Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle says she is trying to get more animals to private shelters and rescue groups prepared to invest time and expertise in helping them.
There was a husky that hawkishly guarded its food and a chihuahua that three times wouldn’t allow a veterinarian near enough to it for a routine vaccination or exam. There was a stray dachshund labeled aggressive and unsafe and a Labrador retriever mix that became agitated when handled by staff.
The dogs had varied pasts — some were strays, some were pets handed over by their owners. One had nipped at someone before coming into the office; another was described as low energy.
All were of generally gentle breeds, and all were killed at the discretion of the Lucas County dog warden’s staff after failing to pass an evaluation that tests the criteria deemed necessary for adoption. They join hundreds of others that met the same fate this year.
Many of those dogs could have become good family pets if someone had put in the time and proper training to break them of their bad habits. But that hasn’t happened at the county pound, and it’s not likely to.
Officials cite numerous reasons why behavior modification, as the specialized training is called, isn’t feasible at the Erie Street dog pound. Instead, Dog Warden Julie Lyle is reinvigorating an effort to get more of those animals to private shelters and rescue groups that are prepared to invest time and expertise in retraining them.
Part of that responsibility will go to a new position. Ms. Lyle is seeking a certified professional dog trainer to be the pound’s behavior technician. Among that person’s other duties will be teaching the dogs basic manners, training staff and volunteers, conducting the behavioral evaluations, and designing an enrichment program to keep dogs in Ms. Lyle’s care from mentally deteriorating under the stresses of living in cages.
The position was posted for the union last week, where it will stay for seven days. If no qualified applicants come forward from within the union, it will be opened to all. Pay will start at $16.74 an hour.
Although the person’s training and certification would allow doing behavioral modification training — a more rigorous program that attempts to fix problems such as food guarding or aggression — that work isn’t planned at the county pound.
“It’s not just a question of hiring a single person,” Lucas County Administrator Peter Ujvagi said. “It’s a question of putting an infrastructure in place; it’s a question of expanding the number of holding areas you’ve got; it’s a question of additional space to do the behavioral modification. It’s not that simple.”
Mr. Ujvagi, a longtime Democratic Party officeholder who was appointed to the top administrative post in the county just before term limits would have forced him from the Ohio House of Representatives, has told The Blade in the past that he would not support behavior modification for dogs set to be killed because he felt it was not “sustainable” based on the county budget.
The pound is self-sustaining financially based on dog license and other fees. No general tax revenue is applied to pound operations.
Ms. Lyle’s opposition to behavioral modification training for dogs facing death at the pound seems to be more philosophical. “That’s not my role,” she has said when asked why she won’t use surplus funds to try to retrain dogs to make them available as family pets.
Ms. Lyle and Mr. Ujvagi also have been opposed to open access at the county dog pound, refusing requests by The Blade to witness dog behavior evaluations and the killing of dogs that fail behavioral tests.
A measurement tool
Though a smaller percentage of dogs are destroyed now than under the previous dog warden, many dogs are still killed because they fail the SAFER temperament evaluation performed on all dogs entering the pound. They are put down for something as major as showing offensive aggression toward people or as minor as food or resource guarding.
That frustrates animal advocates, who say SAFER evaluations should be a starting point, not a measure used to decide which dogs die and which live — something that has become standard practice over the years as pounds took on a de facto role of culling animal populations.
Dog Warden Julie Lyle uses a fake arm to test the temperament of a ‘pit bull’ at the dog pound on Erie Street. The dog passed the test.
Although undesirable, food guarding is a natural behavior. Ms. Sadler said Longmont has stopped working with most food-guarding dogs in the shelter, instead telling potential adopters of the problem and offering them help once the dog is in the home; sometimes the problem only occurs in the shelter. Other shelters have had success breaking the habit by giving dogs access to plenty of food.
Ms. Lyle has said some of the dogs in her care with less severe problems could be rehabilitated into adoptable pets but she considers her primary role to be that of protecting the public, not ensuring dogs are retrained and adopted. County officials have also in the past cast off the idea of hiring a behavioral modification specialist, citing cost.
That stance garnered sharp criticism from animal advocates because the office has what appears to be a sizable reserve.
An examination of the warden’s budget shows revenues have risen from $1.4 million in 2006 to $1.9 million in 2010, resulting in a carryover balance of more than $1.1 million going into this year. One reason for the surplus increase is that the county raised annual license fees to $25 starting in 2008. The dog warden is self-funded through annual dog licenses, penalties, and other fees. Through August of this year, the warden has collected $1.35 million.
But the warden is also spending more on what Mr. Ujvagi characterized as a “systematic turnaround of the county dog shelter.” So far this year, the office has added a full-time veterinarian, part-time vet tech, and office manager to the staff.
In 2009, the last full year before Ms. Lyle, the office spent $1.51 million. Last year, Ms. Lyle spent $1.7 million. This year’s spending has outpaced revenue for the first time since 2006, with $1.51 million spent through August. The figure includes a renovated adoption area, an outdoor exercise area, the in-process conversion of a storage room into a surgical suite, and salaries of the new employees. Officials were reluctant to project the total expenses for the year. Several capital improvements are in the works and may not be on this year’s ledger. Still, the year-end balance is likely to be well over $500,000.
But Ms. Lyle said money isn’t the primary reason she isn’t pushing for behavior modification.
“If I thought we were the place to do it, we’d have to look at money, but I just don’t think it would be successful,” she said recently. “I don’t think that’s the key to fixing behavior problems. I think it’s getting them somewhere else where they can be fixed.”
