When it comes to rescue dogs, the rule of thumb is that the more shy and anxious a canine is, the more likely it is that potential adopters will overlook it. That’s why one Missouri animal shelter decided to pull out every trick in the book to get more of its dogs into happy forever homes.
The Missouri Humane Society has actually been helping animals for nearly 150 years. In fact, since 1870 the organization has taken in stray animals and worked tirelessly to help find them second chances.
The society’s ultimate goal, of course, is to end pet abuse and animal overpopulation. To this end, it also provides pet obedience and behavior classes as well as spay/neutering programs. And, naturally, the hope is that its animals will eventually form loving relationships with their adopted human families.
However, establishing bonds between humans and our four-legged friends isn’t always entirely straight forward. For instance, many of the animals at the Missouri Humane Society are found abandoned, neglected or otherwise abused. They are, therefore, understandably skittish around people.
“Dogs in a shelter environment exhibit a lot of signs of anxiety and show stress signals,” explained JoEllyn Klepacki, assistant director of education at the Missouri Humane Society, to ABC News. And while the physical marks of abuse are easy to focus on, it’s the mental affects that can often cause longer-lasting problems for animals.
In fact, studies have shown that animals forced to face one consequence or another would rather suffer physical pain than emotional pain. However, there is little currently known about the long-term psychological effects of abuse on animals.
In order to tackle this problem, though, the Missouri Humane Society decided to launch its Shelter Buddies Reading Program. Designed to help nervous dogs build up their confidence, the program has children between the ages of six and 15 come in and provide the dogs story time.
Explaining the idea behind the program, Kelpacki said, “We wanted to help our shy and fearful dog[s] without forcing physical interaction with them to see the positive effect that could have on them. We launched the program last Christmas, but now we offer it once a month.”
Of course, the program is also great for kids. After all, it gives them the opportunity to practice their reading skills out loud. And as for the dogs, it seems that the ingenious idea has been a huge success.
Story time begins with a child sitting in front of one of the kennels and reading whatever book he or she has brought. It’s a win-win situation, as the children practice reading in front of an uncritical audience, and the dogs become more and more accustomed to their presence.
Before they even open their books, however, the children are given training so that they can read the dogs’ body language and understand how a dog might be feeling. This also allows them to stay alert as to how their reading might be influencing their audience.
“These dogs, if you had seen them before the kids sat down, these were the dogs who would stay at the back of their kennel, scared,” Klepacki explained to ABC News. “The goal is to get the dog to come to the front of the kennel by the time they finish their book, or a few books.”
With the reading program, the shelter has seen its dogs make one very critical behavioral change that enables them to get adopted faster. “We know that dogs that approach the kennel front get adopted more quickly, so [the children] are helping these dogs get a home,” Klepacki revealed.
As well as reading to the dogs, the kids are also encouraged to interact with the animals in other ways. For example, when a dog comes closer to the front of the kennel, the child reading to it will provide the canine with a treat. Naturally, this also positively reinforces the pup’s desire to stay closer to the front of the kennel.
“What this is also doing is to bring the animals to the front in case potential adopters come through,” Klepacki explained. “They are more likely to get adopted if they are approaching and interacting, rather than hiding in the back or cowering.”
The program first began in December 2015, and by March it had really taken off. Describing the difference it had made to the shelter, for both the dogs and the child volunteers, Klepacki has said it was “just amazing.”
“I personally love animals. They’re my favorite things in the world,” enthused one young participant. “I think [the dogs] really enjoy it because they’re getting to interact with people,” added another.
And it’s not just nervous dogs that the program is having a positive effect on either. According to Klepacki, the reading scheme has also helped settle high-energy dogs too. “Hearing a child reading can really calm those animals. It is incredible, the response we’ve seen in these dogs,” she said.
Reflecting on the importance of the program, Kelpacki suggested that it helps the young volunteers in many more ways than simply improving their academic skills. “It’s encouraging children to develop empathy with animals. It’s a peaceful, quiet exercise. They’re seeing fearfulness in these animals, and seeing the positive affect they can have,” she said.
So, using tales to get more tails wagging “encourages [the children] to look at things from an animal’s perspective,” Kelpacki concluded. “That helps them better connect with animals and people in their lives.”