Open Paw

The "Open Paw" training program was featured recently on BBC Radio 5 live:

Open Paw is a program developed for dogs in rescue centres. It was founded in 2000, Dr Ian Dunbar and his wife, then taken up by rescue shelters in America. In the UK, the National Animal Welfare Trust commenced the program last July in one of its centres, rolling out the program to all four of its locations this year.

The program is to provide shelter dogs with the enrichment, training and social skills they will need to make them more re-homeable and to enable them to successfully settle into life in their new homes.

On top of this it also provides practical hands-on training for staff and volunteers and for prospective and existing pet owners, thus educating local communities on responsible pet ownership and training.

Quite understandably rescue organisations - including ours – have had a tendency to view the animals cared for almost like they are unlucky ‘inmates’ and so we focus our efforts on making their stay as comfortable as possible. However, Open Paw focuses on continuing the good social skills the animals have learnt in their previous homes, such as toilet training, as well as teaching them the new social skills they will need to appeal to a new owner. So instead of ‘inmates’ they become the lucky ‘students’ at our ‘university of life skills.

The program sets Minimum Mental Health Requirements for each animal in our care to ensure they are receiving sufficient enrichment to help keep them calm but mentally stimulated and in the right frame of mind for learning whilst in our care.

In outline, it provides a structured training program for the dogs, staff and volunteers, comprising four levels.
Level 1 – Hand feeding kibble from the container on the kennel when passing the kennel regardless of the dog’s reaction. This teaches dogs to enjoy people approaching their kennel and they naturally start to ‘present’ themselves well to prospective owners.
Level 2 – Teaching dogs to be calm when people enter and exit the kennel, including putting on the lead
Level 3 – Teaching basic commands and manners including handling and play
Level 4 – Teaching dogs to walk calmly on a loose lead, even when meeting people and other dogs
The great thing with Open Paw is that everyone can do Level 1 training, even visitors walking round the centre.

At Level One volunteers learn the two most powerful and effective training methods available: Classical Conditioning and Reward Training. Classical conditioning teaches resident dogs to enjoy people approaching their kennel. The dogs progressively form positive associations with people and look forward to them approaching the kennel. The dogs will then be less inclined to bark, lunge, growl, or hide. Kibble is hand fed (or tossed) to the dog regardless of the dogs' reactions. The dogs are not pressured, encouraged, or requested to approach or sit.
Reward training techniques teach resident dogs proper kennel presentation, specifically to sit and shush when people approach. Volunteers approach a kennel, stand outside, observe a dogs behavior, wait until the dog does something they like, and then reward the dog with praise and a piece of kibble. The dog is rewarded for specific desirable behaviors, such as eye contact, friendly approach, sitting, lying down, silence, stopping barking, stopping bouncing, and looking cute.

At Level Two volunteers learn how to desensitise dogs to people entering and exiting their kennels, and to reward the dogs for sitting politely while people enter and exit the kennel and while a collar and leash are attached. Thus the dogs will be much less likely to get overexcited when potential adopters come to visit, walk, and play with the dogs.

At Level Three volunteers learn how:
• To use lure/reward training to teach the dogs basic manners such as to come when called, to sit, to lie down, to stand, and to pay attention.
• To check the dogs safely for sensitive spots and progressively desensitize the dogs to being touched in those spots.
• To teach the dogs not to touch or to take food and toys until instructed.
• To play tug-of-war according to the rules.
• To use play as a reward in training.
• To teach the dogs how to greet people politely.

At Level Four volunteers learn how to walk dogs outside in the real world, and how to integrate training with really big doggy rewards such as sniffing and exploring. The volunteers walk the dogs and specifically, teach the dogs how to walk on a loose lead. Mannerly leash-walking impresses potential adopters, and substantially increases the likelihood that dogs will be adopted and walked on a regular basis.