One Dog at a Time: Enriching the Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs
The animal sheltering world is an emotional one for all stakeholders: the animals who live with the stress of an imperfect and unpredictable environment; a shelter organization that is constantly addressing challenges with funding, staffing, and rehoming animals; employees and volunteers who care about the animals, but may not necessarily have the skills or knowledge to ameliorate the stress of shelter life for the animals; and adoptive families who save lives but may need more help than they imagined with integrating their shelter pet into their family home and lifestyle.
It is recognized that living in a shelter is stressful for animals. They are subjected to unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells as well as unpredictable changes in their environment. These and other interactions with unfamiliar people and conspecifics may cause fear, anxiety, stress (FAS), and frustration, regardless of whether an animal is a short-term or long-term resident in a shelter. All these make it difficult for an animal to adapt to shelter life.
Work has been done to mitigate the effects of stress for dogs in various sheltering organizations, ranging from sensory enrichment1,2 and structured playgroups,3 to classical conditioning exercises to address minor behavioral concerns.4 More recently, Fear Free LLC made the Fear Free Shelter Program available to employees and volunteers of sheltering organizations. This is an effort to reduce the effects of FAS and frustration in shelter animals, by providing education to the very people who can help improve the emotional health of the animals under their care.
While it is an essential aspect of the “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare to provide enrichment opportunities that reduce stress and improve the behavioral well-being of confined animals,5 many sheltering organizations (particularly those without a full-time behavioral team) find it difficult to implement such programs due to real-world challenges, including the lack of resources and know-how, resistance to change among employees and volunteers, continual turnover of employees and volunteers that impacts the process of knowledge and skill transfer, as well as inconsistent and often conflicting views about what shelter animals need besides the basic freedoms of food, water, shelter, and medical care.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Singapore is one such organization facing these real-world challenges. It was established in the 1800s, and became the primary organization to provide shelter for abandoned animals. Today, it aims to be the leading authority and advocate on animal welfare and cruelty issues in Singapore, with the mission to promote kindness and prevent cruelty to animals through education, advocacy, and action.6 However, while the SPCA Singapore has a good public-facing presence in its mission, internally, it faces on-going challenges in reducing stress and improving the emotional health for its sheltered animals, particularly as it does not have a behavioral team on staff to oversee staff and volunteer training.
In this article, we describe the volunteer-driven Dog Mentorship Program (DMP) that began in 2013 to test how a behavioral enrichment program for dogs might work in a shelter despite the ongoing existence of real-world challenges.
The Dog Mentorship Program at the SPCA Singapore
Since its establishment, the main focus of the SPCA Singapore has been the rescue and shelter of homeless or abandoned animals, mainly dogs and cats. In terms of its adoption policy, the shelter promotes “open adoptions”, where members of the public are welcome to visit the shelter and interact with the animals.7
Until 2013, there was no officially structured behavioral enrichment program to cater to the emotional needs of the sheltered dogs, other than a morning dog walking program that was founded by a shelter volunteer in 1999, and comprised a small group of individuals. At that time, there was no position statement from the shelter to advocate the use of positive reinforcement techniques and hence, the volunteer dog walkers used whatever handling skills they deemed fit for the dogs they were walking. In 2001, for a short period of time, a volunteer dog trainer introduced the gentle leader and the basics of positive reinforcement techniques to the dog walkers, which helped with managing walks. However, as positive reinforcement was not a required approach in interacting with the shelter dogs, the dog walkers still tended to use a mix of handling techniques.
In 2009, the first author initiated a discussion with Ellen Ng (the founder of the dog walking program), and Deirdre Moss (the then executive officer of the SPCA Singapore), about the idea of providing basic family dog manners classes to adopters. These would advocate and teach the use of positive reinforcement, rewards-based techniques. As a soft approach to introducing positive reinforcement techniques to the shelter staff, employees were invited to attend for free, either with their own dogs or a shelter dog. Members of the dog walking team could also participate with a shelter dog. However, we were not permitted to disrupt the shelter schedule and care routines. In 2011, due to constraints of space, the family dog classes were suspended, but it then allowed the first author and Ng to redirect efforts toward addressing behavioral concerns that were becoming more prevalent in a shelter that had outgrown its space requirements, and where there were few measures to mitigate the effects of stress on the behavioral well-being of the dogs. By then, interest in the use of positive reinforcement techniques had grown among Ng and her dog walking team, and these volunteers eventually became dog mentors (DMs) in the Dog Mentorship Program (DMP).
