Everyone Is on the Behavior Team: How ASPCA’s eLearning Platform Broadens and Deepens Behavior Knowledge for Shelter Personnel

Written by Renee Dunaway and Amy Duskiewicz

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The ASPCA is committed to the evolution and expansion of behavioral care for homeless animals. The organization disseminates knowledge and research through its Learning Lab, an educational program focused on integrating science-based behavioral care into all aspects of animal sheltering. As the Learning Lab program has evolved, the ASPCA has developed free eLearning resources to reach even more shelter professionals and continues to develop a national network of partner organizations that share learnings and best practices. The coursework centers around a core idea: Everyone Is on the Behavior Team.  According to the ASPCA, this means that all staff and volunteers should feel responsible and empowered to support animals’ behavioral health in straightforward, actionable ways. More than 10,000 participants across more than 600 animal welfare organizations nationwide have sought the ASPCA’s expertise through in-person workshops, live panel discussions, and online courses focusing on animal behavioral health.

In this interview, IAABC Foundation Journal managing editor Dr. Tiro Miller talked to Renee Dunaway, senior manager of the ASPCA Learning Lab & Amy Duskiewicz, director of the ASPCA Learning Lab. Renee and Amy develop programming that supports shelters in strengthening their behavior programs.

What does the research, and your own evidence, say about consistency in behavior work in shelters?

Amy: At the ASPCA, we use the phrase Everyone Is on the Behavior Team because we strongly believe every interaction between a person and an animal is an opportunity to provide positive support for that animal’s behavioral and mental health. When staff and volunteers from across an organization can work cohesively toward a shared goal of meeting both the physical and mental needs of the animals in their care, everyone benefits.

When an animal is suffering from poor behavioral health due to factors such as anxiety or stress, their physical health is often affected as well (such as increased risk for upper respiratory infection). Additionally, their physical health can impact mental and behavioral health (resulting in fear of handling, or reactivity due to pain).1 Both the mental and physical health of an animal directly affect that animal’s ability to be adopted, their length of stay, and quality of life both in the shelter and in a loving home.

Providing holistic care that combines the expertise of all discipline areas within an organization acknowledges that behavioral and physical health are equally important and inextricably linked.

Case study of Everyone Is on the Behavior Team in action at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center

History – Cecilia arrived at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC) August 1, 2020, as an approximately 5-month-old puppy

Behavior Initially, Cecilia was moderately fearful overall, extremely fearful of being leashed, and not able to walk on leash.  Initially, she was also reactive toward other dogs in treatment. She spent 20 weeks in behavior modification treatment at the BRC. In daily treatment sessions, ASPCA behavior specialists used both classical and operant conditioning to improve her social relationship with people, leashing and leash walking, tolerance of handling, and ability to negotiate normal companion dog interactions and activities. She progressed to confident walking on leash, enjoyment of handling, and enjoyment of social interactions with people and other dogs.

Medical – Initially, Cecilia appeared to be a normal, healthy puppy physically. Within two months at the BRC, weakness began to be noted in her rear legs. By October 2020, it was apparent that Cecilia had significant angular limb deformities in both rear legs.  She was referred to two orthopedic surgeons, received a CT scan, and worked with a canine physical therapist to develop an exercise program to improve her strength, stability, and proprioception. The BRC veterinary assistant and care and enrichment staff did the prescribed physical therapy exercise regime daily, which resulted in significant improvement in Cecilia’s strength and stability, as well as continued to develop her confidence and relationship with people. Part of Cecilia’s behavior treatment was DSCC to novel situations, as well as R+ for behaviors like walking up and down stairs and climbing into the car. This foundation of reduced fear when encountering novelty and a reinforcement history for physical interaction with objects helped introduce her to the PT exercises. Also, and equally importantly, her behavior treatment helped develop her trust and relationships with people, which facilitated her ability to engage in the PT.

Adoption – The combination of behavior modification, medical interventions, and physical therapy for Cecilia demonstrates the holistic model of caring for the entire dog. Cecilia was adopted by a wonderful couple who fully understood her physical disabilities and the ongoing care she will need, even using the river near their home for hydrotherapy! Cecilia’s adopter reports that she is an amazing addition to their family and has significantly improved the happiness and behavior of their other dog! They can’t imagine life without Cecilia and are so grateful for all the effort that has been made to give Cecilia a happy life.

Who are your courses aimed at? 

Renee: We thoughtfully designed the Everyone Is on the Behavior Team courses for everyone who works or volunteers at an animal welfare organization. We know that it can be challenging to find time for continuing education, so we designed these courses to take just 20 minutes to complete. The courses use different modalities to accommodate various learning styles and abilities.

Everyone who steps foot in a shelter has the power to support the behavioral health of animals through their ideas and interactions. The ASPCA Learning Lab wants to remove barriers to lifesaving shelter behavior information.

How did you develop these courses?

Renee: Our partner shelters told us that they need more resources to enable their staff to better understand animal behavior and their impact on it. They also shared the challenge of finding time for their staff to engage in continuing education. We knew we had to share quality information in a format that was convenient and effective.

