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How a radio show changed how we train dogs forever

It was nearly a year ago that I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 consumer programme You and Yours and its Christmas Eve special dedicated solely to the subject of dogs and rehoming.

Dogs Today editor Beverley Cuddy was a guest and her enthusiastic talk for a US scheme that transformed rehoming centres into “universities” for rescued pets struck a chord.

Kennel life is not an easy option for any rescue animal as it can be an incredibly stressful and intimidating experience for them. For some time we had been reviewing how we could improve the way animal welfare worked at the centres.

One of the reasons we wanted to look for alternatives was because many of the animals handed in are from owners who can no longer care for them for whatever reason. So often they will arrive toilet trained and able to respond to basic commands. Sadly when they’re put in kennels, there is the serious risk of their excellent learning regressing as they transition to kennel life.

Hearing the programme founders animal behaviourists Ian Dunbar and his wife Kelly Gorman Dunbar talk about Open Paw in America was revelatory.  

Open Paw provides animals in rescue centres with enrichment, training and social skills, to make them more rehomeable and better able to settle into life in their new homes. At the same time it provides practical hands-on training for staff, volunteers, and prospective and existing pet owners. It is Kelly’s vision to make rescue centres beacons within the community for excellence in training and behaviour. Anyone either with a dog or interested in purchasing one would be free to come in and learn more about responsible pet ownership and training.

Open Pawt at NAWT

Both humans' and animals' routines are changed through the Open Paw programme. Interestingly the animals have adapted to it much quicker than the humans.

Within 24 hours of the pilot scheme being introduced, NAWT staff noticed dogs were calmer and more relaxed, and the noise level of barking had dropped significantly. All the dogs, with the exception of two, were clean in their kennels within that time span.

For the humans the training scheme has meant some serious changes to the daily routine. Traditionally we, along with just about every other rescue organisation hosed out and scrubbed down every kennel every day. But because the dogs are now clean in kennels, these only need to be “spot cleaned” daily, and deep cleaned once a week or when the kennel is vacated.

Not only does less cleaning help the dogs feel more at home (less removal of familiar scents) it also means our staff and volunteers can spend more time working with the dogs.

Open Paw at NAWT

In general, despite some initial reservations from a small minority, it doesn’t take too long for anyone to see the benefits of Open Paw. If it means Mastiff/Great Dane pup Towie is able to spend a little bit more time learning good manners in the paddock or if it means tiny Elsa the Chihuahua is not spinning wheels in kennels every time someone walks by, then the changes have been worth it.

Open Paw at NAWT

What’s such fun about Open Paw is that anyone visiting our centres can get involved in the scheme.  We actively encourage the dogs to be fed with treats through the bars of their kennels. It’s all part of the idea of making the animals used to greeting people in a calm and friendly manner. So come down for yourself and see it in action.

By the beginning of 2016 all five of our centres will be fully Open Paw and we will be monitoring the impact on this new scheme on both the welfare of the animals and the feedback from their new owners.

Now the changes have reached the UK, we hope our charity can act as a beacon of change for other rescues up and down the country. After all, don’t we rescues all experience the same problems?

When I look back on what we’ve done over the past year I’m very proud of our achievements and ability to react positively to these changes. Walking round our kennels and seeing happier dogs is what makes it all worth it.


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