In 2012, Mike Kaviani was hired to do the seemingly impossible at Austin Pets Alive!. The large, private nonprofit was a key player in pushing the Texas capitol to become no-kill—to save at least 90 percent of all homeless animals. But APA! wanted to touch the stars, to see how close they could get to 100 percent. To do that, the group took in dogs who had landed on the euthanasia list at the city shelter. Some were on that list for medical reasons, but more were on it because of their behavior. They weren’t easy dogs. That’s where Kaviani came in.
The new director of behavior was willing to take up the challenge, but insisted that APA! make a bold move: offer guaranteed behavior support for the lifetimes of the adopted dogs. Since then, APA! has provided free consulting for all adopted dogs who are having behavioral problems in their homes, such as lunging at passing bike riders or hard-mouthing the kids. The behavior staff counsels people over the phone or via email, and in some cases, in one-on-one training sessions at the shelter or in the home.
“To create a successful adoption, some adopters are going to need some help at some point,” Kaviani says. “As much as we get to know our dogs [in the shelter], we don’t have a crystal ball to see how they will behave at home.”
This program does not cover basic obedience, such as teaching a dog to sit or come. Rather, it addresses behaviors that might prompt an owner to return a dog to the shelter. It’s for dogs like Clementine, a chunky yellow Lab who would guard anything on the floor: pen caps, extension cords, you name it, Kaviani says. He and his team worked with Clementine for months, teaching her to go to a mat whenever anything was on the floor. Once Clementine was able to do that reliably, she was put up for adoption and went home with Grace Lentz and her boyfriend. Trainers at APA! taught the young couple Clementine’s cues and how to handle aggression she might display over potential triggers. And then they called them regularly. Two years later, Lentz’s only complaint is that Clementine, at about 60 pounds, is kind of big for a lap dog. Though Lentz fell in love with Clementine at first sight, she admits she might not have adopted the Lab without the shelter’s ongoing support. She grew up with dogs, but hadn’t had one of her own before Clementine.
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“I don’t think I would have felt sure enough of myself if I hadn’t had [them] to rely on,” Lentz says “We could call any time we had a mishap.”
The APA! program also helps dogs who might have been stars in the shelter but developed some quirks once they went home— dogs like Taylor, a big houndy looking mutt who was laid back at APA! and a whiz at training. When an older single man came looking for a sidekick on long camping trips, easygoing Taylor seemed the perfect fit. During their first outing, Taylor eyed a deer and disappeared into the woods. It turned out that the mellow dude had quite a high drive. Although Taylor returned, his owner feared he’d lose him on their next trek. Kaviani worked with the owner, and they trained Taylor to ignore wildlife.
Before coming to Austin, Kaviani worked at the Southampton Animal Shelter in Hampton Bays, N.Y., with Aimee Sadler, who is best known for her pioneering use of large shelter-dog playgroups. While at Southampton, Sadler also initiated a post-adoption behavior support program, which was the inspiration for Kaviani’s in Austin. Sadler joined Southampton in 1998 and within a few years, got the shelter’s save rate above 90 percent. But she still worried that some of the dogs the shelter was euthanizing for their behavior might have succeeded in a home. She had also grown disenchanted with behavior evaluations, increasingly feeling that they were poor indicators of how a dog would fare in a home environment. By following up with adopters, she could not only address problems that cropped up, but could also see if she had been right about placing the dog. Mostly she was. Once in a while, she would find that a dog and owners were a bad fit, and she would have to counsel that the dog be returned.
When Sadler moved to Colorado to start the behavior department at Longmont Humane Society, which takes in about 2,000 dogs annually, she established a similar program. Rhea Moriarity, Longmont’s director of training and behavior, says post-adoption support reverses the traditional shelter model. Instead of working heavily with dogs in the shelter, the behavior department is geared toward supporting them once they’re adopted.
“The shelter environment is such an artificial environment, so we are fixing problems that dogs might never have when they go home,” she says. “We are better off supporting the dogs once they are in the home.”
As in Austin, one of the ways the Longmont program supports dogs is by working with the animal most shelter behavior departments largely ignore: humans.
Moriarity estimates that 80 percent of their work is teaching adopters how to help their dogs. “The point of the program is to give owners the tools they need to help the dog be successful in the home.”
These programs are, without question, labor-intensive and expensive, which is why they have not spread, Sadler says, though she hopes they will. Some shelters have a behavior hotline for people to call for advice, or the staff may check in on dogs after they are adopted and may offer counseling in some cases. But that is far from what Longmont or Austin provides their adopters.
In Austin, a team of six volunteers triages emails and calls from owners, which average about 90 a month. One trainer spends all her time on the program, and Kaviani spends about half his time with it. Kaviani says all the work is worth it for a long list of reasons beyond helping the dog, such as building a community of informed dog owners.
“It helps us keep a more balanced view of the public, because we do have a notion in our industry that people suck,” he says. “We see the amount of work people will do for their dogs.”
Kaviani has also learned more about what owners consider serious problems. For APA! adopters, the top two are leash reactivity and territorial behavior. People want to be able to walk their dogs on leash easily and have their friends over without worrying that their pet will nip them. Separation anxiety, he says, is a distant third. He rarely gets calls about resource guarding, a behavior many shelters work long and hard to curb and sometimes will euthanize a dog for.
When Kaviani joined APA! in 2012, Austin broke the 90 percent mark, making it the largest no-kill city in the country. Last year, the city saved 99 percent of its dogs. There are many reasons for that, but Kaviani says those numbers would be impossible without the adoption-follow program. That’s the best way for the Clementines and Taylors of the world to find homes and stay in them.