The emotional catalyst
Shelter life is stressful due to the presence of many stress triggers, e.g., kennel confinement, environmental stressors (such as changes in temperature, light, ventilation), changes in diet, handling techniques, restraint, irregular caregiving schedules, smells, noises, etc. As the SPCA Singapore is an open adoptions shelter, the dogs are subjected to an unpredictable schedule of visitors, with overcrowding being of particular concern on busy weekends. This, compounded by the long absence of a shelter-driven training and/or behavioral enrichment program to mitigate stress, as well as an open intake policy on strays and surrendered dogs, meant that the effects of FAS and frustration became a ticking emotional time bomb for both people and animals.
As a volunteer dog behavior consultant and trainer, the first author had suggested involving shelter employees and volunteers in logistically simple exercises that could be incorporated into their usual care routines, e.g., tossing a treat into every kennel as they pass to reduce barking.4 Ng and her dog walking team were the most consistent in incorporating these exercises, and the effects were observable as the dogs were quieter and attentive when they saw Ng and her team moving through the kennel runs.
In 2013, a debate arose about long-term staying dogs, and dogs who presented with stranger danger, fear, and reactivity. While there was consensus among staff and volunteers that the behavioral concerns were affected by the lack of consistency in applying behavioral care techniques, the same staff and volunteers were also reluctant to commit to these techniques because of the lack of consistency.
The normal procedure in training and behavior modification is to encourage the shelter as a whole to embrace the concepts and techniques of reducing FAS and frustration through fear-free, positive training techniques. This could not be achieved at the SPCA Singapore at that time.
To break this impasse, the first author proposed a plan that flew against these norms. We would accept that the real-world challenges in the shelter were confounding factors to success, but we would go ahead to help the dogs as best as we could. We would champion their behavioral enrichment programs, while being fully aware of the risks of compassion fatigue and the frustration of navigating contraindicative processes that impede progress.
Thus, with the support of the SPCA Singapore’s leadership team (led by Corinne Fong at the time), Ng and her dog walking team, the DMP was formed. To date, the DMP continues to have the strong support of the current leadership team, led by the third author.
The DMP started with 14 dog walkers, who volunteered to become DMs. The DMs’ mission was to pick a dog as a mentee, and work with them as if they were their own dog, for as long as they were able to do so. Our goal was not to embark on a full-fledged behavior modification plan to address each dog’s behavioral concerns, but rather to implement select training games that would provide variety and enrichment for each dog, to mitigate the effects of shelter stress on their emotional well-being.
The various training games and enrichment activities used in the DMP include the following:
● Toss-a-treat and walk away game
● Snuffle mat recall game
● Name game
● Target game
● Do Nothing game
● Bucket game
● Crate training
● Muzzle training
● Desensitisation and counter-conditioning
● Sensory enrichment through nosework, food puzzle toys, snuffle mats, chews etc.
The DMs picked a total of 59 dogs as pioneer mentees, of whom 31 were long-term residents (having been in the shelter for more than 2 years, some since they were puppies). As expected, the DMs selected dogs with special needs, i.e., those perceived by other volunteers and staff as difficult dogs. The primary behavioral concerns included stranger danger (23), dog-dog reactivity (13), general fearfulness (6), and common concerns, such as jumping (17).
Figure 1 shows the adoption outcomes of the 59 pioneer mentee dogs. In the six years since the DMP started, 45 (or 76%) of the 59 pioneer mentee dogs were adopted. Of the 31 long-term residents, 18 (or 58%) were adopted, and 27 (96%) of the 28 non-long-term residents were also adopted. Over the years, many dogs joined and left the mentee group.
As of November 2019, of the 70-80 dogs currently in the shelter, 22 are being mentored, comprising 10 of the mentees from the pioneer batch and an additional 12 dogs. Of these 22 mentored dogs, two are currently pending adoption, and one is on attachment to the local zoo undergoing training for their animal show.
The team of DMs had also undergone changes over the years; some have left the program for personal reasons, and a few have relocated. New mentors have joined the team, bringing the current pool of DMs to 11, with another two dog mentors-in-training (DMITs).
