Keeping pets primed for adoption

SPCA uses training, play to help animals stay sharp, sociable

Baltimore & Region


When Lilo runs, her back legs kick out in that ungainly way growing dogs have. She skitters across the cement-bottom enclosure, her lanky body bucking and wiggling as she enjoys the fall day and the company.

It was the first time Lilo, a 1 1/2 -year-old female Rottweiler, had taken part in one of the four weekly play times at the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals complex on Falls Road in North Baltimore.

Group play is just one of the steps the SPCA is taking to help socialize animals that are up for adoption. Several other SPCA programs are modeled after similar efforts created for zoo animals. The goal is to help the animals remain calm and keep their mental acuity, making them more adoptable and cutting down on illness.

"It helps them be better behaved when they go home," said Aileen Gabbey, the complex's executive director.

Dogs like Lilo are given tasks, such as figuring out how to retrieve a ball or treat placed beneath a plastic crate.

And it isn't just about getting treats such as Frosty Paws - a frozen dog treat that resembles a small container of ice cream. The dogs are learning to interact with people through training and by being read to.

Before animals go out for a weekly class, the trainer, Clarissa Barnes, sprays lavender or chamomile to relax them, something zoo workers do for big cats, Gabbey said. Trainers concentrate on basics such as heeling on a leash and not jumping - skills that a potential owner will look for, Gabbey said.

"Stress levels are up," Barnes said. "It's like no other place on earth."

Volunteers try to touch the pets, make eye contact with them and say their names. Barnes said that helps "create and maintain a bond with people," which ensures that the dogs are better socialized when they go home.

Volunteers read to the dogs because it helps the animals hear voices normally modulated in relaxed environments, where they aren't being asked to do something.

"I think it helps a great deal," said Scott Littlejohn, who works in the cat room. "Imagine being locked in a cage 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said, referring to the conditions for the animals in the shelter.

On one recent afternoon, the television in the adult cat room is on and the movie The Aristocats is playing. Radio music can also be heard in the background. There are several empty metal cages, but most are filled with slumbering cats. Cats, dogs, kittens and puppies are held in separate crates, except littermates, which are sometimes held together.

The kittens let out plaintive meows across from the puppy crates. Zion, a black 9-week-old kitten, sticks his paw out of the metal crate between dangling orange strings. He pauses and rubs himself up against the paint roller, which Maya Richmond, the center's director of operations, said provides a play toy and introduces cats to different textures.

Finally, after some time spent trying to get attention, Zion begins to drift to sleep, his large head collapsing onto the paint roller before he curls his wiry body up on a towel next to a large plastic colander.

Other kittens have PVC pipe to crawl through, where some take an afternoon nap. The younger kittens even sleep in large paper bags. Only some of the toys are store-bought; most are simple diversions provided by volunteers. The cheaper the toy, the more enjoyment, Gabbey said.

Last year, the center placed 3,500 cats and dogs. This year the staff expects to place only 3,000 animals. The drop is attributed to a decrease, earlier in the year, in the number of puppies at the center; they draw potential adopters in to the center, though many people end up choosing a different pet. To rectify the deficit, Gabbey said, the organization has brought puppies in from other municipalities.

Animals stay for one to three weeks. If a dog isn't adopted after that time, a volunteer will often provide foster care for the animal for the weekend. The dog wears a cape that asks people to adopt it. Gabbey said this ploy often works.

The Maryland SPCA, which is a nonprofit organization run through donations, takes in about 8,000 pets a year, and Gabbey said the group is able to place many of the animals that don't have aggression or health issues.

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