Austin Pets Alive! | How APA! Gives Behavior Dogs a Second Lease on…

Jun 15, 2023

Dogs are social animals. Typically they love the company of other dogs, are comfortable around people, adapt readily to various situations and eagerly await at the door to welcome us home.

These social skills are learned and dogs benefit from practicing them. Unlike people, pups only have body language and barking to communicate how they are feeling and misreading these cues can lead to serious misunderstandings of what the animal is trying to tell us, often resulting in pups being deemed “Behavior Dogs.”

Austin Pets Alive! Is leading the charge to save this vulnerable subset of the shelter population from euthanasia by providing behavioral modification training, dog socialization playgroups, and adoption follow-up services to help place these pups in loving homes.

Understanding a dog’s body language is paramount to supporting their behaviors — whether, correcting a behavior, enhancing a behavior or simply letting the dog know that you’re on their side. Reading these behavioral cues are critical to understanding a pet’s needs and in the shelter environment, can be the difference between life and death.

Ruthie is a great example of a life saved thanks to APA!’s Behavior team taking a moment to read between the lines. The 5-year-old black mouth cur mix, originally came to APA! as a puppy, ill with parvovirus. She was treated and adopted, but four years later she was returned to APA! due to some developed behavioral quirks such as displaying some pretty severe separation anxiety and resource guarding.

That’s when former Dog Behavior Team member and current APA! Data Engineer, Ellis Avallone took her on as their “special project.” Initially, staff members had trouble determining if Ruthie was showing signs of aggression. She can be a tough “read” in her kennel — throwing “very large and jarring tantrums. She is a big dog with a big bark,” Ellis recalls “She doesn’t have a bite history (but when she doesn’t get what she wants), she’ll bark, show teeth, and lunge.”

Putting their dog language know how to use, Ellis leaned in to “hear” what Ruthie was trying to communicate.“The biggest misunderstanding about her behavior is that she isn’t trying to hurt anyone when she throws her tantrums. She’s just upset and doesn’t know how to express it.” Taking Ruthie to their home for a sleepover allowed Ruthie’s BFF the opportunity to get a better understanding of exactly what her separation anxiety looked like. While working on separation anxiety can be a bit difficult while a dog is in shelter, this first hand experience allows our team the ability to have more productive and knowledgeable conversations with future fosters or potential adopters on what to expect and ways they can begin addressing the behavior.

With the support of the dog behavior team, APA!’s Flight Path Program, a program that utilizes volunteers to support a pet’s mental wellness and behavioral progress, and Ellis’ faithful friendship, Ruthie continues to show great improvement, such as a displaying reduced resource guarding. She primarily guards “high-value” treats such as bully sticks or peanut butter. Ellis has worked to lessen this behavior of Ruthie’s with a specialized feeding program in which Ruthie is receiving positive reinforcement as food is being tossed to her bowl and conditioned to feel calm built through respectful trust.

“Being friends with Ruthie has been the best part of working and volunteering at APA!. I love how excited she gets when she sees me and how she instantly turns into a wiggle machine when we leave for campus field trips. If you need a dog to pick up on emotions, she’s your girl.”

Our staff is keenly aware that each dog is an individual and that some pups may not be ready for placement initially but through training, behavior modification, and taking the time to understand what an animal is communicating, we can help a misunderstood dog like Ruthie, realize their full potential!

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