CEO Blog: Undercover Boss (not really) Series – Episode 6: Behaviour and Community Support | Winnipeg Humane Society
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Thanks to spending time working in each department this summer, I’m now able to receive animals and print their first information card. I can help with dental surgeries in our clinic without fainting and I can assist in transporting ill animals to our shelter and swab to do a quick test. I am able to clean an entire cat condo in 16 minutes and I’ve learned how to give pills to cats humanely and safely.

In short: this project is AWESOME. Not only I am learning a lot, but more importantly I have the privilege of spending time with some pretty amazing people, all of them working so hard for your WHS. I hope that you are enjoying this as much as I am!

Next up on my list was our newly established Behaviour and Community Support Department. While we have had a Behaviour area in our shelter for over a decade now, it has always been as part of another larger department. First, we had just a couple of people working in our clinic, then we moved Behaviour to the Intake area. But starting on April 1st of this year, the Behaviour department is now entirely on its own, with a greatly expanded portfolio. Why? Because over the past few years, more and more research on animals show that physical health cannot be achieved if we don’t also work on mental health. And the less stress we put on animals when they are in the shelter, the faster we can get them ready to be safely adopted.

So what does the Behaviour team do? Lots of things. Val, the Director in charge and Catherine, the Senior Manager, divided the team into two areas:

Shelter Behaviour is solely dedicated to the animals under our care. From the moment they are surrendered or arrive as strays to the time they go to a new home, this group ensures the best mental welfare of the animals and work on addressing behaviours that may be of concern. From food aggression to anxiety to being jumpy or hissy…any pet that presents some challenges or is surrendered because of a behaviour concern is touched by the Shelter Behaviour Team. Also it is very common to hear these loudspeaker pages during the day: “Behaviour to Clinic” “Behaviour to Intake” “Behaviour to Adoptions”…that means that either an animal is struggling in our clinic and they need expert help to relax; that we have an incoming pet also with challenging behaviours, or that a pet that needs some training and guidance may be adopted, so we want to give the new adopter tips and information on the pet.

The Community Support area is responsible for all our public classes that the WHS offers in the Joyce Gauthier Behaviour and Training Centre and the Albrechtsen Classroom, as well as provide support to humans and pets dealing with challenging behaviours at home through our help line (204-988-8808). In the past, it took us almost a week to get back to people, and now we are usually in touch within 2 days. The goal is to help human caregivers to understand what is going on, and even offer an individual consultation at our Training Centre if needed. We are also doing more videos to share in social media, and last but not least, we are also going to provide classes in other locations (not only the WHS), so more people can benefit from them.

As you can see, their plates are very full. I was lucky to observe one of our Behaviour team members, Ben, when I was helping in clinic. One dog was just too scared, and when pups get scared they can bite. Ben came in, got down on his knees and talked to the dog. In 30 seconds flat, our veterinarian was able to weigh the dog and get them ready for surgery. Amazing! You can watch Ben’s #WHSTips videos as well on social media. He has recently moved to our Community Support area because, well, we just cannot keep up with all the work!

The day I went to spend time with Behaviour, I stayed with the Shelter Behaviour team. I spent most of the time with Nancy and a brand new addition to the team, Jillian (she is coming from Animal Care, so as we walked around former colleagues gave us a playful stink eye for changing roles, but you can tell everyone was proud of her!). At the very end Alysha joined us, but she was doing the late shift.

First up, we went to walk dogs that can only be walked by Behaviour staff or very expert volunteers. We classify dogs into three colours, so we know in advance what precautions we need to take: green dogs are those perfect fidos with no concerns and moving quickly to adoptions; yellow dogs have one or two issues which require training, but do not pose a risk to the pet, other animals or humans; and red dogs are those who need a lot of TLC or a very experienced human for them to be successful.