The path to becoming a dog mentor (DM)
The first and second authors, as well as the DM team members, are volunteers, so it is not always possible to meet in person. As a result, the way DMs are selected and coached has evolved over time, from an in-person approach to remote coaching. The current process of selecting a DM is illustrated in Figure 2, and is geared towards optimizing the efficiency and efficacy of knowledge and skills transfer between the first author and the team.
We believe that this shift in approach to training gave the first author the flexibility to provide more individualized coaching to the DMs, who in turn benefit from the timely and relevant feedback to guide them in working with their mentees.
In Step 1, DMs are involved in the groundwork of motivating and teaching volunteer dog walkers to use fear-free, positive reinforcement techniques. Under the guidance of DMs, dog walkers learn the basics of entering a dog’s kennel calmly and being able to harness, collar, and leash up the dog before exiting the kennel calmly. They are also shown how to positively reinforce dogs for walking on loose leash.
In Step 2, DMs observe and select dog walkers who demonstrate the potential of becoming DMs, including willingness to use positive reinforcement and the ability to use a considerate approach and gentle handling skills (https://fearfreeshelters.com) while walking dogs. Often, these dog walkers proactively ask about becoming a DM. After a team discussion with the first author, these dog walkers provisionally become DMITs.
Steps 3 and 4 describe the process of coaching DMITs to becoming DMs. DMITs are given a period of time (two to three months) to study a comprehensive set of materials related to dog body language, learning theory, and behavior modification, after which they must pass a “Family Dog 101” knowledge assessment test administered by the first author, at 90% or better. Later on, DMITs would also be required to take and pass the Fear Free Shelter Program.
Besides the above knowledge component in the selection process, DMITs shadow DMs for at least six buddy sessions, to work with mentee dogs on a variety of training and enrichment activities. The DMP is not structured as a “train-the-trainer” program, and so DMs and DMITs do not become certified by the first author as professional animal care providers. However, they must demonstrate reasonable mechanical skills and technique in handling the mentee dogs.
Each of these buddy sessions with a DM is recorded and reviewed by the first author to provide timely feedback from session to session. DMITs are confirmed as DMs when they have passed the knowledge assessment test as well as completed the required number of buddy sessions with their DMs, to the satisfaction of the first author and the DM team.
Step 5 is our approach to facilitate the timely transfer of knowledge and skills from the first author to the DM team, while mitigating the effects of not being able to have frequent and regular in-person coaching sessions.
A chat group keeps the first author and DMs connected for time-sensitive communication and feedback. DMs record their sessions with mentees on video, extract 2- to 3-minute excerpts that are uploaded to a video hosting service, and take the first step in self-analysis and self-critique, by indicating what they thought went well with the session, and what could be improved. The first author is alerted via the chat group whenever a DM has uploaded their sessions. Each session is reviewed by the first author to provide feedback and coaching to the DMs. DMs reflect on the feedback to take steps to set up their mentees for further success in subsequent sessions.
With this remote coaching approach, the DMs and the first author were able to integrate two to three hours of weekly dog mentoring and contact time into their individual schedules, much more than if we had relied solely on in-person sessions, which were difficult to arrange. However, we still made efforts to arrange in-person coaching sessions at quarterly intervals based on mutual availability of the team members.
Step 5 was initiated in March 2018 and, to date, the DM team has collated a library of 31 hours of edited videos of 873 sessions with 37 mentee dogs. These resources, with an additional six hours of materials from behavior talks and workshops conducted by the first author and the DM team, are made available to shelter staff and other volunteers to encourage and facilitate continuing education, as well as promote the use of practical handling and enrichment activities for the dogs under their care.
Key and confounding factors to success
Figure 3 shows the delicate balance between the key success factors as well as confounding factors that drive the direction of the DMP. There are three factors critical to the success of the DMP:
● The dog mentors
● Shelter staff and other volunteers
● The adoptive families.
Best case versus real-world scenarios
In the best case scenario (see Figure 3), we have a permanent group of skillful and knowledgeable DMs, working in tandem with shelter staff members and other volunteers who are willing and able to interact with the dogs in the same way as the DMs (using fear-free, positive reinforcement techniques). This would provide a more consistent level of behavioral care for the dogs during their stay in the shelter, thus mitigating some of the effects of FAS and frustration. This in turn may help dogs engage in more appropriate behaviors when they meet potential adoptive families, and enhance their chances of a successful adoption. The dogs’ journeys then continue with their adoptive families who are willing to maintain or progress with the behavioral work that was started in the shelter.