Question of capacity
The warden’s office is now able to hold about 140 dogs. If behavior modification were done at the pound, county officials say capacity would have to increase substantially — Ms. Lyle believes she could quickly fill twice that many kennels if she were to take on that role. She also said a shelter setting leads to other challenges when rehabilitating dogs.
Aimee Sadler, behavior and training program director for the Longmont Humane Society in Longmont, Colo., says the no-kill sh elter offers potential adopters help with training once the dog is in the home.
Instead, it’s the county’s intent to ship more dogs to rescues that can turn them around. An added bonus, Ms. Lyle said, is that many rescue groups rely on foster families who house dogs in their own homes rather than shelters. That gives a better idea of how dogs can be expected to behave in a home, as it can be markedly different from how they act in a shelter. That can allow rescue groups to better characterize a dog’s behavior to interested adopters.
Ms. Lyle said having a behavior specialist, who will be the primary person doing evaluations, will open up time for other staffers and perhaps more important will give the office a better ability to match dogs with the appropriate rescues.
Adding enrichment and getting more dogs transferred to other rescues were among the recommendations of the Lucas County Dog Warden Advisory Committee, and local dog advocates say they will support any change that leads to more adoptions and fewer dogs killed. But they still question the county’s position to work only with dogs it deems adoptable.
“It’s a tough line to cross. Dogs fail the SAFER because they’re in a crappy environment. It’s tough to say we’re going to test them and the ones that pass we’re going to give some enrichment. But if we provide a better environment and give them [better care] right away, more dogs might pass,” said Jean Keating, founder of the Lucas County Pit Crew and a certified trainer herself.
She doesn’t buy the argument that not having a trainer on site full time would impede changing animals’ behavior. “The vet isn’t there 24-7 and the kennel workers provide good care based on her direction. It would be the exact same thing if they had a trainer. If that person was setting up behavior protocol and working on exactly what [kennel workers] need to do, individuals could very easily carry out the protocol when the trainer isn’t there,” she said. “That’s what they do at other shelters.”
She does, however, like the idea of someone being a salesman of sorts when it comes to transferring dogs out. “If you get a person, whether they’re a behavior trainer or not, and their job is to call area rescues and market dogs at the dog pound, that’s going to work,” she said. “That’s what they need, someone to market the dogs.”
Currently, the chief transfer partner for the Lucas County dog warden is the Toledo Area Humane Society, which received 622 dogs from the county last year.
Executive Director John Dinon said most are ready to be adopted, although it does accept some dogs that have behavioral problems, such as food guarding. “If it is a dog that is kind of on the fence, we will have a conversation about that dog and make a decision based on the individual. Those decisions are a little bit resource-dependent too,” he said.
But both sides say there are kinks in that program. The humane society, whose space is also limited, is reluctant to take on animals whose rehabilitation would take a considerable time commitment.
“We want to save as many animals as we can, including dogs and cats with medical and behavioral problems, but if we take a dog that needs to be here for a month to be adoptable, and our average stay is 10 days, we could have put three dogs through that kennel in the time that dog was here,” Mr. Dinon said.
Having enough space is a challenge for nearly all shelters and rescue groups.
Nikki Morey is the director of Planned Pethood, a Toledo-based rescue that relies on volunteers to foster dogs and cats. Although she welcomes a more robust transfer program for Lucas County, Planned Pethood can take on only as many animals as it has volunteers.
Neither Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle nor County Administrator Peter Ujvagi view behavior modification training as viable. The dog warden says behavior modification is not her role. Mr. Ujvagi says the training is not ‘sustainable’ based on the county budget.
At the same time, the county is looking outside the area.
Mr. Ujvagi said the county, in an effort to reduce the number of dogs it kills, may have to become “much more aggressive” in its search for shelters and rescue groups willing to take problem dogs, including looking outside the state.
A pound of stress
Just because a dog is deemed safe for adoption doesn’t mean it’s destined for a new home right away. The dogs, many of which are strays, often haven’t had basic training and can seem overbearing when they eagerly blitz their potential saviors. Ms. Lyle said the behavior technician, along with volunteers, will help teach dogs basic manners.
That lack of manners can keep dogs at the pound longer, and that isn’t good. Stresses of the pound environment takes a toll on dogs, causing their conditions to deteriorate — sometimes to the point they’re no longer adoptable. That means death.
To prevent that, the behavior technician will set up an enrichment program and work with volunteers and staff members to implement it. Things as simple as softly playing different types of music or using different scents throughout the kennel can help break the monotony for the dogs. Other examples might include taking a German shepherd — a breed that particularly struggles in shelter settings — to the outdoor play area and scattering its food on the ground, allowing it to hunt for its meal.
“That’s a natural behavior, and anything we can do to engage their natural behavior and let them use their ability, that’s going to keep them saner,” Ms. Lyle said, noting that all of these efforts should reduce the average length of stay.
The behavior technician also will oversee follow-up calls to people who have adopted animals. Volunteers will inquire how well the dog has adjusted to its new home and be able to either refer questions to the behavior technician or to a local private trainer.
Ms. Keating, the local advocate, said that’s an important and valuable tool. “If you can stop the problems before they develop into make-it-or-break-it situations, you can stop a lot of animals from being returned,” she said.
Continuing that community outreach, Ms. Lyle said she envisions the behavior technician holding public seminars on topics such as crate training or house-breaking in an effort to keep more dogs in homes.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.
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