Training Fosters To Rehab

In the last post we emphasized the importance of communal housing. Now it’s time to emphasize the importance of training fosters to deal with behavior issues.

MACC conducts aggressive animal investigations and makes dangerous animal declarations. Declarations are determined by the severity of the incident, including serious bites and unprovoked aggressive behavior.  About 250 dangerous animal declarations are made each year.Shelters today are not set up to handle animals with behavior problems. In fact, as I’ve stated previously, prison-like shelters create many of these behavior issues with their solitary confinement cells. Their answer to these problem dogs and cats?  Death in the back room. Additionally, some animals are adopted without having their issues dealt with – passing these problems on to the adopters. Many of these problems then grow and later cause returns and abandonments, creating a vicious cycle.

My answer to this slaughter of millions and millions of beautiful companion animals every year is surprisingly simple. All it really takes is to consider a slightly different approach – to think outside the box.


Okay, so now we have our socialized (adoptable) cats and dogs settled in their communal showrooms.  But what about those animals who can’t get along with others?

The key to making communal housing successful on a large scale is to have a network of trained fosters who can rehabilitate dogs (and cats?).

These animals with issues are best rehabbed in a home setting away from the shelter and then socialized.  These rehabbed dogs can then be returned to the adoption center for placement. Thus, this is a benefit to the fosters as they are relieved of the placement effort, freeing them to rehab more animals.

As a general rule, animals not socialized for communal showrooms are not ready for adoption.

What’s Happening Now?

Logo - BFAS Comm'y Trng Partners PrgmSome of the better-funded shelters are able to hire a trainer or behaviorist to work with individual dogs in the shelter. Additionally, to address this great national need, Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) initiated a pilot program earlier in 2010 to work with troubled dogs in shelters. These efforts miss the mark for at least three reasons:

  1. The trainer can only work with a very limited number of dogs during any week
  2. The shelter is the worst environment to deal with behavior issues
  3. The limited results do not justify the costs (poor value)

Why don’t shelter directors utilize the more dedicated and experienced fosters to handle these problem animals? My guess is widespread industry arrogance – the notion that only industry professionals can be trusted to deal with these issues. The result? They are not dealt with, but killed or passed on to the adopter.

The Solution Is Easy

Fosters can be trained in how to rehab dogs and cats with behavior problems. Experienced rescuers have all the knowledge needed to correct problem behaviors:  Professional trainers are not really needed. Unfortunately, there is so little cooperation between rescuers and shelters that this chasm will need to be bridged to make this option available.

Trainers and behaviorists would save far more lives by training fosters to do the work instead of trying to rehab a few animals at a time by themselves in a shelter setting.  Isn’t this supposed to be about saving lives?

US Army Special Forces Advisor In AfricaThe military has long employed “advisors” – highly trained special troops who go into a country to teach local forces how to become an effective unit.  These advisors are not expected to do the work, but to train others to do it. They are called force multipliers. This is a much-needed concept for training fosters to do more than just provide room and board.

The new role in shelters for behaviorists and trainers should be to help train inexperienced fosters.

Difference Between Rehabilitation and Training

While I plead with shelter directors to utilize their volunteer fosters to save more lives through training, it is important to note that there is a significant difference between rehabilitation and training. Trainers and behaviorists train, as a rule they do not rehabilitate. Most have neither the facility nor the time to dedicate to rehab.

Rehab is simply returning a dog (or cat) to a balanced, natural state – undoing the damage done by humans. It often means dialing back aggression or unruly behavior so that an animal is calm (healthy) and therefore open to training. Most rehabbers speak of building (i.e. restoring) trust.

Book - Cesars RulesCesar Millan has dedicated his professional life to this difference: as he humorously states at the beginning of every show, “I rehabilitate dogs, I train people.” In his latest book, Cesar’s Rules, he states this about the difference between rehab and training:

For me, training is about conditioning. What I do is not “training” in the traditional sense, as what I care most about is “balance.” That means fulfilling the instinctual needs of the dog. And when a dog is balanced, training is much easier to perform.

Animals who have behavior issues that prevent them from being trained easily need rehab. Resetting them to square one is a process of dialing back the problem to where the dog can trust and act like a healthy, balanced dog. It is at that point that training can best be done.

This is a difficult point for industry people to grasp. For decades veterinary behaviorists have preached loudly that they, and they alone, are the experts. Their formulaic, by-the-numbers approach, has prevented experienced rescuers from being seen as a valuable asset in dealing with extreme behavior issues.

Can Fosters Successfully Rehabilitate Dogs?

Dog - Helping Paws GraduateYes, absolutely! The best proof I can offer is Helping Paws, a Minnesota organization which trains service dogs for disabled people. A very special woman named Eileen Bohn has dedicated her life to this cause. Her methods challenge all other groups who rely on professional trainers to work with these special dogs.  Eileen passes on her skills to volunteer fosters who sign up for the 2 to 2½-year program.

These unpaid volunteers, many first-timers, become accomplished trainers over the course of this time by attending weekly classes held by Eileen. Both the fosters and their puppies learn together. Each week they are given new material then go home and practice together. Does it work?

Leslie & Kula At Graduation-1Meet Kula (right), the service dog I got to watch in action with her partner, Leslie. Kula, like all other Helping Paws service dogs, was able to perform many amazing feats upon her graduation. And she was trained by an amateur – a volunteer foster! If an unpaid volunteer can make this commitment and produce these kind of amazing results, why aren’t shelter directors using this approach for simple behavioral issues? Volunteers can accomplish amazing things if given the opportunity and training.

Who Can Train Fosters To Rehab?

Shelter workers have no valid experience to rely on in modifying behavior successfully.  How could they?  By their own admission they do not have time to dedicate to these challenging cases. Further, shelter directors rely on fosters to provide no more than room and board. This vital resource goes untapped.

Hector - Famous Vick SurvivorThere are experts in taming the most dangerous dogs.  That’s right.  And the number is growing every year.  Now ask yourself why most do not work with shelters?  Primarily because of the arrogance of shelter managers and their behaviorists who think they know best, despite a lack of experience in dealing with these challenging cases.(Left:  Hector, survivor of Michael Vick)

There are people who are skilled at reversing the damage done by humans and restoring an animal to health.  If we can successfully rehab the worst cases, is it too much to ask shelters to work with the minor issues? With my deepest respect, let me mention just a few of the more accomplished rehabbers:

As an example how rehab merely dials back a dog to a more natural, balanced state, I offer the following short video:

Thomas Cole 2010 ©

Buster, the vicious dog in the video, has been successfully rehabbed and is now ready for work with a trainer. He is a happy dog, now safe to be around, and no more resource guarding! However, about all he does well is sit and walk calmly on a loose leash! This is the point at which he can be safely rehomed and trained. If I were working with a shelter, this is the point at which Buster would be returned to be socialized in a large group and then placed for adoption.


It is my hope that the knowledge of these experienced rehabbers can somehow filter through rescue groups and shelters so that it becomes part of training given to fosters.  As shelters move away from the prison model and killing and focus on becoming true adoption centers, they will have to learn to rely on their foster network to do the rehab work with unruly animals.  (Otherwise, the killing will continue) These dedicated fosters will be the ones who will need training in handling these challenges.  In the long run, millions of animals every year will be saved.

One Reply to “Training Fosters To Rehab”

  1. How’s that working out for you? Four people last month dead by pit bulls. The average is two
    I say we stick with professionals.

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