Shelter Dogs in Animal Assisted Interventions

The original Spanish-language version of this post first appeared in Animales Que Suman.

Maybe you’re taking a course in Animal Assisted Interventions and you’re looking for your future therapy dog. Or you’re volunteering at a shelter full of dogs and it occurs to you that they could work in AAI. In the meantime, you know there are people in nursing homes who would love to have a visit from a friendly dog. A fantastic idea comes to mind – wouldn’t it be great to take a dog from a shelter for a few hours and visit an institution? It can only be a win-win situation, right?

What is the AAI with shelter dogs and how does it work? 

First, a background story: Some time ago, three women contacted our association. They were involved in a therapy dog project, it was going reasonably well, but they had run out of things to do in the sessions. Could we help them with some creative ideas to improve their project? We love helping beginners in AAI, so we agreed to meet.

We went to the meeting armed with a presentation highlighting a myriad of activities adaptable to any AAI session. The activities were tailored to a wide variety of projects and were based on a combination of the handler’s skills with the dog’s character and abilities. Supporting the activity plans was a list of specially created toys, objects, and tools to enrich the sessions. All designed to motivate clients and help the centre’s education or health professional achieve their therapeutic goals, be they cognitive, physical, or emotional.

The women explained that the dogs were not their own, but lived in a shelter. One day a week they would go to the shelter, take three dogs out and visit a nearby nursing home. The nursing home residents were happy to pet the dogs, brush them and throw them a ball. But the encounters were quickly becoming routine, and the women felt the need to liven up the sessions a bit. What could they do, given that the dogs had virtually no skills? Sometimes it was all they could do to keep the dogs calm during the visits.

From their point of view, it was a reasonable question. Disguising our alarm, we questioned them further. Before entering the nursing home, were the dogs bathed or, at the very least, well brushed? Were dirty collars replaced with clean ones? Were the dogs properly exercised before each session? And finally, had the women taken any courses on Animal Assisted Intervention?

The answer to all these questions was no. Seeing that the meeting was much more complex than we had imagined, we asked them to consider other points before we discussed creativity. This led to a lively discussion about hygiene practices, the need for protocols, and the importance of selecting the right dog for visits. We did not have time to delve into such topics as how to ensure the health and well-being of all project participants, so we recommended that the women get some AAI training. 

Shelter dogs and AAI – What does it mean?

The participation of shelter dogs in AAI means that dogs living in shelters or in temporary foster care are actively involved in therapeutic work. On a day-to-day basis the dogs do not have a single person looking out for their interests but are cared for by a network of people.

The dogs meet people living, studying and/or receiving treatment in various institutions, such as hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers or correctional institutions. As in any AAI project, the encounters are designed to help reach educational, therapeutic, or recreational objectives. Sessions can be as basic as gentle visits that require little action on the part of the dog, activities as simple as brushing, stroking, or playing. Because the dog comes from a shelter, emphasis is often placed on the dog’s unique situation. Many clients are aware that they are helping improve the likelihood that the dog will be adopted.

Within the scope of AAI projects in general, it is an attractive working model, as it fulfills two objectives: the therapeutic or entertainment needs of the client group are enriched. And the dogs get the chance to interact positively with the world at large.

Therefore, the women who consulted us were correct in their original premises:

– Shelter dogs often lead sedentary and boring lives inside. By participating in an AAI project, they are given the opportunity for physical and social contact from people they would otherwise never meet.

– The clients – and especially those living in isolation – can interact with a warm, caring, non-judgmental living being whose principal goal is to be with people. 

– Dogs receive positive features in their profiles: “This dog engages in a positive way with a vulnerable population. “This makes it more attractive in the eyes of prospective adopters.

– The people involved in the project often know the dogs’ history. This helps to create a feeling of empathy towards them. Often, the dogs’ situation mirrors their own and people in confinement, for example, can emotionally identify with the dog’s circumstances.

Shelter Dogs and AAI – Project Types

Shelter dogs participating in AAI projects generally participate within two working models:

– Dogs leave the shelter and visit institutions. A suitable dog may participate on a regular basis – weekly visits, for example. Or there may be a rotation of dogs to give many of them the opportunity to socialise outside the shelter. Dogs are often required to participate in types of activities similar to a dog living with their handler. However, shelter dogs may not have had the opportunity to be trained for their role within AAI activities.

