At ACCT Philly we do our best to care for every animal that comes through our doors, doing as much as we can so that they can quickly find their forever home! That’s why we reached out to the training and behavior experts at Opportunity Barks.

Owner and Training Director of Opportunity Barks, Leigh Siegfried, met with our volunteers to better equip them in caring for shelter dogs. The training included various exercises and techniques proudly utilized by OpBarks, that focus on respect , trust, and positive reinforcement to create effective communication between dog and handler; these techniques help to teach dogs foundation behaviors that make it easier for the dogs to relax and think so they can solidify skills.

The topics most concerning to the volunteers and which Leigh covered in the workshop included decreasing arousal in kennels, addressing arousal rather than training over it or around it, conditioned relaxation exercises for the dogs, training and toys for engagement exercises and work, and working on sustained skills that will transfer into a home environment. When dealing with shelter animals, it is important to deal with the arousal, agitation, and frustration created by their unnatural—and therefore stressful—environment.

The “scent work” that Leigh conducted in the workshop, she explains, “is a great way to enrich a dog at a shelter setting because it allows the dog to focus on something that is natural to them—using their nose to find things.” The scent work was conducted using several boxes spaced out on the floor, one of which contained food for the dog to sniff out. During the search for a food box, a dog may get distracted by something else, in which case a volunteer would kick one of the boxes or otherwise bring the dog’s attention back to the search. Exercises like this create opportunities for the dogs to do normal dog things, which help them relax, in an abnormal environment. She says, “Giving them access to do things that are normal behaviors increase serotonin and make dogs happy—increasing quality of life for the dog(s).”

Leigh explains this relaxation-learning approach further, saying, “We focus on teaching a primary skill set that first works on addressing their emotional control and teaching them to relax. Secondly, that works on teaching them to engage with people. On top of this foundation any skill can be learned!”

The volunteers witnessed the dogs’ learning with an impulse-control game, known as “the Yo-Yo game.” In this exercise, Leigh and the volunteers ask a dog to hold a position–the easiest position being sitting. After asking them to sit, a handler holds their hand over the dog’s head, close to their nose (with treat in hand of course). If the dog jumps, the handler removes their hand and responds with a simple verbal cue such as “no”. After removal of their hand the dog usually sits back down, in which the handler brings their hand in front of the dog’s view again. The goal of this exercise is to get the dog to commit to sitting or holding a position for several seconds, as they will realize with repetition that jumping makes the treat go away.

Relaxing the dogs so that they can reach a state of learning or creating an environment that is more relaxed is essential to teaching emotional control, which dogs will use to naturally calm themselves with their handler later on in their stay at the shelter. While ACCT Philly initially sought out such a workshop to educate and increase the volunteers’ skills, the exercises Leigh practices in her workshops are designed to educate and increase the skill set of the dog just as much.

Thanks so much Leigh for boosting the skills of both the ACCT Philly volunteers and dogs!

Check out the following videos from the workshop!