For years, my career focused on digital design and production. Then, I pivoted into shelter behavior. Now, I combine those experiences at the ASPCA Learning Lab. Our team creates offerings that support shelters in strengthening their behavior programs.

For the Everyone Is on the Behavior Team series, the ASPCA Learning Lab collaborated with subject matter experts throughout the organization in behavior, medical, and operations to craft the learning objectives and outlines. Then, we worked with colleagues in research and strategy to determine how we would measure impact. ASPCApro guided the production and distribution of the courses. Colleagues at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Weaverville, N.C., and from the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team demonstrated skills in the photos and videos featured in the courses. ASPCA volunteers and information technology professionals helped us test the courses for usability and functionality.

Two of the courses were introduced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, “How to Interact with Dogs While Minimizing Stress” and “How to Communicate Shelter Behavior Clearly.” We swiftly adapted our filming protocols and gathered existing footage to utilize as resources.

For the fourth course in the series, “7 Ways to Reduce Stress When Handling Dogs and Cats,” we experimented with an even more accessible format. This course is a series of seven weekly emails. They each focus on a single concept related to animal handling that minimizes stress. Each section takes five minutes or less for ease of integration into a shelter professional or volunteer’s busy schedule.

What kinds of feedback have you had so far?

Renee: More than 11,000 participants across more than 1,200 animal welfare organizations nationwide have sought our expertise through eLearning Courses. Our five virtual Shelter Behavior Roundtables have been viewed nearly 7,000 times.

We are thrilled when organizations have large numbers of people enrolled—some shelters have even made the eLearning Courses part of their staff onboarding process. Enrollments represent a wide variety of roles including animal control officers, administration, medical, animal care, volunteers, and more.

Over 94% of users surveyed agreed that due to these courses, they felt better able to support the behavioral wellness of animals in their care.

Quotes from eLearning participants:

“We made this course a continuing education requirement for new hires, and it is improving their note-taking abilities as they come in!​”

“Volunteers are communicating incidents they experienced with shelter animals with more details.​”

“Having my employees take this course—they are empowered to make better changes to improve our dogs’ behavior and well-being.​”

“I am more confident working with the dogs. I have some tools to use that work. I can encourage and teach others.”

“It has inspired me to further my education about animal advocacy, protection, behavior, and laws.”

“The staff is able to better communicate with their co-workers and the potential adopters.”

What are some unexpected benefits of education for shelter personnel?

Amy: There are many well-documented benefits to providing continuing education for staff and volunteers; this includes: increased innovation and problem-solving, improved morale, and productivity. For those individuals working or volunteering in an animal shelter, these benefits are the same. Additionally, due to the nature of the work, there is significant internal motivation to continually improve for the benefit of the animals. When continuous learning is encouraged as part of an organization’s culture, not only do the animals feel the positive effects, but so do the people who care for them.

CCPDT continuing education credits are available for eLearning courses and Shelter Behavior Roundtables.

Who else would you like to reach in a dog’s life after they are adopted or placed in foster care?

Renee: While the courses focus on ways that staff and volunteers can impact an animal’s behavior in a shelter setting, many takeaways are useful for anyone who interacts with animals— adopters, foster caregivers, and pet care professionals.

Each course includes interactions, video demonstrations, and downloadable resources that can be shared with additional staff, volunteers, and adopters. The downloads are sourced from partner shelters who have found the resources useful.

For more resources on animal behavior that you can share with adopters and others in your professional network, we encourage you to explore ASPCApro.org.

What are you planning to offer in the future?

Amy: The ASPCA Learning Lab is an educational program focused on integrating science-based behavioral care into all aspects of animal sheltering for organizations of all sizes. In addition to the Everyone Is on the Behavior Team courses, shelter professionals have the option to review virtual Shelter Behavior Roundtable recordings that take a deep dive into topics like adopting out animals with special behavior needs, supporting shy and fearful cats in the shelter, and supporting foster caregivers. These roundtables provide an interactive platform during which attendees can submit questions in real time to a panel of experts from the ASPCA and ASPCA Learning Lab partner organizations. Experts represent perspectives from medical, behavior, and operations, all with the shared goal of infusing support for behavioral wellness from the moment an animal enters the shelter to the time they leave. Recordings from previous Shelter Behavior Roundtables and registration for upcoming panels can be found here on ASPCApro.org, the ASPCA’s professional-facing platform dedicating to providing tools and resources for animal welfare professionals, veterinary personnel, and volunteers.

References

  1. Tynes, V.V., Sinn, L. & Koch, C. (2015) The relationship between physiology and behavior in dogs and cats. In: E. Weiss, H. Mohan-Gibbons & S. Zawistowski (eds), Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff. Wiley Publishing.
TO CITE: Dunaway, R. & Duskiewicz, A. (2022) Everyone is on the behavior team: How ASPCA’s eLearning platform broadens and deepens behavior knowledge for shelter personnel. The IAABC Foundation Journal 23, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj23.5

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