Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 2

In Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 1, I talked about the shelter itself, what it does, how adoptions work and introduced some of the volunteer programs including the BRATT (Behavior Re-homing Assessment Training Team) program I’m involved with.  I also finished by introducing the idea of different color levels for the dogs and that’s where I’ll pick up today since nothing I said yesterday can possibly have made any sense.


Level Up: Part 1

The Austin Humane Shelter ranks dogs into different color levels ranging from green (lowest level) to blue to bb (think of it as extreme blue) to yellow to orange to red (sick dogs).  Puppies are purple and there are a couple I may be missing because I haven’t encountered them yet.

As dogs move from lower to higher levels (e.g. green to blue to yellow to orange), there tend to be more behavioral issues and they need more training and better qualified people to handle it.  There is progressively more intense classwork required to work with the highest level dogs and you have to have a lot of hours under your belt to even be eligible.  You have to show that you’ve consistently walked dogs by showing up regularly and deserve to be trained for free basically.

Green dogs are the easiest, usually house trained, easily walkable with no behavioral problems at all.  They don’t pull, don’t jump, wait at the door, they are easy and appropriate for everyone to walk.

Blue dogs may pull more or show dog reactivity or jump or what have you.  Sometimes they are just hesitant about coming out of their cages or going back to the kennel.  Which may seem minor but the average green level volunteer won’t know how to handle a dog who doesn’t want to go back.  And you don’t want to just pick them up if you can absolutely help it because it doesn’t help to train them for their new home to come when called and be a good doggy.

Sometimes, you may have to spend 20 minutes coaxing them out of their cage or back to the kennels and even then you can’t get it done; as recently as two weeks ago, I’ve had to get help from higher level BRATT to get a dog out of her cage.  But blue dogs may have no explicit behavioral issue beyond that one thing.  It still disqualifies them from being green and here’s why.

The shelter has some underage dog walkers and some special needs dog walkers; it’s not safe or appropriate to have them walk anything but the easiest dogs for what should be obvious reasons.  So most dogs come in as blue and can graduate to green if it’s clear that they are appropriate for ALL potential walkers and show such with their behavior.

I’d note that higher level BRATT’s (who see the dogs more than anybody else) are the ones who make the suggestion to reclassify a dog if they feel it can go to green; a staff member has to make the ultimate decision but blue BRATT’s and up suggest it if we think it’s appropriate.   The bottom line is this: any dog that might be an issue to handle  for any reasons whatsoever for a younger walker or someone with special needs stays blue.

Some dogs go the other direction and their behavior gets worse in the shelter; the environment stresses them out and they revert to or simply develop bad behavior.   One dog, Tidbit, who I walked started out green and is now a BB dog. He started protecting his food and showing reactivity and they reclassified him.  This is Tidbit, clearly a dog you’d expect to be aggressive.


I will murder you in your sleep
Gimme a treat NOW!


It happened over a number of weeks, one day he was green and the next time I saw him he was a BB dog.  The shelter is a hard place for some dogs; they just don’t cope well with it even under the best of circumstances. I mean, ultimately,  it’s doggie prison just without the shivs and forced  sodomy.

But the behavior issue aren’t always long term changes.  Hell,  I’ve seen dogs that seemed almost bipolar acutely.  In their cage they are scared, or depressed, or bark or scratch or act like they have no interest in leaving their cage.  Or they act like maniacs until you get them outdoors. They pull at their leash and won’t behave and…

And you get them to the field or runs and they normalize completely.  They may still pull a bit but they chill way the hell out when you get them out of the kennel that they live their lives in, surrounded by other scared or angry or scary dogs, who bark when you take someone for a walk.

Take a dog, any dog out, and the rest of the kennel goes completely batshit, everyone starts barking their heads off, some dogs will growl at their cages at the dog you’re just trying to get the hell out of the room.   And then then they settle once you’re out.  But it’s stressful to everyone.  Especially for new dogs.  But everyone can be affected.

The dog I’m going to show you now, Booray, is a good example of this.  In the shelters, he goes nuts when you take any dog for a walk and will get at the cage bars and growl.  He’ll jump and bark and act like a crazy dog (but he’ll sit quickly if he sees the clicker, he knows it means treats) and I think this is part of why he’s been at the shelter longer than I have.  But get him to the runs or the field and he’s just a normal dog.  He’s just stressed in the shelter.  Here’s a video of Booray (he’s the solid colored dog) playing with another dog; the shelter often shoots videos of the dog to show potential adopters how awesome they are.


