather than feel trapped by their fear. Repeat. Close the distance between you and the dog by tossing the treats at closer distances as the dog is ready.
  • On/Off Game: This game builds self-control and handler engagement by getting the dog excited and then asking them to quickly calm using a default behavior. The simplest variation is walking backwards, facing the dog and getting them to follow you, then stopping quickly and asking them to sit, rewarding when/if they do so without jumping on you. As the dog is ready, the pace and enthusiasm of the handler and the game increases.
  • Too Bad/Take It: This self-control game is very simple and great for dogs who are jumpy or grabby with treats. Present a treat in your flat open palm. If the dog moves forward, close your hand and move it slightly upwards. Repeat until the dog stops moving forward to grab the treat. Then, mark with “yes” and deliver the treat to the dog (your hand moves to the dog, not the other way around).
  • Pattern Games: Great for building focus and self-control through simple, fun, play-based activities. We will go through these games together but you can read about them in more detail via Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed and view some of the most common games on your own here:
  • 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. As with field trips, be aware of the dog’s individual needs and watch their body language to make sure that they are comfortable in the situation.


Table standing is only for special occasions.

Use the right equipment

Make sure you use any designated equipment when taking a dog out. A secure harness will give you better control over the dog, as well as give the dog him/herself better body awareness. A martingale collar prevents the dog from backing out and getting loose. We also recommend double-clipping Easy Walk Harnesses to the dog’s collar (leash clips both rings) to keep the harness centered on the dog’s chest and prevent them from stepping over it. Always carry treats and at least one toy.

Be prepared

Know where the safety stations are and have a solid idea of how to respond should something go wrong. Below are three scenarios we’d rather not encounter but sometimes do:

Trapped in a kennel

Sometimes, a dog doesn’t want you to leave and uses his mouth or body to keep you there. If you are unable to redirect the dog by other means like a counter command or engaging them in an activity, attach the carabiner clip to the end of their leash and hook it on the kennel so you can exit and get assistance.

Dog Fight

  1. Try to remember to slow down and breathe. Most fights are a lot more noise and flying fur than actual physical damage. Rarely do dogs intend to kill each other or even do much harm, so you have time. Use it to put safety first.
  2. Yell, “Dog fight! Help!” loud & clear to get a 2nd person to assist you as you move rapidly toward the safety station.
  3. Try water, citronella spray, and the air horn to break up the fight if possible.
  4. Do not stick your hands near either dog’s head or attempt to grab the collar; the likelihood you will be bitten is high, even with a dog you know well. Stay behind the dogs, on the periphery of the fight.
  5. If either dog has a grip on the other, follow these steps to separate them. Always stay alert and consider your safety first:
    1. Get two leashes (allow the fight to continue while you do this).
    2. Walk behind one dog and loop the leash under the belly of one dog (in front of the back legs) by threading the leash through the handle.
    3. Now slowly back away. Drag the dog to a fence or to an object that you can tie the leash to. By doing this, you effectively create an anchor for one of the dogs.
    4. Then walk around and repeat the step above for the second dog.
    5. Hold the leash tight and taut, and wait for the dogs to release.
    6. Then, drag the dog into a dog pen or another room before you release him.
    7. Go back and take the dog off the fence and put him or her into a dog kennel.
    8. When it is safe (the dog is no longer aroused/a redirection bite risk), check each dog over for injuries and report any injuries to vet services.
    9. If two people are available, then modify this protocol so that each person loops a dog up at the same time. Both people back up slightly and hold the leashes tight and taut until the dogs release, and then back up to separate the dogs.

Loose dog

Yell “Loose dog! Help!” loud & clear and then immediately direct your attention to the situation at hand.

  • Do not chase, run, or yell at the loose dog.
  • Use your body language to be non-threatening and inviting (i.e. use a sing-song voice, walk in a curve, not approach straight on, look at the ground).
  • You may also try jogging away in a playful manner to get the dog to follow you, sitting (or even lying) down, or tossing treats to entice the dog.
  • Use your judgment whether a slip lead, a collar grab, or luring the dog into a nearby pen works best and contain the loose dog as quickly as possible.

If you are handling another dog when a loose dog situation occurs, try to get your dog inside a pen or enclosed space immediately. If this is not possible, stay calm. Keep the leash your dog is on slack and position yourself confidently between the loose dog and your dog. Toss treats directly at the approaching loose dog to distract it and give you and your dog enough time to retreat.

