Humane society adopts policy requiring obedience training


December 26, 1992|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

Poor behavior kills more pets than poor health. There aren't any statistics on it, just general agreement among humane workers, behaviorists and veterinarians.

The cat who uses the rug for a litter box, the dog who drags her owner down the street: These pets are more likely to be taken to shelters and, once there, to never leave.

All humane societies know this and many have programs to help, such as hotlines or referrals to trainers or behaviorists. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is going a step further, however, requiring those who adopt a dog to leave a $35 deposit behind, refundable at the completion of a training class. San Francisco SPCA officials believe theirs is the first and only mandatory obedience program in the country.

"Our typical dog surrender is an 8- or 9-months-old or year-old dog, turned in because it's acting up," says Bob Gutierrez, on-staff animal behaviorist for the San Francisco SPCA. "We call those friendly but uncontrollable, and we have a fair amount of them."

At many shelters, those poorly behaved youngsters would end up euthanized if no one adopted them. But the San Francisco SPCA has in recent years become a "no-kill" shelter, meaning the dogs it admits -- about a fifth are turned away -- will be worked with until a proper home can be found.

"Poor health and aggression are the main reasons we don't accept animals for the adoption program," said Gutierrez. "If someone calls and says their dog just bit their kid, then we can't help them place that dog. But it's not like we only take the perfect 4-year-old golden retriever."

Gutierrez said that once euthanasias were stopped, the shelter had a problem figuring out ways to make adoptions stick. "We had dogs that went out and were returned and went out and were returned. We noticed a lot of animals coming back for behaviors

that could be fixed pretty easily -- pulling on leash, jumping on people, that sort of thing.

"We already had a behavior hotline, but we looked for something else. So we started offering training classes to the people who adopt dogs -- four-week sessions for older dogs and six weeks for puppies," he said. "Now it's mandatory on all the puppies and on 95 percent of the older dogs."

The classes cover basic obedience, but they also offer the shelter's staff of mostly volunteer trainers and behaviorists the opportunity to head off problems before they start. Gutierrez says getting dog-owner teams in class after adoption also helps the pair to bond more quickly.

"They're learning to work with the animal and understand that animal," he said. "We limit class size to 12 dogs or puppies, and in addition to me there are always one or two volunteers helping with each class.

"That way there's lots of one-on-one stuff. It gives us the chance to talk about problems," he added.

New owners don't necessarily have to attend the San Francisco SPCA's classes. They can go to any trainer they want, or if they know how to train their dogs, they need only bring the trained animals in for a consultation to get their deposit refunded.

Gutierrez says that since the program started, the return rate on dogs has fallen from 30 percent to under 10 percent.

"There's no doubt training helps a heck of a lot," he said. "But it's more than that. If someone comes to four classes with the dog, they're making a commitment."

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