Shelter success stories: Top-notch behavior dept. helps animals find homes

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We are very fortunate here at The Arizona Animal Welfare League and SPCA to be able to have an on-site Behavior Department. Headed by Director Samantha Spinelle, our Behavior Department also has two full-time Behavior Counselors-Erin Quigley and Shawn Fletcher-as well as a number of volunteers. The Behavior Department is able to help the animals in our care, not only as they come in to our facility, but also while they await adoption. The following stories show how crucial that need can be in helping some animals find their forever homes.

HAYDEN: Hayden is a handsome boy who was returned to the care of the AAWL / SPCA on January 30, 2008. As with all the cats here at the shelter, he found himself back in one of our colony rooms with approximately twenty other cats. That can be a stressful situation for many kitties. During one of these times of change, there were a number of new additions to the colony room, Hayden had a tough time acclimating.

In his stressed out state, he began to urinate outside of his litter box. As this is one of the top reasons for returns, our behavior staff quickly stepped in with a plan to get Hayden back on track. The first step was to make sure that Hayden didn't have any medical reasons for not using the box. Then he was moved into the office of the Director of Behavior, Sam Spinelle, where the behavior staff worked at lowering his level of stress and supporting appropriate use of his litter box.

It took several months of patient care and attention, but Hayden finally succeeded and was cleared to return to the cattery. He was eased him into life in the cattery, where the staff worked carefully to maintain stable social dynamics and a calm environment. We are pleased to say Hayden was adopted into his forever family on May 15, 2008.

BILLIE AND WYATT: Billie and Wyatt were first spotted in a kennel at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control on January 10, 2008. These two dogs were so traumatized by recent experiences they were non-responsive and "shut down"; they huddled at the back of their kennel, cringed and remained still as statues. Although they were available for adoption, no one was looking at them. They simply couldn't compete with the other dogs desperately vying for potential adopters' attention.

Billie and Wyatt had run out of time. They were scheduled to be euthanized the next morning. Before that could happen, one of our behavior staff slowly and carefully entered the kennel with them, put their slip leads on, and picked them up in order to take them outside for a behavior assessment. They never moved, allowing their bodies to be manipulated, but never responding. When placed in a person's lap, they sat utterly still and never relaxed, taking no comfort from human contact. They were emotionally shut down. However, we believed that the AAWL / SPCA could give them the second chance they were sorely in need of.

As if it weren't bad enough that they were traumatized, Billie and Wyatt appeared to be seriously under-socialized. All the staff worked on building trust through positive experiences with people, other animals, new places and things.

By being fostered in an office on a daily basis, we were able to bring them in contact with a number of people. Billie and Wyatt slowly came out of their shell. It began with small steps, like the day Wyatt ran up to a staff member, pawed at her, and ran away in play. This small event brought excited hoots and tears to the eyes of everyone watching because we knew what a tremendous breakthrough that one moment was for Wyatt.

Soon Billie and Wyatt blossomed into friendly, loving and playful young dogs. Billie was adopted into her forever family on February 1, 2008 and Wyatt went home on March 14, 2008. Thanks to the efforts of our dedicated behavior department, our wonderful staff and terrific volunteers, these two dogs were given an extra special chance, and it paid off handsomely!