The Santa Fe Animal Shelter Helps Keep Fido Happy | - March 12, 2012

"The Santa Fe Animal Shelter's team helps reduce the stress of taking home a new dog..."

It’s no secret that Santa Fe’s animal shelter is a point of pride, a testament to the fact that we take our animals very seriously in this town. But in the last year, there’s been a new development. While the staff at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society have always been helpful and supportive about making sure you and your new canine friend are a good match, now the behavior department is new and improved. There’s a whole team of them to make sure that once you get Fido home, the two of you stay happy.

“We’re trying to keep dogs out of here,” says Suzanne Fuqua, director of behavior and training at the shelter. That means if you’re not happy with the dog you’ve adopted, he just might end up back at the shelter. “We work hard to get animals back to their owners. People call when they’re at the end of their rope. We want people to call when the behavior is merely annoying.” 

On a recent Sunday visit to the shelter (and yes, Fuqua often works seven days a week), a handsome young lady named Shortcakes, about 11 months old, was lounging in her crate in Fuqua’s office, back for a little tune-up in her coping skills. “She was destructive when she was left alone,” said Fuqua. “She’s an adolescent, so it could be that she’s bored or it could be separation anxiety. Separation anxiety happens right away when the owner leaves – it’s very intense, things get broken, the furniture gets chewed. ” In fact, there were a few dogs back for similar reasons.

That doesn’t mean they’re bad dogs, however. It just means that they get scared and anxious when they’re left alone in a new place. They’re like children that way, says Fuqua. “I think it’s much how we feel when we get anxious.”

There are a number of reasons for separation anxiety, but a key one happens because of simply being at the shelter. From a dog’s point of view, it’s traumatic being at a shelter or boarding kennel. Then, even when he happily goes to his new home, his new owner leaves for work the next day. (“What?” thinks the dog. “You’re leaving me alone?!") In fact, much of the work of Fuqua and her team is aimed at trying to reduce the stress of the dogs being cared for at the shelter. Besides Fuqua, her staff includes: behavior and training assistants Anna Yeager, Stephanie Kraynak and Amber Walker; behavior evaluator and training assistants Mo McGarry and Maryann Kos; and dog walkers Maria Pacheco and San Juana Gonzales.

Kentucky-born Fuqua has been in Santa Fe since 1988 and began volunteering at the shelter in the mid-1990s. Formerly an accountant and business manager, Fuqua says she began her path to the dog training world like many people: “I had a difficult dog.” Taking classes and studying to help her Australian shepherd Mickey be the best dog he could be, Fuqua realized she had a knack for it.

Fuqua had found Mickey on the streets and didn’t know he had separation anxiety. In those beginning weeks, when she left him he chewed into the furniture, tore the screens off doors, and even ate one of the car seats. So Fuqua worked with Mickey on crate training, and gave him lots of activity and mental stimulation like teaching him tricks.

“Learning new tricks can give a dog confidence,” Fuqua says. There’s a difference between a dog that’s merely destructive and a dog that has separation anxiety, Fuqua says – not that either one problem can’t be fixed. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all process. “For full-blown separation anxiety, crate training isn’t necessarily the answer,” Fuqua said. It’s a bit of an art form. And that’s why Fuqua often makes house calls.

“Sometimes an owner will want me to come and look at the back yard,” she says, adding that once, when she explained that the corners needed to be blocked off in the yard, the dog was prevented from escaping.

The world of dog training has changed, of course. Many of us have parents who trained dogs decades ago and they still think you’re supposed to drag the dog to the mess he just made, stick his nose in it, and say, “No!” in a very loud voice. “If you do that to a dog, he would probably think you’re unstable,” says Fuqua. “All it guarantees is that the dog will be afraid of you. Or he’ll be afraid of poop and pee, or try to hide when he has to go to the bathroom, or become anxious about peeing and pooping.”

Fuqua says sometimes dog owners will tell her that the dog looks guilty when they come home and he’s had an accident. “That’s because the person has come home and yelled, and the dog is afraid,” she says. “The owner has to realize, `I was gone too long.’ The dog is just being a dog – he can’t hold it.”

The work at the animal shelter includes an initial assessment of every animal. For many dogs, there is no more stressful place than an animal shelter. Many animals have been separated from the life they knew before and now they’re living in small spaces with unfamiliar dogs next to them and cared for by unfamiliar humans.

Fuqua’s team uses negative reinforcement (a la constructional aggression treatment, CAT) and here’s how it works. Let’s say the dog is afraid of people and is sitting in the corner of its kennel space. “I approach, she avoids, turns her head or cowers,” says Fuqua. “So I give her distance. I relieve the pressure, and that’s actually reinforcing.” Gradually, the dog becomes less afraid of people. 

“We reinforce the friendly behavior,” said Fuqua. “Blinking is actually an affiliative behavior. We’re trying to add blinking, head turns, paw movements.” Fearful animals are usually very still, and their eyes remain large, with no movement. Other stress movements include the full-body “shake off” and the “stress yawn,” when the dog yawns not because he’s sleepy or tired. Lip licks are another clue; dogs lick their lips when they’re nervous, saying essentially, “I don’t mean any harm,” says Fuqua.

“We reinforce with relief, not with treats,” says Fuqua, meaning that when the trainers get the behavior they are seeking, they then walk away from the animal. “Our approach is, `Give me something friendly and I’ll leave.’ We don’t even know if they’re conscious of this, but it gives them some feeling of control.”

Of course, she admits that one of their most effective trainings is something called a “drive-by.” Walking by a kennel with a seventh-month-old Doberman mix in it, Fuqua notices that Doppler immediately moves to the back of his kennel. “We walk by and toss in a hot dog,” Fuqua said. “So the appearance of a person becomes a good thing.”

But then Fuqua maintains that the staffers also work behaviorally with cats. And you can’t help asking, “Really? You can actually get a cat to change behavior?” 

Watching Fuqua in action, she explains that she puts a finger at the cage, wanting the cat to approach. “We teach them to come to the finger and then they get stroked,” she says.

But if all this sounds incredibly fine-tuned and tricky, don’t worry: That’s why Fuqua and her staff are there. You just pick the pet. They help with the rest. And as we mentioned, they do occasionally make house calls, if the problem is difficult enough.

To reach Suzanne Fuqua, call 983-4309, ext. 280.

Here are some interim solutions for separation anxiety, from the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society, (until you can reach Suzanne Fuqua, at 983-4309, ext. 280).

  • Consult your veterinarian about the possibility of drug therapy. A good anti-anxiety drug should not sedate your dog, but simply reduce his anxiety while you’re gone. Such medication is a temporary measure and should be used in conjunction with modification techniques.
  • Take your dog to a doggy day-care facility or boarding kennel during the day when you are gone.
  • Leave your dog with a friend, family member or neighbor when you have to be gone.
  • Take your dog to work with you, even for half a day, if possible.