Our new Behavior Programs Manager Danielle is already hard at work building upon our behavior modification program to continue saving as many lives as possible.
Danielle’s career in animal behavior and welfare began with a kennel associate position at Sue Sternberg’s shelter in Accord, NY, where she learned about formal behavior evaluations and began attending animal behavior seminars. She has also worked as an independent trainer and a behavior assistant. She has nearly 10 years of experience in animal welfare and behavior, and holds a BA in Experimental and Evolutionary Psychology and an MS in Animals and Public Policy. She is also a certified professional dog trainer, knowledge-assessed (CPDT-KA) through Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
To get a glimpse of what she has in store for the lucky pets at HSPPR, we sat down with Danielle to learn more about her and her love of animal welfare!
What excites you most about being the new Behavior Programs Manager at HSPPR?
Although I have experience in much of what this role entails, this is my first program manager role. I have a lot more room to evaluate and develop programming than I’ve had in the past, and this is something I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. We have a fantastic team (both within the behavior department, and the organization as a whole), and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish, particularly in terms of behavior modification and enrichment, as well as retention of pets in homes.
What does a day in the life look like for you?
The bulk of most days is spent reviewing behavior information on animals (mostly dogs right now) and making decisions based on that information, which may include enrolling the animal in behavior modification, requesting additional evaluations, reaching out to our transfer or foster manager, etc. I try to devote some time most days to familiarizing myself with company protocols, etc., and to working on longer-term projects. And then, of course, I get to work with the animals myself.
What is one animal you were able to rehabilitate whom you will never forget?
I actually have two favorite success stories from my past experiences:
Fares, a former street dog (nearly feral) was transferred in from Syria, and when he came into the shelter in which I was working, he was completely shut down. The first sign that we were making progress was when he was willing to move his head the tiniest bit in my direction to sniff another dog’s hair that was blowing by us. I still have video of the first day he exhibited play behaviors in my presence. His was a long road, but thanks to my team of behavior volunteers and an incredible foster who had raised a semi-feral dog herself, he eventually got adopted by someone who just knew he was the one.
Busta was a pit mix who came into the shelter in which I was working with some stranger danger issues. He was not leash trained (he did some snapping when staff attempted to leash him in the beginning), he was very tense, and he showed some high arousal. He and I, and then he and I and the behavior volunteers, worked together for quite a while, initially using friendly helper dogs to facilitate social behavior on his part. We had to get him comfortable enough with strangers so he wouldn’t be so tense during adoption meets. Eventually a dad and his daughter came in looking for a brindle pit or pit mix, because they had had one who had recently passed. They adopted him, and as they were leaving, the little girl said that she could tell he was special because so much of the staff showed up to see him off. They brought him back for a visit a few months later, and it was clear that they had become his people.
What is your favorite part about working in animal welfare?
The Fareses and Bustas. In behavior, in particular, there’s a pretty significant academic/intellectual component to the work that I really enjoy. But it’s easy to get a bit bogged down in that, a bit over-analytical. That makes the success stories even more rewarding. Seeing an animal you’ve been really worried about find a family who couldn’t be more excited to bring him home, seeing a person feel saved, or a family be completed by bringing home and animal whose fate you felt unsure of, pulls you out of your head in the best way.
I also love animal welfare people. We’re an interesting breed. Very compassionate but very tough, often a little eccentric. And we share a goal that we all feel very passionate about. There’s a great sense of community there.
Can you give us some quick tips on clicker training?
The most important thing to remember is that the sound of the clicker is intended to serve the same function as a “good boy!” It lets the dog know he’s done something right. This means that timing is essential. Once a dog knows what the clicker means, he will think the “right thing” he did is whatever he was doing at the exact moment he heard the sound. So don’t use the clicker as a dinner bell, or when you can’t get your dog to come when you call! He may come, but he’ll think that sniffing whatever he had been sniffing on the far side of the yard, and ignoring your calls, was the right thing to do; then he’ll be more likely to do those things in the future.