However, the real-world scenario in the shelter is far from ideal, and the same key success factors are also confounding variables, because sometimes the DMs, shelter staff, other volunteers, and adoptive families are unable or unwilling to fulfil their roles in setting up mentee dogs for success either in the shelter or at home (see Figure 3). In the next section, we discuss some of the approaches the team took to navigate around these confounding variables, working to tip the scale toward success.
The DMs as influencers
Of the three factors critical to the success of the DMP, we recognize that the only factors we could consistently influence was the selection and coaching of DMs (Figure 2), as well as how we mitigate changes in the team of DMs to ensure as much continuity and consistency as possible for the mentee dogs. Changes are to be expected, especially in a volunteer-driven program. The structured training approach and library of resources to ensure efficient knowledge and skills transfer, as described in Figure 2, are mitigating features the team has undertaken to manage this volatility. For instance, should a DM leave the team, their work with the mentee (which had been recorded) allows for a smoother transition to a new DM to continue helping the mentee. Should a new DM join the team (after going through the selection process in Figure 2) and decides to co-mentor a mentee, they can use the library of resources to draft their training plan with the mentee dog. The structured training approach also ensures the presence of a pool of a continuously evolving group of DMs with the necessary skillset, minimizing the impact of turnover.
Although we have less influence over the other two factors, nevertheless, efforts were made to tilt the scale in order to set shelter staff and volunteers, as well as adoptive families, up for success. An important factor that contributed to the success of the DMP to date is the presence of shelter leadership support from the third author and his team. This allowed the DMP to take hold in the shelter, and where possible, permitted pockets of opportunities for continuing education on fear-free handling and positive reinforcement techniques for shelter staff and volunteers, as well as members of the public. These take the form of talks and workshops conducted by the first author, as well as training demonstrations by the DMs on handling techniques (e.g., kennel entry and exit, harnessing, crate and muzzle training, etc.).
Even though we still face the challenge of lack of consistency of handling approaches, we continually work to shift the paradigm to improve the chances of success for our mentees. In the case of adoptive families, the DMs, with the help of shelter staff, strive to arrange interaction sessions between the adoptive families and the mentee dogs. Depending on both the mentee dog and the adoptive family, these meetings could range from short sessions — where the DMs walk the adoptive family through the likes, dislikes, and possible triggers for the mentee and the mentee’s current training activities — to longer sessions for the adoptive family to get to know the dog better. For shy and fearful mentee dogs, if the adoptive families are willing to participate, the DM-adopter sessions could span months.
What our adoptive families say about their sessions with DMs:
“The interaction sessions were so valuable in helping us understand Sunny’s needs and preparing us for the adoption.” – Gloria and David
In the next section, some dog mentor-mentee stories are presented to illustrate these DM-adopter sessions. The aim of setting up these sessions with adoptive families is to try to get the adoptive families and the mentee dog to the best starting point possible, increasing the chance of a successful adoption. However, much of the subsequent success lies with the willingness of the adoptive families to continue working with the mentee dog, which is mostly beyond the team’s influence.
Dog mentor-mentee stories
Here we present the stories of three DM teams and their journeys with their mentee dogs.
Mentee story: Boy
● Mentee: Boy, male mixed breed
● DM: Yong Xiu
● Length of stay at shelter: five years
● Duration of mentorship: three-and-a-half years
● Boy was surrendered on April 1, 2011, to the SPCA Singapore at the age of 1.
● Reason cited for the surrender: lack of time caring for Boy.
Boy’s behavioral challenges included dog-dog and dog-human reactivity. He would react to dogs as far away as 50 meters or more, by barking, lunging, and spinning, often redirecting bites to his leash and harness, but not the handler. In this manner, he had bitten through several no-pull harnesses. For humans, eye contact and movements such as walking past within 5 meters would trigger a lunge toward the person. Boy’s FAS scale was high at level 4-5 towards both dogs and humans.
Boy’s mentorship journey
Since Boy entered the shelter in 2011, he was walked regularly by Yong Xiu, who subsequently became his DM when Boy entered the DMP in 2013 as one of the pioneer mentees. Yong Xiu mentored Boy for 3.5 years, until he was adopted on August 6, 2016. Post-adoption, Yong Xiu remains in close contact with Boy’s adoptive family to provide help and support where needed, e.g., pet-sitting Boy when the family is traveling.