– People come to the shelter in small groups, and sessions take place in or near the shelter. Most often, a dog works with only one participant in the group. Many times, the emotional and physical needs of the dogs are highlighted within the project. Activities may focus on physical contact, play, walks or training, with the goal of improving the dogs’ adoption prospects in mind. There may be a marked structure, like group classes in a dog training school, which offers the human participant the opportunity to learn how to train a dog.

Shelter dogs in AAI projects: are the key elements in place?

When it comes to working with shelter dogs in AAI environments, there are some key ingredients that inevitably fall short of the ideal. This means that handlers must equip the project with special protocols to compensate for the shortcomings: 

The human-dog bond

Unlike a dog that lives as a family member within its handler’s home, a shelter dog does not have a person to serve as a key reference figure. He can and often does form an attachment to the person working with him in the AAI environment, but the quality of this attachment – relative to the demands of their shared task – can come into question. Can the dog feel comfortable working in an intense environment with a person with whom he may or may not have a positive bond?

The question of hygiene

This point is of great importance in any AAI project. All AAI dogs must be healthy, clean, free of parasites and in excellent shape on the day of the session. It is much easier to answer this need when the dog lives with the handler. It is not so easy when the dog is one of many within a shelter, and when its welfare depends on the management structure of the shelter.

In the case of shelter dogs that visit institutions and centres, AAI volunteers may not have time to carefully groom the dog before entering the facility. In addition, the dog may not be feeling very well that day, and without careful observation this may go unnoticed.

Is the dog having a good time?

A competent handler knows when your dog is getting tired of the session. She knows which people she works well with, and which groups are best avoided. (This is why many AAI handlers have more than one working dog). But in the case of shelters, unless they have had the opportunity to get to know the dogs well, they can’t be sure if the dog will thrive and shine in each situation, until they try it.

And, likewise, an AAI handler knows when her dog is feeling stressed. She knows what to do to prevent or alleviate any psychological influence the dog may feel and knows how long it will take her dog to recover from each session. However, shelter dogs are often taken back to the shelter, put in their cage, and left to fend for themselves. Without any decompression activity, they must recuperate on their own.

Shelter Dogs and AAI – Best Practices

– It is possible to create, develop and successfully implement AAI projects with shelter dogs. Selection of the dog(s) is important and involves extensive character testing and experience on the part of the handlers. Even if you do not live with the dog, you should know your working partner well.

– All dogs that come to the institutions must work under strict hygiene and health protocols, whether they come from shelters or live with people full time. There is no excuse for an unclean and possibly unhealthy dog to meet with people who may be in a compromised state of health.

– In the case of people who visit shelters to participate in IAA activities, they are assumed to be in good health and robust enough to spend time in a shelter environment. If not, they should refrain. And even then, the dogs should be clean, free of parasites and well balanced psychologically.

– Whether the dog is visiting an institution or receiving visits by people from an institution, the dog should be well balanced and relatively stress-free. It should have no history of aggression directed at people and should be well socialised. It should enjoy participation and not have to endure excessive stress.

And finally….

What became of the three women who came for a consultation? They left with a new understanding of the complexities of AAI. We were able to provide new creative ideas that resulted in an enriched project. And one of the women signed up for our AAI course, which led her to break new ground in other AAI settings and with a wide range of individuals.

Belén García Bonds with Shelter Dogs

I started visiting the Center d’Acollida d’Animals de Barcelona (CAACB, Barcelona Animal Refuge Centre) in the summer of 2010 while studying biology at university. I became a regular volunteer in 2013, about the time I learned how to train dogs.

We always had dogs at home, but when I lived on my own in Barcelona, I missed them terribly. Being a volunteer helped fill that void.

Belén and Balu, photo by Santos Román @retratista_animal

Volunteering is addictive. You get attached to some dogs and begin to feel for them; they weigh on your mind if you can’t make it there.

Each volunteer deals with it as best they can. It’s a unique, personal experience—everyone lives it differently. I know several volunteers who have stopped coming because the situation overwhelms them, or others who became sad when a dog they bonded with left. Most can manage the difficulties.

People may try to avoid becoming attached to a dog. Forging a bond with a dog doesn’t bother me. That’s what motivates me to continue.

