Shaping Shelter Behavior Begins With the Alpha

Make no mistake about it, behavior in any kind of organization is a big deal. When dealing with the animal kingdom, however, behavior takes on an even more vital role in the effectiveness (and sanity) of the place. The animals in your care, and the people that help care for them, share some common attributes when it comes to shaping better behavior. It all starts with the Alpha — both human and animal.

They need to know you care before they care what you know

Animals have an amazing sense about the people who approach them. Case in point: I was at the veterinarian yesterday to investigate a weird lump on Rocky, one of my ten-year-old Labs (don’t worry … happy ending to that). Our veterinarian is wonderful. She speaks softly, knows when to take charge and starts every interaction with a loving pat on my pup’s head. (Note: If you’ve ever had a Lab as part of your family, you know why I call a ten-year-old dog a “pup.”) I’ve worked with a lot of veterinarians over the years. She’s as knowledgeable as any of them, but she knows how to connect first. She builds trust and my dogs love her. She wins them over first, giving herself permission to do what she needs to do. People are that way, too.

Model the desired behavior

I’m not an animal behavior expert, nor am I a human behavior expert. My knowledge in the behavior arena comes from the School of Hard Knocks. I do know an animal approached aggressively, whether through tone or physical presence, is likely to reciprocate. They feel threatened. Same thing with people. At General Electric, I worked for a guy named Jack Welch — famous for being a tough boss. He really wasn’t that tough, though — he was clear and he was smart. I was a director at GE for a very short time because Jack hated the word “director.” He loved the word “leader,” though, and he changed every director title to leader. His expectation was that we model better behaviors. “Directors direct; they tell you to do things,” I heard him say. “Leaders roll up their sleeves and contribute any way they can. They’re part of the team.” Our folks loved that, and as our Global Web Development Leader, I was expected to contribute — whether that meant writing copy for the website homepage or getting doughnuts for the developers. If you want team players, be one yourself.

Everyone needs a treat every now and then

Acknowledgement and positive reinforcement works. When we took our Labrador retrievers to training, you would have thought a treat company sponsored the class. We gave them treats for everything they did correctly. And you know what? It worked. Despite some pretty delicious-sounding bits of food, I think their favorite treats were recognition and affection. There’s a management technique called “Management by Walking Around.” We recently blogged about it. The idea is to be visible. But it’s more than that — it’s about engaging with your folks, learning about them, helping them. Sharing a laugh with them can be a real treat. You’re telling people they matter and what they do matters. When I owned my own company, I played “Popsicle Man” on a hot day. I ran to a store and bought enough popsicles for the 90 people I was lucky enough to work with. The few dollars spent at the store were really an investment in the happiness of our staff. Months later, my company was named “Best Place to Work in Kansas City.” And while we had a pretty cool work environment and a great benefit program, it was stuff like the popsicles that made the difference.

Empowerment is the ultimate form of trust

Another off-leash park popped up nearby and I made a comment to a friend: “Look at all those empowered dogs.” The park was filled with dogs — large, small and everything in between. It’s not a foolproof system, because some of the pets in off-leash parks shouldn’t have that kind of trust (more than likely, that’s an owner issue). Likewise, not everyone in an organization should have full empowerment, either. But being a fan of sayings, I heard someone once tell me “you don’t get a dog and then bark for it.” A nicer way of putting that would be “hire experts and trust them.” Jack Welch, my GE boss, was great at this and, believe it or not, was one of the humblest people I’ve ever been around. He had a policy of “hiring smarter than yourself.” In a leadership meeting, I heard him take it a step further when he told someone “I disagree, but you are the expert and it’s your call.” Put experts in the right positions and then empower them.

Consistency matters — a lot

Whenever someone tells me how they react to something “depends on the situation,” one of my eyebrows instinctively goes up. That’s not to say situations might require differing approaches, but there’s something to be said for consistency and being predictable when entering a room, engaging in a conversation or initiating any kind of interaction. When dealing with an animal, predictability is a good thing. Again, I’m not an animal behaviorist, but I’d bet they don’t like to be surprised. If they know how you approach them, the comfort level is already on the right path. Same thing with staff. If staff knows there is no such thing as “situational ethics,” that you’re going to seek to understand, that you work toward finding common ground and coming together to solve issues, then the comfort level is on the right path.

How each of the living, breathing inhabitants in an animal shelter behave sets the course for the happiness and health of everyone. Finding common ground and consistently applying simple lessons goes a long way to shaping a better shelter environment.


Tom Tholen

Tom Tholen is SAWA's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Development. The SAWA member has served as President of Companion Channel, a cloud-based digital screen media service that streamed into partner shelters. Tom is perhaps best known in the animal welfare industry as the former President & Chief Marketing Officer for Callahan Creek, which was the agency of record for Hill’s in the early days of their shelter program. Over the years, he has worked for several agencies, as well as major corporations including Hallmark, Sprint and General Electric. A Colorado native, Tom received his BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he lives with his family in the Kansas City area.


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