Due to his reactivity, the main training activity for Boy was desensitisation and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) to dogs and humans, conducted on walks and during training sessions at the shelter.
Video 1 shows one DS/CC session between Boy and another shelter dog. The first author was the handler for Boy, while another DM worked with the other dog. In this session on May 13, 2016, Boy was rewarded for choosing to pay attention to his handler whilst another dog was present, and he was always given the choice to increase distance by walking away from the other dog. Boy was able to stay relaxed with low FAS level (0-1) in close proximity with the other dog, demonstrating a significant reduction in his FAS level.
Video 2 shows a DS/CC session toward humans, conducted by Yong Xiu for Boy toward passersby during a walk. This occurred on February 7, 2015, and again, a marked reduction in Boy’s FAS level toward people walking by in close proximity was observed.
Another DS/CC session with Boy in his kennel toward visitors walking past is shown in Video 3:
Other Training/ Enrichment Activities
In addition to the above behavior modification games, Yong Xiu also kept Boy mentally engaged with other training/enrichment activities, e.g., crate training, learning new cues (such as, “go to mat,”, “stay,” “sit pretty,” “leave it,” etc.). Interactive food puzzles, toys and chews were also provided for further sensory enrichment. Video 4 shows a crate training session for Boy. By this time, Boy had already developed a reliable positive conditioned emotional response (+CER) to his crate, entering and remaining in the crate to play with his Kong toy with the crate door closed.
Boy’s Adoption Journey
Boy’s family, Ling and Andrew, saw Boy’s photograph from SPCA Singapore’s adoption gallery and made an appointment to meet Boy on August 1, 2016. The first interaction session was conducted by shelter staff, after which a second session was arranged on August 6, 2016, for the family to meet DMs Yong Xiu and Ellen to learn more about Boy’s behavior. The DMs briefed the family about Boy’s potential triggers, as well as the mechanics of working on the DS/CC sessions with Boy to address his reactivity toward other dogs and people. Boy was adopted the same day.
We chose Boy because he had been at SPCA for a long time. We were told that he didn’t like anything that was fast or people staring at him. DM Yong Xiu gave us some treats for us to give him and he slowly came to us and took food with his tail wagging. She showed us how to walk him, and we made the decision that we could give him a stable, loving home.
Mentee story: Sunny
● Mentee Dog: Sunny, female mixed breed
● DMs: Jo and Elisa
● Length of stay at shelter: three years
● Duration of mentorship: seven months Background
● Sunny was found on the streets wearing a collar, and her guardians could not be located.
● She entered the shelter in December 2016.
Sunny presents as a fearful dog, and responds with fear, anxiety, and stress to multiple triggers, such as unfamiliar people, loud noises, and unfamiliar objects. She tends to freeze or fidget in the presence of these triggers, presenting with Levels 3-4 on the FAS scale.
Sunny’s mentorship journey
In November 2018, Sunny entered the DMP with Jo as her DMIT, shadowing Elisa (the second author) as the DM.
The team chose crate training as the main training/enrichment activity for Sunny, as a crate could provide a less stressful alternative for her in case transport was required. They worked with Sunny, on average, for about 30 minutes per week, with five minutes spent on crate training, and the rest of the time with walking and enrichment games, like nosework. A total of 25 sessions were conducted with Sunny, spanning from November 15, 2018, to May 30, 2019.
Video 5 shows a snippet of Sunny’s first crate training session.
To reduce FAS for Sunny toward a novel object, the crate was dismantled and only the bottom compartment was used. She voluntarily approached the crate bottom, and was rewarded promptly by having treats dropped at the entrance of the crate bottom, but only as far as she was willing to go. Jo and Elisa did not drop food farther into the crate in an attempt to lure her inside. While she appeared uncertain (facial tension, stiff body, stretching forward, but ready to backpedal with her hind legs), her FAS level was relatively low (Level 1), and she continued to engage in the game, and with her DMs. By the end of the first session, lasting seven minutes, Sunny was entering the crate bottom completely — see Video 6:
As the DM team progressed with Sunny’s crate training, it was clear that she enjoyed it, as indicated by her relaxed body language (no body tension, slightly open mouth, loose waggy tail, voluntarily entering and remaining in the crate). By the 16th session (April 24, 2019), she went into the full crate willingly and was able to remain inside for a short period of time, with FAS Level 0, as you can see in Video 7:
Sunny’s adoption journey
On May 5, 2019, Sunny met her adoptive family, Gloria and David.