The first thing I learned is that a dog with challenging behaviours needs to be placed in situations where the triggers of the unwanted behaviour are not likely to happen. Our first dog was a beautiful large breed pup available for adoptions. He has what Nancy explained to me is “stranger danger” behaviours: if he does not know a person or a pet, he becomes very stressed, and then he barks and he could try to lunge towards the stranger animal or human.

In general, Nancy explained to me that dogs not want to cause trouble. But in our shelter the only way to walk a dog is to have him out and about, so our Behaviour team is in charge of it. Nancy made the introduction to this pup, and he sniffed, and greeted me, tail wagging. We leashed him up and out we went. We made sure that “the coast was clear” and we began our walk. After doing his business, Nancy and Jillian started working with the dog. If the pup was looking at a person or pet at a distance, we would offer a treat so he could associate stranger with a positive reward.

This is very important to the Behaviour team and the WHS. We do not use, nor support, any training method that uses a negative reinforcement took or punishment to the animal. Everything we do is based on positive reinforcement, patience, and love. I am so proud of the team and the training they receive to be truly Humane.

The end of the walk was truly a big test. The shelter was full of potential adopters, and two groups of our Day Camp were out and about. So much stimulation! Despite the challenges, we made it back to the kennel. Hopefully the dog will continue to improve.

Then we worked with another dog available for adoptions. A large breed dog, and a very handsome guy as well, this dog struggles with anxiety. He was surrendered to us because the caregiver worked for long hours and he just could not stay safely at home. When a dog (or cat) develops anxiety, they can be destructive, or do their “business” in places that they should not. So Nancy and Jillian worked on crate training, by having toys and treats tossed inside a large and comfy crate. He is spending more and more time inside, and if the new family of this handsome guy keeps on with the training (and ideally one person works from home or is retired!) he will be the most perfect pet you can wish for!

After walking and working with dogs, we moved to cats. Given the time of the year, the shelter is filled with kitties. The Behaviour team works with new arrivals that are showing fear or are not easy to handle, and with long-term cats which have some behaviour issues and need support. They also keep an eye on cats who are here under protective custody due to a welfare concern, to make sure they have the enrichment and quality of life they deserve.

What I did learn doing the rounds and working with cats is that those who come to the shelter through a surrender process have a much harder time at the shelter than strays with experience being out and about. Those cats who lived with the same person for many years, and now are in a complete different place surrounded by cats is very upsetting to them. We have implemented a host of actions to get help them with the transition: from covers in their kennel to a box where they can hide to giving them twice the space we used to  give them. All these actions have resulted in a great reduction in euthanasia and a reduction in cats getting sick. Our isolation rooms are almost empty, even in the busiest summer months!

The other thing I learned is that when a cat is hissing or swatting at you they are communicating their fear. And that means they know how to interact with humans. Feral/wild cats tend to hide and avoid any contact with humans. So a cat that seems very grumpy can be worked with and helped a lot more than a feral animal who is terrified of seeing humans.

After walking dogs requiring training, working on behaviours for those dogs that need it, going through dozens of cats and helping them to settle down, and helping Clinic, Intake and Adoptions as required, the team needs to enter all the notes into the system, so all progress is recorded and the next person working with the pet can pick up where the previous Behaviour staff left off.

On the Community Support side, I was involved in helping a fellow animal rescue organization work with a dog in a foster home which was having some challenging behaviours. We scheduled a one-on-one consultation and it seems the dog is slowly but surely improving. Helping other rescues is another great new approach the WHS is taking.

I left the group with a sense of gratitude for having such a brilliant team of Behaviour specialists, and happy to know that each pet at the Winnipeg Humane Society is looked after not only for their physical aliments, but also for their mental health and well being. Animals need attention paid to both in order to be given a fair shake. Also, seeing our Community Support side flourish is definitively a very positive development.

Thank you for reading, and I always welcome your comments and feedback. Feel free to take a look at my other Undercover Boss (not really) Series posts here.

Until next time,
Javier Schwersensky
WHS CEO