But think about it, if you lived 98% of your day in a small cage surrounded by other barking dogs, you’d be a bit stressed out too.  You might get depressed or start acting strangely, violent or angry all the time.  Just because your entire environment is nothing but really stressful and unhappy for you except for a few minutes per day when you get to go outside and be a dog.  Given what I went through this summer, feeling trapped in my life and my apartment, let’s just say that I can relate a bit to this.

If you had been abused before coming to the shelter, you might have learned that big people do bad things to you and be scared (some dogs are only scared of men, for example, probably for this reason).  One dog, Coral, that I walk always cowers and retreats if I pick my foot up off the ground or move too quickly towards her; I fear that someone used to abuse her although a higher level BRATT assured me he didn’t think she had.  Regardless, I’m extra careful around her about how I move.

This is Coral.  She’s been adopted so don’t be sad for her.  She’s somewhere where all she’ll get from big people is good things.


Who could hurt a dog this cute?
Love me.


With dogs like this you have to be extra careful initially until they learn the most important doggie lesson, more important than come or stay or whatever.  That lesson is this: big people bring only good things.  Because that’s what life in their new home will be: big people bringing nothing but good things.  And that’s a big part of the training model the shelter uses. Especially with the dogs who are nervous for one reason or another.  Some simply have never been around people and need to be socialized; they don’t know anything about big people yet.  They have to learn.

But even with the dogs showing good behavior from day 1, one of our many goals is to make the dogs understand that people bring good things and nothing else.  I’m not going to detail how we work with the dogs, this is too long as it is.  But the model that the Austin Humane Shelter uses is a positive reinforcement model only. We never punish bad behavior, we simply ignore it.  Acknowledging it at all is a type of reinforcement, like with bratty children.

We don’t scold the dogs or say no (for the most part, I’ve seen yellow and orange BRATTs do it sometimes but they have the training and experience to know when it’s appropriate); if a dog jumps up on you, you just turn your back and ignore it.  Eventually it gets bored and starts acting normally because dogs are not known for their persistence.  At which point you click/treat it so it gets the message “Do something good and you get a treat; do something bad and I’ll simply ignore you.”  And it starts acting better to try to get more treats.  Because acting bad gets it nothing.  I think this might work with girlfriends, too.

We only reward good behavior.  It’s not the only model of dog training, mind you, and not appropriate for all breeds or situations. But for a HUMANE shelter, it’s the correct model. We are trying to get the dogs adopted and put them in homes that will love them; we want to teach them that big people bring good things and nothing else.  Towards that end, everything is positive or neutral; NEVER negative.

Doing things this way, I’ve seen some amazing transformations in dogs in a short period of time; dogs that spent a week terrified of you until they learned that you only bring good things and that bringing the leash means going outside to potty and get exercise and some lovin’. A week after shying away in their kennel they can’t wait to see you.  Or at least they come out easier.  And they get rewarded with love and treats and an opportunity to go outside.  And the next time it’s a little bit easier. It’s all about progress.

One thing we do when we take new/nervous dogs back to their kennel is sit with them and stroke them and give them reassurance for a little while.  The kennel is a scary place for everyone but especially if you’re a new doggie.  A little bit of love and/or a treat when you take them back starts to make positive associations with going back to their cage (which helps to get them back in) and they aren’t as scared or stressed (your stroking them lowers their cortisol; it probably lowers yours too) out. Eventually they learn that the kennel is just a place.  Not a bad place, just a place.  Anyhow…

One day, shadowing a blue BRATT, I saw one dog (Rhonda, who was scared to death and still sits with her back to the corner to protect herself) go from not wanting to take a treat at all to taking it off the couch to taking it from my hand in about 30 minutes.  Just by learning that big people ONLY bring good things.

First we put the treat on the couch and she took it.  Then we put it on my leg and she took it.  Then she took it from my hand.  All the while getting petting and ‘good girls’ and nothing but stroking and positive reinforcement and nothing else.  I wish athletes could be trained as easily or quickly.  Maybe they can….

In any case, given the nature of the dogs coming in and the nature of the shelter, some dogs act stressed in the cage and different when you get them out.  And having spent a month unable to leave my own cage (apartment) without prompting and feeling better when I did finally get out, I can understand the inertia that comes with doggie depression all too well.  Maybe I should have had someone come to my house with a leash to take me for a walk (kinky).

Anyhow, BB dogs have worse behaviors (they may be dog reactive meaning they bark and growl if they get closer to other dogs) than standard blues and yellow and orange may have major behavioral problems requiring massive long-term training by well qualified folks; they also require special homes since it will take a very special adopter to work with such a dog.   Those dogs may never not be yellow or orange, it’s simply not feasible to make every dog a green or even a blue.