From Sunny’s adopters, Gloria and David:
We both have a love for dogs and wanted one for our family. Sunny stood out for us as she is very cute, active and has a lovely unique coat
Video 8 shows their first meeting. Sunny was fearful toward Gloria: there was facial tension, her body was stiff, her tail was almost tucked, and her mouth was closed (FAS Level 3). She showed a higher level of FAS (Level 4) toward David, including active avoidance.
From Sunny’s adopters, Gloria and David:
Our initial impression was that Sunny needed more experienced handling.
To prepare Sunny for adoption, the DM team arranged to meet with Gloria and David for additional interaction sessions to help establish a more positive experience for Sunny and her adoptive family. The DM team led these sessions, with support from the SPCA management and staff. Every session was recorded on video and analyzed, and guidance was sought promptly from the first author to adjust the antecedent arrangements for the next interaction session. The team and the adoptive family had two to three interaction sessions per week, with each session lasting about 30 minutes. As the sessions progressed, FAS was observed to decrease. The results after five sessions are shown in Video 9, where Sunny enjoyed the snuffle mat recall game with her adoptive family, displaying relaxed body language, soft facial expression, and open mouth (FAS Level 0).
Besides the snuffle mat recall game, the DM team also guided Gloria and David on other skills that are required, e.g., fear-free techniques of harnessing, walking, and crate training for Sunny. In total, eight sessions (spanning May 5 to May 25, 2019) were conducted with the adoptive family, during which Sunny, Gloria, and David became increasingly comfortable with each other.
From Sunny’s adopters, Gloria and David:
With progressive sessions over the weeks, our confidence in interacting with Sunny grew. We learned how to put on her collar and leash for walks, and how to engage Sunny through cues, games, and treats
As Sunny would still display fearfulness toward novel situations that had not been addressed to date (e.g., new location, getting into a vehicle, etc.), the DM team and her adoptive family made the choice of transporting Sunny home in the crate.
Sunny went home on June 2, 2019. The relocation process went smoothly. Sunny started exploring her new home shortly upon arrival without signs of fear, as well as interacting with Gloria and David.
From Sunny’s adopters, Gloria and David:
The transition was smooth. The DM team trained Sunny to be crate-ready and was present to ease Sunny from the SPCA Singapore into our home.
In the case of Sunny, the teamwork between the DM team, shelter as well as the very participative adoptive family, matched the three key factors for a successful and smooth transition from shelter to home (see Figure 3).
While Sunny has settled well into her home, much more work would need to be done by the adoptive family, especially in helping Sunny overcome her fearfulness toward the unfamiliar external environment in an urban high-rise apartment setting, e.g., the elevator, people, sounds, and objects that she would encounter outside the apartment. The DMs’ role in Sunny’s journey home may have ended, but they remain available to Gloria and David as needed.
Mentee story: Channing
● Mentee: Channing, male mixed breed
● DMs: Elisa and Rachel
● Length of stay at shelter: three-and-a-half years
● Duration of mentorship: one-and-a-half years
Background and behavior observations
● Channing was found as a puppy on the streets wearing a collar, and his guardians could not be located. He entered the shelter in June 2016.
● In September 2017, Channing started to show signs of FAS (fidget/fret behavior) when he was being harnessed. The FAS level towards harnessing and the movement of human hands towards his neck or abdominal area escalated.
● In January 2018, Channing displayed aggression, i.e., growling, snarling, and eventually lunging (FAS Level 5) when a handler attempted to remove a slip leash.
● In January 2018, DMs Elisa and Rachel started to video record Channing’s behavior and sought help from the first author. Channing then entered the DMP as their mentee.
Slip leash and harness training
In order for Channing to be moved and walked without further increasing his FAS, management and safety measures were put in place, where a thin rope was connected to the slip leash so that the slip leash could be slipped over Channing’s neck with the least possible contact.
In parallel, the DMs started a DS/CC training program for Channing. To set Channing up for success and to reduce bite risk, a slip leash was used to fashion as big a neck loop as possible for Channing, so that no part of it would touch Channing’s neck. The first few sessions focused on forming a positive association for Channing with his new leash by pairing it with food or walks whenever the leash was presented or used on him, thereby initiating the formation of a +CER.