Behavior Modification

Naughty dogs need love too.

This is the trickier stuff you’ll encounter in your work with shelter dogs. We highly recommend checking out the continued training opportunities to hone your skills. It’s far more information than can adequately be covered in a single training but we can at least provide you with a cheat sheet!

First: Do the least amount of work necessary to change or modify a behavior. Your response should be proportional to the behavior presented. Prior to working on any of the below behaviors, it is important to have a solid understanding of three things:

  • Threshold: Suzanne Clothier explains threshold as the “think and learn zone.” This is the place at which the dog can still make good choices and learn new behavior. In a nutshell, it means your dog is not too stressed to learn but not so far removed from the stimulus that he/she lacks the opportunity to learn. The situation may be challenging but remains a positive experience that builds confidence, and is not so stressful that it creates or reinforces a negative association.
  • Dog Body Language: We’ve mentioned this already but it is worth repeating. You can’t effectively use threshold if you don’t understand how your dog is feeling. Understanding and accurately reading dog body language is a critical component in training.
  • Motivation & Goal: What specific behavior are we talking about? What is causing a given behavior? What behavior do we want to reinforce instead? Consider what role the dog’s individual personality, the environment, specific stimuli, and the handler may be playing in the behavior. Finally, what is going to be rewarding for your dog in this training scenario and what skills can you offer him/her so that s/he can navigate the situation safely and successfully?

Common, Unwanted Behaviors and How to Change Them


This is typically the dog who is super excited to see you and do all the things. While some of us enjoy this behavior and might greet our dogs at home this way, we discourage this behavior in shelter dogs because it is usually considered bad manners and can be a barrier to adoption.

The two simplest ways to stop jumping are:

  1. Turn your back to the jumper.
  2. Ask for a counter command (in this case, sit).

The dog gets attention when he is sitting but loses the interaction with his super exciting human when he jumps. This same thing applies when greeting people other than the handler. If you are in the role of handler when a new person comes up, ask your dog to sit for greeting and walk him away if he jumps, explaining to the new person that the the dog is in training to help him get adopted and practicing good greeting manners. For some dogs, simply stopping the walk for a moment stops the jumping. Using time outs is typically not necessary for jumping behavior but is an available tool in extreme cases.

For jumpy dogs, working the Relaxation Protocol can be great practice for polite greeting and interaction behavior. There is often overlap between jumpy dogs and energetic dogs. When that’s the case, these pups would thank you for a nice jog or a hike to get some of their physical energy out as well!


This is anytime dog teeth touch human skin or clothing. Mouthing can be the result of dogs removed from their mothers and/or littermates too early and not learning appropriate play behavior or not understanding the difference between play with dogs and play with humans. It can also be a symptom of a dog who is stressed, overstimulated, or frustrated.

When dealing with mouthing, STAY CALM. You can unintentionally reinforce or escalate the behavior by becoming excited or overly animated. The technique you use to redirect and modify mouthing will depend on what works best with a given dog.

  • Try removing yourself from the situation. If you are sitting, stand. If you are standing, turn away. If you need to remove yourself from a kennel, pen, or room do so.
  • Some dogs can be redirected by asking them to perform an incompatible behavior like sit or touch/target.
  • Others will redirect well to an appropriate object like a toy.
  • Some dogs do better engaging in an activity or game that gets them moving forward like toss the treat or go find.
  • Walking the dog through some simple obstacles like cones or an agility ladder can help break the fixation and channel energy somewhere positive.
  • You may also try bringing the energy level down by becoming still and using gentle touch or TTouch to help the dog calm.

If none of these work and the situation may become unsafe for you and the dog, use a time out.

If you cannot redirect the dog to an appropriate behavior, then the dog is usually over threshold and needs help to calm the down. Use a sturdy carabiner clip to attach the dog to something secure (a tree, fence, etc.) and walk away. When you do this, stay calm and neutral. Wait until the dog visibly calms. When you go to remove the dog from time out, he should sit and offer appropriate behavior as he would during kennel routine. The dog does not leave time out until he is ready to do so without resuming the behavior. If a time out is impossible, you can stop and step on the leash, turning your back towards the dog. If you do this, make sure that you have the end of the leash secure in your hand and that the amount of leash the dog has is sufficient to stop the mouthing but not so short that their neck is being pulled taut or downward.