The more formal term for a clicker is a “reward marker.” This is because the clicker is used to mark a behavior which earns the dog a reward. In order to teach the dog this association, the first thing you need to do with a clicker is to “charge” it. Take the clicker in one hand and ten small treats in the other, and click/treat ten times in quick succession (regardless of what the dog is doing). Do this once or twice per day, two or three days in a row, and you should be good to start using the clicker to reward behaviors you want.
There are some great reasons to use a clicker, and they’re particularly helpful in certain situations. However, because timing is so important, and the clicker means an additional thing in your hand (when you may already have a leash and poop bags, for example, or a toy), they can be tough for some people to get the hang of. If you’re one of those people, that’s no problem! There are other ways to accomplish the same goals.
What are common dog training myths that you encounter?
Dominance theory is the proverbial (and actual, in my opinion) big one. This is not the right forum in which to go into detail on this (I’d be talking at you for pages and pages), but I’ll give you a couple of the key bullet points. The brand of dominance theory that we generally see in use in training family dogs stems primarily from one particular study on wolf behavior, which has been largely discredited, even by its own author. Not only were there serious flaws in this study, but it is not, and has never been, applicable to the behavior or training of domestic dogs. This is because, simply put, dogs are not wolves. If you’re interested in the degree to which dogs are not wolves, google “Balyaev silver foxes.” Dogs are not wolves; humans are not dogs; and dogs do not view humans as dogs. Many of the training methodologies that have arisen from this theory are ineffective; and many do more harm than good. For many years, though, this was how people learned to train dogs, because it’s all we had. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. There is now a very solid body of scientific work on the merits of other training methodologies, and many, many behaviorists and trainers to help dog owners implement them!
Another thing I hear about a lot, and like to address at every opportunity, is people punishing their dogs for growling. While a growl can be scary and the impulse not to allow it is understandable, a growl is also a nice, clear communication about how your dog is feeling – a nice, clear warning. Not every dog will give you that (though in 99.9% of cases there are more subtle warnings). When a dog feels that his option to growl has been taken away, one likely consequence is that the next time he feels threatened or uncomfortable, he’ll skip the overt warning and go straight from warnings that are easy to miss to a bite. When a dog I’m working with growls, I thank her, and then begin address the root cause of the growl.
How should pet owners best introduce a new cat or dog to the family?
In a word, gradually. More accurately, at the dog or cat’s pace, which is often gradual. Ensure that early interactions with children and other pets (in particular – but a new pet may need pretty minimal interaction with anyone) are brief and supervised, and that the new pet has safe, comfortable places in your home that he can retreat to when he needs to be left alone. With dogs, install their new routine very early on. Predictability will go a long way toward helping them to feel better about their environment (this is true of humans, too!). Crating a dog is a great way to help you establish this routine, and to ensure that your new dog can’t get into too much trouble while he is learning the rules. Make a concerted effort to build positive associations (by way of great treats, toys, whatever your new pet likes best) with any challenging aspect of the transition.
While dogs require some safe space to retreat to and close supervision, they do often like to spend some time exploring their new home and getting to know their new family. For cats, on the other hand, too much space is often extremely overwhelming. Cats are even more invested in their environment and its predictability than dogs. A new home is nearly always extremely stressful for them, and the more space they are thrust into at once, the higher the number of unpredictable events they’ll encounter. For most cats, the best introduction to a new home actually involves a few days of confinement. Choose a comfortable, smallish room in your home where the cat can hide out while she acclimates; ensure that she has ready access to food, water, and litter. You can visit, but try and limit visits to one or two people (one at a time), a couple of times per day, and do not force interaction; let the cat come to you. After a few days, you can begin to offer the cat the opportunity to explore more of her new environment, but continue to let the cat take the wheel on any and all interactions. Occasionally, there is a cat who is so confident that much of this doesn’t apply. Being confined may stress her out, and she may cry and/or scratch at the door. In that case, go ahead and let her out! However, do your best to build in some routine wherein the cat still retires to “her room” here and there for portions of the day and/or not to allow her free reign over the entire house immediately. Sometimes these cats bite off more than they can chew, and exploring the whole house too soon becomes overwhelming after all.
We are so glad to have Danielle with us, and we can’t wait to help more pets with her guidance!