By July 1, 2018, Channing was able to remain relaxed around the slip leash, as well as have fun with some games that involved the slip leash. As the game progressed, Channing’s FAS towards the leash markedly decreased, although he might still avoid or pull back at times, when the leash was moved over his head (FAS Level 1-2). By June 2019, the DMs could slowly remove the slip leash from Channing without him pulling back. Video 11 shows two snippets of Channing’s leash training from July 2018 and June 2019:
Each training session was kept very short, averaging about one minute, to ensure Channing was kept below threshold and remained engaged in the game. The sessions took place about once a week, sometimes with a break of a few weeks if the DMs were unavailable. Hence, the training process took a year, much longer than it would have with a higher frequency of sessions. Yet, despite the irregularity of the training, the DMP showed that it was still possible to effect a positive change in the emotional well-being of a dog who began with a high level of FAS.
Progressing from the slip leash, the team is currently working on harness training with Channing. The +CER formed from his slip leash training made the transition to harness training easier. See Video 12 for a recent harness training session with Channing in July 2019:
Apart from leash/harness training, the DMs included other training/enrichment activities for Channing. Channing also loves his muzzle training, nosework, and chewing time. Video 13 shows a snippet of Channing’s muzzle training with DM Rachel:
The above stories show that the DMP serves various functions, particularly for long-term residents such as Boy, Sunny, and Channing. For mentee dogs that have found adopters, the DMs help to lay the groundwork for the mentees to transition into their adoptive homes. For mentees who are currently sheltered, the DMP also helps to buffer the emotional well-being of these dogs against the vagaries of shelter life.
The general rule of thumb in shelter work is to try and reduce the length of a dog’s stay in the shelter. This is not always possible at the SPCA Singapore. Shelter life is stressful, and sheltered dogs need behavioral care as part of their emotional enrichment. At the SPCA Singapore, there is no behavioral department to oversee this essential aspect of animal care and provide continuing education for staff and volunteer training. This resulted in varying personal approaches to handling dogs, and put special-needs dogs at greater risk.
While any behavioral care program will generate discussion and debate on its pros and cons, the volunteer-driven DMP was set up to run in an environment teeming with confounding variables beyond the team’s control. If the DMP had been conducted as a scientific experiment, it would have failed, as we could not control these variables that affected the behavior of the shelter dogs. However, in our case, the very nature of shelter life presented an opportunity for us to champion a behavioral enrichment program for dogs, to see if we could make a difference, despite the odds.
In many ways, the DMP mirrors the real-world scenario of dog-human interactions. For instance, even for pet dogs, family members could differ in their individual levels of knowledge, skills, and approach as to how they interact with their dog. The same delicate balance for success or failure exists, depending on whether the scale is tilted more toward helpful or confounding factors, which make or break the relationship between a dog and their family.
Many shelters face the same challenges as the SPCA Singapore, where juggling the real-world tasks of funding, staffing, and rehoming animals may mean that the sheltered animals’ emotional well-being can be compromised.
Nevertheless, we have shown that the DMP, by providing a certain level of consistent training and enrichment in the shelter, makes a difference. Time and again, we have seen a decrease in FAS and frustration for dog mentees with consistent training and enrichment sessions with the DMs. While these sessions are not meant to work through every dog’s behavioral challenges with a full-fledged behavior modification plan, they help build resilience for the dogs to overcome inconsistent and unpredictable interactions from other handlers. This resulted in “long term residents” who would have stood little chance of finding good homes becoming adopted, and the overall welfare of the sheltered dogs has improved.
While the DMP is far from ideal, it nevertheless offers hope that even if we cannot have a state-of-the-art shelter that every shelter organization dreams of, we can still do much to enrich the lives of shelter dogs – one dog at a time.
Why become a DM?