How can you help shelter dogs? It’s simple, just put yourself out there, take action. Share information on social media, for example. Some see the dogs profiled on Facebook; they share the information and that helps. Sometimes they find homes and you think, of the 10 cases that I have shared today, two dogs have found a home. Great, I’ll continue sharing information. Another way to help is to volunteer, of course. Show up and dedicate your time. You leave there knowing you have given them quality time and have contributed something to their lives. People must do it according to their skills; there are people who don’t know how to manage it. Everyone must find a way that makes them feel good and feel helpful, without getting depressed or down. But the goal is always the same: to find them a home. The dogs must leave the shelter.

Maybe you don’t want to be in direct contact with cases but want to do something for animals. You could become a vegan, which is also a way to contribute indirectly. Some people volunteer in administration, working in logistics. Or involve themselves with animal rights movements. If you are an expert in a required field, you can be an advisor. For example, you may be an expert on animal abuse. There are thousands of ways to help.

Shelter dogs bond quickly with a person. Walk the same dog two or three times and he remembers you. If he’s happy to see you when he doesn’t know you, imagine what happens after you take him out of his cage a few times. There are also cases where you develop a stronger connection … I developed a crush on one dog from day one! Now, every time I go to the shelter, I save the last 10 minutes for him alone. You can have a healthy bond with a shelter dog. But keep in mind, the dog should be also bonding with other people, not just you.

Occasionally there are cases when the dog enters the shelter very fearful and must learn to trust people. At first one person gains his trust. It can be a gigantic step. When one person wins his trust, then another must do the same. Then another, and so on until, little by little, he trusts people. These are small steps, but the dog benefits immensely. This is the ideal scenario. Of course, there are dogs in the shelter which are walked by only one volunteer. However, problems arise when there is the possibility of adoption. I understand that there are dogs that, if it were not for the one person taking him out for his walk, would never leave the cage. But ideally, they learn to be confident with many people.

Belén and Balu, photo by Santos Román @retratista_animal

I adopted Balu in September 2016. He entered the centre when he was 6 months old, and I thought, what a beautiful dog! I was sure it would be one of those cases where someone snaps up the dog quickly. Myself, I thought I’d adopt an elderly dog. But we had a connection. I guess the dog chooses you. I would see him every week during his stay – about a month and a half – but tell myself he’ll be going soon. He had come in with another dog – his brother, I think – who soon left and Balu was on his own. Once I went into his cage to spend time with him, and he quietly fell asleep in my lap. Not once in four years as a volunteer had that happened to me. There he was, snoring away. Someone adopted him, but they returned him 24 hours later. I was there the day they brought him back and when I saw him back in the cage, and saw him… Well, I just couldn’t resist anymore. I saw that poor, lost look they get when they’re back in the same place. You can’t understand it until you see it. Besides that, the poor boy had a fever, he was sick, and I couldn’t bear to look at his sad face. I adopted him that same day.

Belén and Balu, photo by Santos Román @retratista_animal

The idea of ​​21 Hogares (21 Homes) is to help the “invisible” dogs, those that have been in the shelter for a long time. I met a photographer who volunteered at a shelter. She told me she took pictures of the dogs and of their success rate. After disseminating their picture, people adopted them within days. That was a revelation and the start of an initiative. Together with Emma Infante (of Futur Animal), we worked on the idea. Soon, more people and more shelters became involved, and we created a group, of which I am a spokesperson.

We’re outraged that a dog can live in a cage for 8 years. They become invisible. The idea behind photographing them is to capture their appeal in a quality image. This awakens compassion in people; it helps people connect. Instead of focusing on sorrow, people see them in a positive light. We focus on their tender qualities, their cheerful natures. Unfortunately, it just so happens that most fall under the label of potentially dangerous dogs, according to the breed-specific law. Or they’re older dogs—many are between 8 and 13 years old. There are also younger dogs who don’t fall under breed-specific legislation but who have been in the shelter for many years. These are dogs that people don’t see, who go unnoticed. A mystery, really, and sad.

We made a list of those that we consider urgent, who we’d like to see adopted as soon as possible, and there were 21 dogs on the list. That’s where the name comes from: 21 Homes. Because the chief aim is to find homes for them. The list has expanded since then, but the name stays the same. It reflects our goal to find homes for these “invisible” dogs.

Belen Garcia, lives in Barcelona

Biologist, Anthrozoologist and Canine Educator at Sentit Caní