How The Nebraska Humane Society Helps Challenging Dogs

The mission of the Nebraska Humane Society is to “protect, save, and enrich” the lives of animals in the Omaha area. To that end, NHS offers programs such as the Breed Project and the Molly Project. Dawn Thrapp is a behavior specialist at NHS and a trainer for the Breed Project, a program for dogs defined as Pit Bulls under Omaha’s Breed Specific Regulations. The program allows owners to gain a muzzle exemption and acquire Breed Ambassador status for their dog. Christina Ferency is the chief operating officer of the NHS behavior department, which runs the Molly Project. The program is designed to rehabilitate “unruly, reactive, and fearful dogs.” In its first six years, this program successfully placed and kept in homes almost 2,000 dogs that in previous years would have been considered unadoptable.

THE TRAINERS

At the time I started doing this, there wasn’t anyone I knew in this area who wasn’t using all punishment-based methods to attempt to fix behavior, which is a very bad idea, and so I started working with some of the special needs dogs. —Dawn Thrapp

When Dawn first learned of a dog training class, she immediately signed up. She soon became hooked on training and showing dogs. Over the past forty years, she’s worked with various dog training groups including the Companion Dog Club, Go Dogs, and Nebraska Kennel Club. Becoming a behavior specialist at the Nebraska Humane Society has been a natural extension of this work. In her position with NHS, Dawn specializes in aggressive/reactive dogs and helping owners have safer dogs. She also helps owners deal with dogs who have problems when on leash.

Photo from Nebraska Humane Society
Photo from Nebraska Humane Society

While Christina has always known that she’s wanted to work with animals and has been working in the animal field for fifteen years, she started out as a vet assistant and not a trainer. Being a vet assistant provided her with the basic skills needed to handle difficult animals, but at the time she had no idea that she’d end up as a behavior specialist. Ten years ago, she got involved with NHS. After seeing the behaviors of the dogs in the shelter, she knew she’d found her passion. In her position with NHS, the most common behavior issue that she deals with are dogs that are under socialized. According to Christina, “Many of the dogs that come into the shelter are fearful of strangers. Some dogs may act fearful just being in the shelter environment, but many dogs are fearful regardless of their situation.”

Since I’m training my own dogs, I was able to apply what I learned from training conferences immediately. You never stop learning in this field. —Dawn Thrapp

When I asked the two women how they stay current in their dog training, they mentioned attending conferences and seminars, reading training books and magazines, exchanging information with coworkers, and reaching out to other shelters around the country. Both women cautioned that finding qualified dog trainers from can be a challenge. Dawn noted that she “focuses on presenters that have degrees in behavior and ethology, and have experience applying that knowledge.” Three conferences by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conferences particularly excited her, because the speakers were the best dog experts from around the world. Dawn said these experts helped her “better select who to learn from.” Dawn has even attended other seminars and read many books by some of the speakers whom she heard at the APDT conferences.

Seminars and classes by qualified trainers within driving distance are rare. There is a lot of bad information out there. You must do your research very carefully. —Christina Ferency

Photo from Nebraska Humane Society
Photo from Nebraska Humane Society

By training dogs, both ladies have learned a lot about our canine companions, especially about how they see the world and how they communicate. Dawn said that dogs quickly become experts on reading people due to their intuitive nature, but we typically fall short on reading them. Christina explained that if one knows what to look for, the body language of dogs “speaks volumes.” Dogs will indicate when they’re uncomfortable or when they’re happy by the “slightest movement of a tail or a flick of a tongue.” She believes that reading what dogs are saying and then modifying how one approaches or interacts with them based on their knowledge is essential to making progress in training a dog. Dawn added that there are huge differences in how many of the breeds as to how each should be trained.

As is true of many trainers, both ladies have applied their knowledge of dog behavior to their own pets. Christina has grown in her ability to interact properly with her dogs and to have them in turn interact properly with other people. She credits this to having a greater awareness of her dogs’ emotional states in certain situations, which enables her to better modify the interactions of her dogs with people and pets. Especially important is that she’s learned how to keep her dogs out of situations that will make them uncomfortable and potentially lead to a bite. A particularly proud moment for Dawn came when she adopted a six-month old rescue that turned out to be aggressive towards people and reactive to everything, and she was able to get him under control and even do tracking with him.