In addition to handling mouthing in the moment, it is important to work with dogs exhibiting this behavior on self-control games, give them appropriate outlets for chewing (and frustration), engage in calming exercises, and teach them to use all of their senses to explore through things like puzzle toys and nose work.

Leash Biting

This is exactly what it sounds like and will be handled similarly to mouthing. An important thing to remember with leash biters is that you DO NOT want to engage in a game of tug. This can reinforce and escalate the behavior. For dogs who are NOT redirection biters, dropping the leash and getting a secure hold of their harness will stop the behavior. If you are not holding the leash, they have no friction against which to tug. You may also choose to use two leashes so that you can drop one and switch between them or slip a length of pvc pipe over the leash so the dog is unable to grab hold of it. It helps to hold the leash lower (keep your hands near your hips) so the leash is less tempting as it’s not as likely to pass near the dog’s face or be above them.

Though leash biting sometimes really is just a play behavior, leash biting, and leash “climbing” in particular, are often caused by significant kennel stress. In addition to the exercises for mouthy dogs, de-escalate this behavior by:

  • Spending time in the kennel to build a positive association with that space,
  • Making kennel routine solid so your interaction takes on a calmer, more focused direction, and
  • Providing plenty of enrichment that includes time away from the shelter environment.
  • Teach the dog to carry a toy in their mouth as an incompatible behavior.


Respect what the reactive dog is seeing. S/he is not wrong.

— Suzanne Clothier

Some reactivity is normal dog reaction misclassified as problem behavior. The dog who is responding appropriately to another dog’s or human’s rudeness is not a dog who is in the wrong.

If the dog’s response seems out of proportion for the stimulus, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valid experience for that dog. For most reactive dogs, their reactions occur only if they see the other dog/person as a threat. It is their lack of social skills that means they sometimes misread other dogs/people or respond too quickly without sufficient avoidance behaviors. However, dismissing what the dog is seeing does nothing to help the dog. We must respect what they perceive if we are to identify triggers and give them the skills they need to better handle themselves.

When working with a reactive shelter dog in the kennel environment, be sure to choose the path of least resistance. The shelter is an unnatural setting that creates reactivity through barrier frustration and the feeling that the dogs have nowhere to retreat from the abundance of barking, stress, and relative chaos. We can help shelter dogs (those in kennels as well as the dog we’re handling) by limiting their opportunity to practice this behavior as much as we can.

Here are some of our favorite techniques for helping reactive dogs that you will likely see as part of individual dog training plans:

  • BAT: Behavior Adjustment Training. This is particularly effective for anxious or fearful dogs and is a skill you’ll learn in our reactive dog seminar. Dogs learn socially appropriate behavior to replace the reaction by using functional rewards based on the dog’s own needs. We love that it relies on the dog making choices and genuinely learning replacement behaviors and social skills, rather than being heavily managed by the handler.
  • Parallel Work. This is simply engaging in activities that the dog enjoys at a safe distance from the stimulus and, just like with BAT, working to decrease that threshold while allowing the dog to choose appropriate behaviors and build social skills. It can be literally anything from training games, scent work, TTouch or other relaxation activities, a formal group class, or even just a group walk or hike. In fact, we incorporate group hikes and walks with our reactive dogs regularly because they can be such a positive learning experience in a fun, low-pressure context.
  • LAT: Look at That! This is one that works well for all subsets of reactivity from the fearful dog to the squirrel or bike chaser. The dog is rewarded for looking at the stimulus and then back at you. It’s not just the activity, but the philosophy behind it that we really appreciate. Like the above two activities, the dog is fully aware of the stimulus and learns to make a positive choice while building a positive association with the stimulus.

Fear-Based Reluctant/Shutdown Behavior

These dogs may have any number of reasons for their behavior and we don’t often know what it is. This could apply to feral or semi-feral dogs, long-term strays, backyard or chained dogs, dogs who have been abused or attacked, dogs who are seriously undersocialized, or even dogs who are exceptionally sensitive to the shelter environment. The common behaviors under this umbrella are pancaking, freezing, refusal to walk on leash, refusal or reluctance to interact, flinching/hand-shy, trembling or shaking, tail-tucked crouched walking posture, retreating or trying to escape (flight response engaged), and even displays of defensive fear aggression including growling, teeth baring, and air snapping.