Red dogs are sick and, again, the puppies are purple.  I’d note that the AHS has a cat program called CAT which I think stands for Cat Adoption Training (BRATT is much cooler).  I know almost nothing about it since I’m not involved with it but I have no doubt in my mind that it’s just as excellent as what we do with the dogs.

I do know that they have a huge feral cat program in Austin (which has a huge feral cat problem); they bring in scores of feral cats, fix them and release them back to the wild.  The cats can’t be home bound so the best the shelter can do is try to stem the increasing populations. I see cats in surgery constantly in the clinic.


Level Up: Part 2

And volunteers are given the same color rankings as the dogs.  Everyone starts out as green and, after 1 on 1 orientation where you learn the basics of handling the dogs and taking them to the runs, you can take green level dogs to the runs to do their business.  You can also click/treat (simple Pavlovian conditioning), make kongs or a few other things.  You can’t do much but it doesn’t matter because at least you’re doing something to help.

The goal is to walk the dogs at least every 3 hours to poop and pee and get them out of their cages for at least a bit of exercise.  But pottying is sort of the primary goal; otherwise they mess their cages which makes everyone unhappy.  The puppies are usually kept in two piece kennels since they tend to mess one side of the cage and hang out in the other.  They are puppies and haven’t been trained yet anymore than babies know not to shit themselves.  But they are so cute that you can get past it.

You just can’t stay mad at this.  And yes, they have all been adopted; don’t be sad.


We are political prisoners. No justice, no peace!


For the dogs, the short walk to potty is often the ONLY time they get out of their cages all day for the most part (occasionally one may be kept behind the admissions desk for exposure).  Beyond just pottying them in the runs, you can also play with the dogs a bit in the volunteer lounge or auditorium or just pet and brush them on the couch.  How much time you can spend with each dog depends on how long you can be there and how many dogs need walking.  You always wish you had more time with every dog but sometimes you just can’t.

Green volunteers can also watch blue dogs in the runs if a blue volunteer brings them out.  This is often good when there are few green dogs and/or a bunch of blue dogs and not enough volunteers; green level volunteers can take some of the workload off of the blues since you can do two dogs at a time.  I did that a lot initially which also got me exposure to the blue dogs in preparation for the blue dot class.  I asked the blue BRATTs a lot of questions so I could be ready to work with more dogs. They are always happy to help and educate; they know I wouldn’t be there and asking if I didn’t really want to know.

Eventually, you take the field walking class which means you can take the dogs out in the field for actual walking (after going to the runs to potty).  This gets them some exercise and sun but you have to be shown how to deal with the collars (the shelter uses a semi-choke collar), how to handle the leash, what to do around other dogs or people, where the dog shit goes (the church behind the shelter lends us the field so we have to pick up doggie doo and dispose of it), etc.

There’s also puppy socialization which I keep meaning to do.  You get trained on how to get the puppies used to being around people.  If you want an excuse to go hang out with puppies for a few hours and feel good about it afterwards, go to your local shelter and get involved in this.  Try to avoid taking them all home with you.

Then, if you’re really interested, you can get blue dog training.  Either the blue dot (one night of basic training) or the full blue class (5X3 hour classes which is full-on dog training classwork; for free). With the blue dot, you can work with blue dogs or lower, BB dogs require the full blue class.    In blue-dot class we learn basic training, how to get dogs to stop pulling outside, how to wait at the door, how to deal with EZ-walk collars, etc.

When you level up, usually you work primarily with your own level and leave lower level dogs for lower level volunteers so they have something to do.  As a blue dot BRATT, I only walk green dogs if I’m done with ALL of the blues and there are no green volunteers around.  I remember how little I had to do as a green BRATT and don’t want to rob them of opportunities to do something, learn or be too bored.  I was very lucky that a blue dot class came up right after I had enough hours to be eligible for it; but sometimes there’s a long wait and that can leave a lot of doing nothing for green BRATTs.

I think you get the idea, if you desire you can move to higher levels although some prefer to stay at blue levels for years, for various reasons; there’s plenty of blue dogs and they are probably more adoptable than the yellows and oranges and don’t require quite the work.

The yellow and orange volunteers have typically been there for years and years and come week-in week-out without fail; they truly do it out of love for the dogs.  There’s no pay and we have to provide our own leash and doggie treats; a paltry investment for a huge return I’d note.  And they will always help/educate lower level walkers like me when I have questions or do something wrong.  So not only are you surrounded by dogs at the shelter, you’re surrounded by awesome people who just love dogs and will help you out any time you ask.