THE BREED PROJECT

Interview with Dawn Thrapp

What is your role in the Nebraska Humane Society’s breed project?

I’m responsible for identifying the majority breed of the dogs to determine if they’ll be required to follow our specific breeds that have special restrictions. I’ve shown dogs in confirmation and that helps me to understand the physical standards for those breeds.

Why did you get involved?

I was working at a government job when the new Breed Specific Regulations went into effect and was ready for a change. This job fit into my experience.

What does a typical training session look like?

It’ll be different for every situation. I dig deep to understand the possible issues, and what the dog is feeling. I use positive training methods, with no physical punishment, regardless of what the issue is. I use primarily the technique of “shaping,” which lets the dog participate in the learning experience. I work on the dog being responsible for his behavior, to get the benefits out of it for him. I’ve trained dogs for about everything including basic obedience, competition obedience, behavior issues for clients, agility, tracking, confirmation, but I still stay true to how I use shaping and I avoid punishment for all of them.

What are the challenges?

With the owners, the challenge is them having a tough time not using punishment. For the dogs, there aren’t any challenges except my staying very open minded to why the dog is having an issue and how I need to work through it.

THE MOLLY PROJECT

Interview with Christina Ferency

Photo from Nebraska Humane Society
Photo from Nebraska Humane Society

What is your role in the Nebraska Humane Society’s Molly Project?

I’m the Lead of the Molly Project program. I’ve helped the program grow over the last 6 years and I’ve started the Diamond Dog Specialized Adoption program.

Why did you get involved?

Ever since I’ve worked at the shelter, I’ve always been drawn to the animals that are having a tough time here. I have a special way with them and there is no other job I’d rather have.

What are the benefits of such a program?

The Molly Project Program gives dogs more time to adjust to the shelter environment and learn skills that will help them succeed in their new homes. We also provide post adoption support through follow-up phone calls and emails and in-home and free training classes. Every year we’re finding ways to place more difficult animals and to save more lives.

What are the challenges of such a program?

The greatest challenge is finding adopters for these special dogs. Most of the dogs in the program will require little management once in their new homes. Others will require extensive management and need very experienced dog homes. Their new family must be 100% committed to the in-home management plan. Unfortunately, with today’s fast paced society, it is hard to find people who are looking for a ‘project dog’.

Share a memorable moment from the Nebraska Humane Society’s Molly program.

One of the most recent adoptions I handled was for a dog named Tork. When he came to the shelter, he was what we affectionately call a ‘lump’. He was so scared he wouldn’t move from the corner of his kennel. He wouldn’t come to us for treats and, if we approached, he’d try to bite. Tork wouldn’t walk with us on leash either. He wasn’t interested in other dogs. These are characteristics we typically see in the fearful dogs but Tork was a little different. Usually after a few days in the shelter with patient staff and with volunteers working slowly with the dogs, the dogs will make some type of improvement—even if it’s just a tail wag or eating a treat. Tork was making no progress after being in the program for a week. Because he’d received such a great write up from his previous home, we gave him some extra time to come around. After two weeks, he finally showed some improvement. And within three weeks, he was greeting new people, playing with toys, and enjoying the company of other dogs. What a great turn around!

Every dog is different and some need more time than others. If one method does not work, try something else. —Christina Ferency

How many graduates are there per year on average?

On average, we adopt out between 300-400 dogs from the program each year.

CONCLUSION

I asked both ladies what advice they’d offer to those who might aspire to train animals. Both stressed the importance of obtaining one’s training from a dependable source. Dawn advised checking the background of experts for their educational credentials and have applied their knowledge to their own animals. Christina elaborated on the importance of this by observing many dogs that come to the shelter have been “ruined by trainers that their previous owner had hired.” Both ladies also highly recommended taking only rewards-based training, and to avoid any training that uses punishment. Christina said that punishment will only result in a dog becoming aggressive or shutting down, and neither is easy to correct once the damage is done. Training should build a bond with a dog, and learning should fun! Finally, the ladies said not to get stuck in rut, and always keep learning about dogs.

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