Reinforcing Change

Written by Ashby Cogan

“All done!” I cried. Amid applause and cheering, the retired police sergeant hopped up from his position prostrate on the folding table. We had accomplished our crowd-sourced training goal—using a clicker, I had shaped him to lie face down on this rickety table for our audience of the other shelter volunteers. His eyes sparkled. He turned to the game’s observers and declared, “I’m thinking, ‘What do I have to do to make that click happen again?’”

This was the moment, I believe, that the majority of our small shelter’s volunteers caught clicker fever. It happened during the workshop that I held on Day One as our shelter’s inaugural full-time dog trainer this past spring. My mission was, and is, to more deeply ingrain in our shelter’s culture an evidence-based understanding of animal behavior, so we can better protect animal life and enhance the human-animal bond.

On a typical day, I work with our neediest dogs, oversee our canine playgroups, build and manage our new volunteer tracks, spearhead rehoming efforts for long-stay animals, and read and watch behavior books, articles, and videos until I can’t keep my eyes open—but in the midst of all this, I particularly look forward to each opportunity to show other people the power of behavior science. As disciples in the study of animal behavior, we all aim to convey what we know so that humans’ relationships with other animals may be changed. As an animal shelter worker, I’m living that dream. I’ve had the opportunity to personally spark a transformation within our shelter’s walls, watch it spread, and see it bring us closer to our goals.

When I was hired, the primary emphasis in our dog volunteer program was on dog walking. I immediately interrogated this, and it didn’t stand up to my research. With other shelters’ playgroup statistics by my side, I was able to convince my colleagues to support me in establishing a playgroups program for dogs. Having turned my drive to harness data into a collective impetus, we offer the dogs outdoor time at quadruple the efficiency of dog walking, vastly improving our ability to meet the animals’ welfare needs.

When using inquiry created the right climate for a playgroups program, this paved the way for further evaluation of the status quo. I wondered, could we find a way to engage an altogether new group, the children and teens who often inquired about becoming volunteers? By excluding them, we were losing out on the chance to teach these kids about behavior. It seemed a natural fit to match this hungry demographic with our constant need for enrichment items. I pulled together a protocol, set aside some space, organized our materials, and made a schedule. I now coordinate and oversee these younger volunteers in their regular shifts stuffing food puzzles for the dogs and decorating hiding boxes for the cats. I am glad that our animals benefit, but I am thrilled when the youngest volunteers turn to their parents with bright eyes and ask, “Can we do this at home with our pets?”

Whether in a child or in an adult, it’s truly delightful to see exposure to behavior science nudge an individual toward rethinking the big questions. I get to enjoy these moments over and over during my clicker workshops. Armed with the basics of learning theory and its application, these volunteers begin to question all the hackneyed dog training assumptions. “So…if you don’t tell him to sit first, how does he know what you want?” Together we marvel. Are dogs servants, owing us their existence, born to obey? Or are they something else entirely: intimate yet alien, sensorially genius, worthy of at least a moment of daily, quiet awe?

Though I experienced the transition to using an evidence-based lens to view behavior as a quantum leap, it has been a slow metamorphosis for our institution as a whole. On our best days, we are a well-oiled machine, seizing upon collaborative, data-driven solutions to bolster our animals’ welfare. On other days, the stress of growth is overwhelming, even painful. I am haunted by the withdrawal of a few people at the shelter whom I put over threshold in my initially clumsy eagerness to share all of this with them. Those few times when we are all at our worst, exhausted and at an impasse, I have had to stay relentlessly focused. It is no small feat to put aside wounded pride and reestablish mutual respect, but this is the only way to rediscover our common purpose of doing better by the animals. Thus, in both my most joyful and most challenging moments, the ideals that Rebecca Park embodied in her practice have served me well. It is an impossible task to open someone’s mind without their consent, and consent cannot be gained without compassion.

Our shelter is gradually embracing the notion that animals, like humans, need more and different care when they are stressed. As I begin to see this paradigm shift shining into each nook and cranny of our shelter’s operations, I have a vision of offering onsite classes, more targeted and systematic behavior modification, and more resources for adopters who have not yet found the rapport with their pets that knowledge can bring. Since taking my first steps up the ever-striving path of understanding companion animal behavior, I haven’t been able to stop. I want to continue to grow so that I may deepen my practice of the same values that marked Rebecca Park’s life. I want to advance evidence-based behavior modification—and the respect that comes with it, when we are successful—both within my shelter and among its dog and cat adopters, and in my community at large.


Ashby Cogan is delighted by the discipline of behavior modification and is particularly fascinated by its power to forge understanding and cooperation among humans and non-humans alike. Ms. Cogan is currently on staff at Pets in Need, a small, non-profit animal shelter serving cats and dogs in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is working to establish a behavior and training program.