Resolve Behavior Problems, Cut Relinquishment
Because behavior issues are the number one cause of pet relinquishment, the Richmond SPCA developed an array of programs that address behavioral issues and reinforce the bond between pets and their owners.
Owners struggling with their pets' barking, lunging, litter-box training and other challenges can call a behavior helpline, receive one-on-one consultations or enroll in classes. "It's important to make resources available when the problem arises. By the time the owner decides to relinquish the bond may be broken," says the Richmond SPCA's CEO Robin Starr.
Why we love this
The Richmond SPCA has taken a proactive approach to a very real cause of pet homelessness by developing programs that not only solve basic behavior challenges but also reinforce the relationship between people and pets. As part of its mission, the shelter believes it must serve as a resource for the community – and with these programs it's living up to its goals.
How it works
Behavior services offered by Richmond include:
- A free phone and email-based helpline to assist people with common behavior issues.
- In-shelter consultations. If an issue cannot be solved through the helpline, people are invited to bring their dogs to the facility for individual consultations. A donation is requested but not required for this service.
- Behavior/agility classes. These classes are designed to teach basic skills and repair damaged dog/owner relationships through fun activities. A course fee is required.
- Referrals to reward-based trainers with whom the shelter has experience and confidence.
How to get there
- Hire key staff
Before the shelter could implement behavior programs it had to have the right person to run them. The Richmond SPCA hired Sarah Babcock, a certified trainer with a degree in animal psychology. In addition to helping train shelter dogs, Babcock formalized the helpline and began developing the shelter's extensive agenda of behavior classes. The shelter eventually hired another person to take over the helpline.
- Train staff
All staff members attend regular training sessions. They gain knowledge that lets them answer questions in accordance with the organization's philosophy without having to seek out the experts each time. That means that the public gets answers that are fast and correct, without confusion or mixed messages.
- Start a helpline
The first behavior program of the Richmond SPCA was the helpline. It serves as a resource for basic challenges like litter box training, barking and housebreaking. It's a good idea to have a few key resources:
- A helpline email address or phone number.
- Voice mail or an answering machine (this allows staff to handle one call at a time and gather resources before responding to inquiries).
- Trained staff to return calls and emails. The Richmond SPCA started with a part-time person to run the hotline but high demand eventually required a full-time position.
- Track Calls
The shelter has a system in place to track all calls and emails, noting the nature of the problem, the information given and any follow-up that takes place. Data collected include:
- Species (dog, cat, other)
- Breed and age of pet
- Spay/neuter status
- How long owned; whether the animal came from Richmond SPCA
- Owner's contact information
- Description of issue and offered solutions
- Other relevant information, including notes on the discussion and the recommendations made
It is better to get more data than you think you might need than fail to ask something important, the shelter advises.
- Offer Consultations
The Richmond SPCA set up consultations because more and more helpline calls were going beyond the basics. People were seeking help with potentially serious behavior issues such as resource guarding, separation anxiety, and other aggression behaviors that were hard to diagnose without observing the animal.
By offering one- to two-hour consultations at the shelter, behavior staff have the chance to observe the issue and work with the owner to address it. Consultations also allow staff to:
- Establish a safe, controlled environment to work with the animal
- Observe the owner/pet dynamic
- Offer immediate help for addressing the behavior on the spot
- Provide a safe space for owners and pets to practice new skills
- Create training space
The Richmond SPCA opened a new state-of-the-art track and training facility in a renovated tobacco warehouse. The shelter acknowledges that the well-equipped center has made it possible to develop an extensive program agenda. However, a lot can be done in much more modest quarters or even in rented or donated facilities.
- Provide resources
It takes just one click on the well-publicized Richmond SPCA website to get answers to many behavioral issues. Downloadable handouts cover a vast range of pet behavior challenges from digging dogs to cats that scratch furniture. The website also gives detailed class descriptions and contact information for the helpline.
While there are no hard statistics, the Richmond SPCA is convinced that the behavior programs are keeping animals in their homes and out of shelters. The shelter's behavior specialist receives about 10 assistance requests a day and performs from six to 10 in-person consults a week. Meanwhile the behavior classes not only promote pet retention, they also raise awareness about the shelter and its mission. Some of those who've come for an agility or flyball class have become active shelter supporters, volunteers or donors. Running behavior programs is very challenging work, says Sarah Babcock, the shelter's Chief Director or Education and Training. Babcock adds, though, that "just one truly heartfelt thank you each week from an owner who was frustrated and now sees solutions can make all the hard work seem worthwhile."
Behavior staff at the Richmond SPCA say it can be very difficult to deal with helpline calls every day, especially since not every issue has a solution. Be prepared for a number of issues.
- Staff burnout. The shelter advises pairing helpline staff with supervisors to discuss cases or just vent.
- Unrelated calls. Because the helpline number is readily available, staff can be inundated with off-topic calls. People call to grieve about the death of a pet, to report animals in trouble or problems with a neighbor's dog.
- Callers who don't want help. The shelter sometimes receive calls from people who have challenges with their animals but don't want to hear solutions. It can be very frustrating.
It's essential to staff the hotline sufficiently. Every call must be returned promptly, and missed calls and phone tag are a way of life. Call volume rises and falls unexpectedly, and the effectiveness of the program is directly related to the amount of staff time devoted to it.
Knowing how to talk to people is just as important as having accurate and useful information about animal behavior. Staff must be completely non-judgmental and able to make the caller feel good about reaching out. Listening skills are essential.
Key Sources of Information
To learn more about operating a humane society helpline, The Richmond SPCA recommends Pet Behavior Protocols by Suzzane Hetts, founder of the Dumb Friends League (Denver, CO) behavior department. The Dumb Friends League also makes available an exhaustive list of behavior issue sheets on its website (www.ddfl.org).
The Richmond SPCA's behavior helpline and behavior classes are key components of Project Safety Net, a sweeping program agenda, adapted from programs at Monadnock Humane Society (West Swanzey, NH) and Maricopa Animal Care and Control (Phoenix, AZ) to address the most frequent causes of relinquishment.