But Wait….There’s More

But don’t get the idea that all volunteers do is walk and potty and train the dogs at the shelter itself.  That’s just the start and the shelter itself is only one way that we try to get the dogs adopted. There are constant outreach and special volunteer projects all over the city to get exposure for the dogs and try to get them adopted.

I’ve done two VIP (Very Important Pooch) events, where you sit on the porch at the shelter with one or two specific dogs and hard sell people coming in.  Usually it’s with dogs who have been at the shelter a while and anything that gets them into the public eye is good.

I went to Doggie Disco night at a local dog training place where it was dogs, their owners and bad music, alcohol and a disco ball (I kid you not).  I got to meet Misty (the Volunteer Outreach Coordinator) and introduce Buddy to all kinds of other dogs and sell the shelter for 2 hours.  It was silly as hell and probably about the worst place to push adoptions (everyone already had a dog) but it got me around people and dogs and out of the house on a Friday night….and I got fed for free so I still came out ahead.

Recently, we did a huge Halloween event with dogs, puppies on the porch, a bouncy castle, face painting and such.  I sat on the porch with the puppies with one of them on my lap and we had a huge number of dogs adopted from that alone.  And there’s tons of stuff I haven’t done…yet


Pet the puppy...do it, do it now!
Pet the puppy…do it, do it now!


The volunteer group also has a Google group and mailing list that keeps volunteers appraised of behavior changes, extra volunteer opportunities, if someone is going to be out of town and they need a higher level volunteer to cover a shift, etc.  When BRATTs make behavior log changes about a given dog, it goes out to the mailing list.  It’s way of keeping all the volunteers in the loop about what’s going on.

Another thing that the program does is send out regular emails with adoption numbers and it’s always great to see the results of your efforts; seeing that 17 dogs were adopted the previous week makes you see why what you do is helping in concrete terms.  Giving the dogs some attention and dealing with their day to day needs is part of it but getting them into a good home is always the goal.

The Halloween volunteer event got 27 dogs adopted in one weekend including the puppy above.  That was an awesome feeling since all of the puppies that I had sat with on the porch got adopted including Bobby ‘Stumpy’ McGee, the puppy with no tail.  My being there maybe helped them find them homes and that felt good.  And in a summer where I didn’t feel much good (about myself or anything else), every bit helped.

The Austin Humane Shelter website is amazing.  They try to get pictures and/or videos of all of the dogs on the site and they take them down when a dog gets adopted so someone doesn’t come in looking for a dog they can’t have. This lets people research and see what’s available (information about the dog in terms of breed, age, gender, basic personality, how it deals with cats or kids and such) before coming down.

It makes the dogs real.  It’s one thing to know that dogs are available in some abstract sense but that doesn’t get people to the shelter.  It’s another entirely to see this on your computer screen or watch a video of a dog at play. This is Alfie, one of my current favorite dogs but he’s BB and I can’t walk him.  I’ve hung out with him in the runs though and he rocks.  Just a big goofball.  I saw him today and he’s still available for adoption…just sayin’.


A stone killer lurks behind that goofball face
A stone killer lurks behind that face.


My point is that the program is extremely well organized, run by a bunch of very dedicated people who devote some portion of their weekly lives to come do something for the dogs that has to get done every day no matter what.  And they do it for no pay; just out of love for the dogs and what needs to be done every day. Actually, as you’ll start to see tomorrow, volunteers do get paid in a sense; just not with money.  What we get for our efforts is better than money.

Because the dogs have to potty come hell or high water and they either get walked or they don’t. If they don’t, they have to sleep in their own waste.  We’d rather them put it outside. Beyond pottying, they get some attention and exercise.  It may not be much, 15 minutes every 3 hours.  But that’s more than they’d get otherwise.  Every little bit helps.

As importantly to the overall goal (adoption, remember), the higher level BRATTs start training them to be better doggies so that they can be more easily adopted.  We train them not to pull at their leash, and to wait at the door (so they don’t run away or into traffic) and not jump and not bite and….a whole bunch of stuff that I won’t learn how to do until I level up myself.  But I need more experience points still before I’ll see:

Lyle McDonald has earned The Power of Dog Training
Leash +4
Wait +2,
Clicker +7,
His Own Mental Health + Infinity (I already earned this one)

And I’ll stop there today, this is getting long and this is as good a cutoff point as any.   Since this series has expanded to 5 parts, you’ll start to see how it affected me starting tomorrow. Get ready.

Read Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 3.