When working with these dogs, patience is a must. We cannot ask more of them than they are able to give us. It can be hard to sit patiently and let a dog come to you. However, putting pressure on these dogs will often backfire and risks serious regression & escalation of fear-based behaviors. Moderate your body language to be as non-threatening and inviting as possible and let the dog come to you. Treat/Retreat is a perfect game to play with fearful dogs, as is doing something as simple as sitting with them in their kennels and reading or talking softly. You can slowly introduce them to things like the leash and toys by placing them in the dog’s range and letting them sniff and explore at their own pace.

If you are out on a walk with one of these dogs and they pancake or freeze, come down to their level and use your voice and soft body language to encourage them along. Move a few paces in the direction they wish to go and then gently curve back the way you were headed. Avoid putting tension on the leash; instead gently stroke your fingers along the leash in the direction you’d like the dog to go.

Use positive experiences to help build the dog’s confidence. TTouch, including work on the obstacle course, is a great tool for fearful dogs. Continue offering a variety of toys and tasty treats even if the dog is not initially interested. As you interact with these dogs and discover something they like and respond well to, share that information!

Barrier Frustration

For the purpose of this training, we use “barrier frustration” to refer to dogs whose reactivity and stress behaviors are largely specific to their kennel. This can mean barking, lunging, and even biting at the kennel door, or showing behaviors like spinning, gate climbing, or wall climbing/jumping. We need to give these dogs an outlet for their stress and an appropriate way to redirect their frustration when people/other dogs pass by their kennel.

Gate games as described above are one excellent way to curb this behavior, as is taking the time to work on a solid kennel routine. It is also necessary to work on this behavior from inside the kennel with the dog to stop the habit and de-escalate frustration by:

  • Talking in a casual, upbeat voice, giving the dog tasty treats, and/or engaging in fun activities as other people or dogs pass by the kennel.
  • Teach the dog to redirect that behavior onto a toy by giving them a toy to hold and praising them as they do so each time people/dogs pass by.
  • Working the Relaxation Protocol inside the kennel.
  • Ensuring that barrier frustrated dogs have access to varied enrichment toys inside their kennels at all time.
  • Focusing on quality downtime with the dog to help them relax inside their kennel.


Some dogs learned before they arrived at the shelter that there is no good reason for them to engage with humans. Some have simply never had the chance. Some start to disassociate after a long time in the shelter as a coping mechanism. The type of behavior we are talking about here is common to backyard/chained dogs. This isn’t just the excited dog who has trouble focusing. This is the dog who just doesn’t care very much about you, perhaps beyond some mild curiosity about the meaty smell in your pocket. He doesn’t trust you and he doesn’t have any good reason to listen to you. Our job is to give him one.

We build relationships with each of the dogs we work with, but in this case we have to show the dog the value of that relationship. Sure, treats are great and a good way to get the ball rolling, but we need to find activities these dogs enjoy and use them to build trust, respect, and engagement. Experiment with games, toys, going for a jog, sniffing stuff, car rides, field trips, etc. Work in Doggie Zen and generously reward eye contact and checking in. Make loose leash walking a priority to help the dog connect (You want to get there? We are going together.), and work on touch, not just TTouch but affection, connecting, and acclimating the dog to being handled.

These can be some of the hardest dogs to get adopted (they ignore adopters and come off as less than warm and fuzzy) but they are often some of the best dogs we get to meet. They have big personalities and life is often an epic adventure of discovery once they learn to connect and engage.


Understanding Threshold,

Further Suggested Reading

DOL’s Supplemental Training Plans & Workshops,

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!

Canine Meet & Greets

Introducing dogs to one another in the shelter environment can be tricky which means we need to work hard to make sure everyone has a positive experience. Start with a walk, keeping the dogs parallel to one another but at a distance where both seem calm and comfortable. As things go well, move closer. If both dogs’ body language indicates they’re ready, allow a brief 3 second sniff, guiding the dogs towards a nose to tushy introduction. If that goes well, you can continue the walk together, watching the dogs’ body language and reactions and allowing interactions as appropriate while you make your way to a meet and greet pen.

Keep leashes dragging on both dogs when allowing them into the interaction pen. If you’re unsure whether or not they’re ready to be off leash together, let the visiting dog explore the big pen while your dog hangs in the catch pen and let them interact through the gate. Watch for signs that either dog is becoming nervous or overstimulated and be sure to end on a positive note. Keep in mind that shelter m&gs, while helpful, cannot predict exactly what will happen between the dogs in a home setting.

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!