“There are many ways humans can shape an animal’s behavior. The DMP brought like-minded individuals together to lay the foundation and help others see the benefits of positive reinforcement training, so that the shelter dogs have a higher chance of living the rest of their lives in an enriching and force-free way.” – DM Brina
“I enjoy dog walking, but adding enrichment to the dog’s life makes it more fun and enjoyable for the dogs. That’s why I joined the DM team.” – DM Yong Xiu
“I want to improve the quality of the shelter dogs’ lives with science-based techniques.” – DM Janice
We would like to thank all dog mentors past and present for their dedication and commitment: Alex, Andy, Arantxa, Brina, Chau, Chiew Yee, Dionne, Elisa, Ellen, Guo Kuan, Guo Wei, Gwen, Huimin, Janice, Jing Hua, Jing Kai, Joanne (Loke), Joanne (Tan), Jonathan, Keith, Khengyi, Li Fang, Loges, Louise, Lucian, Mattie, Melissa, Pitt, Rachel, Rash, Rebecca, Regina, Rong Tai, Suat Nee, Teresa, Winnie, Yong Xiu; former executive directors of the SPCA Singapore Deirdre Moss and Corinne Fong for supporting the first steps in our DMP journey; the SPCA staff for their support and assistance in many ways; Ling, Andrew, Gloria, and David for sharing their adoption stories; and Jeffrey Lee for illustrating the figures in the article.
Photo and Video Credits
Videos featured are part of the resource library collated by the DM team. Credit for the photo of Boy and DM Yong Xiu belongs to Dionne; credit for photos of Boy and his family belongs to Ling and Andrew. Credit for photos of Sunny and DM Joanne, as well as Sunny and her family, belongs to Elisa. All photos and videos are used with permission.
- Toof, J. (2018). Enrichment and stress reduction for sheltered dogs and cats: targeting the five senses. The IAABC Foundation Journal, 9
- Moeller, M. (2017). Multisensory enrichment for shelter dogs. The IAABC Foundation Journal 3
- Strong, E. (2017). Shelter playgroups the LIMA way. The IAABC Foundation Journal 5
- Strong, E. (2017). Simple solutions for common behavior issues in shelters. The IAABC Foundation Journal, 4
- Newbury, S., et. al (2010). Guidelines for standards of care in animal shelters. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians.
- SPCA Singapore (n.d.) About Us [online]. Last accessed 10/14/2023
- Pierce, J. (2019). Open adoptions in shelters help animals and people: A view from the inside on what open adoptions are and how they can help animals. Psychology Today: 26 February 2019.
Nee Kang, Ph.D., CDBC, CPDT-KA, CCFT, CSAT, is a scientist trained in the study of animal behavior, and a Fear Free Certified Professional. She founded cheerfuldogs.com, Singapore’s premier dog behavior consultation and training service. A strong advocate of a “Do No Harm” evidence-based approach to animal care, Nee uses humane, force-free training methods and games that are safe and effective for dogs and people. Her specialist areas include canine fitness coaching and behavior modification for canine separation anxiety.
Nee has conducted dog behavior workshops for dog guardians, and fear-free cooperative animal care training programs for staff and volunteers of shelters in Singapore. She founded the Dog Mentorship Project at the SPCA Singapore, whose goal is to provide shelter dogs with behavior enrichment during their stay in the shelter. She has published articles in the IAABC Foundation Journal, APDT Chronicle of the Dog and PPG’s Barks from the Guild, as well as articles on dog behavior and training in local magazines, newspapers, and shelter newsletters. Nee is a 2018 nominee of the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) Annual Writing Competition, for excellence in the category of Online Article Behavior and Training for her article, Nee Kang, Jeffrey Lee & Nan Arthur – Through Thick and Thin: Caring For and Training Companion Dogs with Disabilities – IAABC Foundation Journal 9.
“Cheerful Dogs, Happy People” is what Nee wants to help dogs and their guardians become.
Elisa YM Ang started out as a volunteer dog walker in 2016 at the SPCA Singapore, and joined the dog mentor team in 2017. She has been an active dog mentor since then, volunteering her time to take her mentees through training and enrichment programs, guiding interaction sessions for potential adopters, buddying new dog mentors and training new dog walkers. Beyond volunteering, Elisa is a scientist specializing in computer simulations, with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering (NTU, Singapore), a master’s degree in applied mathematics (TU Delft, the Netherlands) and another master’s degree in computer engineering (Uni FAU, Germany). She is currently completing her PhD in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (NTU, Singapore), and has joined the Singapore Institute of Technology as a faculty member.
Jaipal Gill, DVM, has been involved in animal welfare for almost 20 years. At the SPCA Singapore, he oversees the running of the organization’s animal welfare services such as the shelter, clinic, inspectorate, animal rescue, and community animal sterilization programs. He has a bachelor of science degree (National University of Singapore, Singapore), and studied animal welfare science at the honors level at the University of Melbourne, Australia, from which he obtained his veterinary medicine degree. He is currently the executive director at the SPCA Singapore.