Some dogs come to the Humane Society cowed and fearful. Volunteers like Edie Shumaker coax them out of their shells.
Blue, a 4-month-old husky, Chesapeake and Lab mix hunkers against a hallway wall, tail slung low, too afraid even to eat an offered doggie treat. Southwest resident Edith “Edie” Shumaker ladles on the courage-boosting praise.
“Good dog. Isn't he the best? Oh, you're a fine fellow. … Such a good boy,” she says, cheering him on at the slightest sign he is taking an exploring step.
Blue's owners brought him to the Golden Valley-based Animal Humane Society. Apparently, he didn't make the sled dog team cut, Shumaker said. Further, the poor pup was too skittish and overwhelmed by his new surroundings to go to the adoption pen. Going to a new home right away would have been very hard on Blue, as well as on Blue's new family.
This is where Shumaker comes in. She and two dozen other volunteers work with dogs like Blue to get them ready for adoption, helping them overcome their inherited shyness, the stress of being in an unfamiliar place or, in some cases, abuse.
Shumaker, an energetic and upbeat 74, is no ordinary volunteer. She has logged nearly 20,000 hours at the shelter - approaching the equivalent of 10 years' full-time work. She started at the shelter in 1990, and was one of the three volunteers who helped launch the “Ad Prep” (Adoption Preparation) Program in December 1992, with the guidance of consulting veterinarians, Dr. Robert “R.K.” Anderson and Dr. William Maher.
Since then, the program has helped put some wag back on more than 3,000 dogs.
“I was the only one with the calendar in my pocket, so that is how I ended up scheduling people and training the other volunteers,” Shumaker recalled. And she has no plans to stop. “I enjoy it. I think I am doing something valuable.”
The Sullivan Ballou Fund recognized Shumaker on Nov. 10 for her work at the shelter with a $1,000 no-strings grant, noting she had also volunteered at Meals on Wheels and had served on the board of the Minneapolis Council of Churches, and is “largely responsible for starting the Canine Adoption Preparation Program.”
(Shumaker has some ideas on how to spend the money but hasn't decided yet, she said.)
Hennepin District Court Judge Bruce Peterson and his wife Elissa created the fund to recognize ordinary community members doing outstanding things. Past winners include Sister Katharine Rossini, principal at Carondolet Catholic School; Richard Amos, who works at St. Stephen's Shelter in Southwest's Whittier neighborhood; and Fulton resident Tom Omodt, who works at the Edina Lunds.
Shumaker grew up on “a little bit of everything” farm in the Iron Range's Itasca County. Her family raised potatoes, hay, livestock and more, and she always had animals as a kid: “Dogs, cats and I remember I did have one pet turkey,” she said. “We got fond of some of the calves.”
She worked as a medical technologist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital for 35 years. She lived alone, worked long hours and thought if she had a pet, it would be too lonely. “I was looking forward to doing some kind of volunteering with animals when I retired,” said Shumaker, who lives in the CARAG neighborhood near Lake Calhoun.
Shumaker walks by the Humane Society's first floor adoption pens with a reporter, pointing out the dogs that have gone through Adoption Preparation. Today, there are five, including Mister, a 9-year-old cream-colored Chinese Foo. The sign on his cage reads: “Owner is ill and cannot care for him.”
The program isn't to train the dogs or fix them, Shumaker said. It does give them confidence to handle new environments and make it more likely they will get adopted.
A treat arsenal
Shumaker volunteers five days a week, and the hours vary, but typically she puts in a six- to eight-hour day, she said. She spends much of her time in the Humane Society's basement, a part of the shelter most visitors don't see. That is where Blue and other dogs in the Ad Prep program live.
On any given day, the program could have anywhere from two to 12 dogs, Shumaker said. Holiday weekends are busy. “It seems to be a turning point in people's lives, and so our numbers will rise also.”
Pictures of recently adopted alums hang on the wall in a small Ad Prep room. The chalkboard has an inspirational quote from veterinarian and behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman: “In my practice, I work on the basic principal that pets are as emotionally invested as we are, experiencing anger, fear, boredom, loneliness, jealousy and other sophisticated emotions,” it reads.
The room has a wide variety of dog treats that people have donated, such as Pup Corn and Chewrific. “What we use a lot is chopped up wieners,” Shumaker said. “The small dogs tend to like animal crackers.”
Blue is ready for adoption, but he is still showing signs of nerves common among dogs in the program. Shumaker does not want to show visiting journalists the newer Ad Prep dogs. They are simply too afraid, especially with a photographer present.
“A camera - it's a big eye and we don't make eye contact,” Shumaker said.
Blue is in Kennel J. Shumaker approaches Blue sideways, which reduces the perceived threat. She is careful not to lean over him, avoids eye contact and keeps a lowered profile. She puts on the gentle leader. He goes to the back of the cage and does not want to come out.
It takes alternating gentle tugs and effusive praises to get him moving.
Dog psychology 101
Once in the familiar hallway, Blue gets a bit more confident. Still, he sticks to the wall, tries to make himself smaller, ears back, tail low. Shumaker urges him forward and he hides behind her legs.
She watches his body language. One foot comes up. It is a sign of appeasement, she said. If the ears come forward or the tail comes up, or he starts exploring, that's a good sign, worthy of praise.
Blue makes tentative forays to smell a reporter and photographer, accepting a few pats and scratches. Then retreats and returns again.
If dogs such as Blue fear something - a strange man or even an unfamiliar cart - volunteers start far away, then bring the dog nearer, stopping before the dog has the fear reactions. It's a technique called “desensitization,” Schumaker said. It's a slow process. Volunteers watch body language, backing off and approaching again, gradually trying to get closer each time.
“The other thing that we use along with that is counter-conditioning,” she said. “That is to make something good happen in the presence of this scary thing.”
In simple terms, the dog gets lots of treats and praises when the scary thing shows up, whether man or cart. The treats are small - enough to be a treat but not so much the dog gets full.
Shumaker said the turning point comes when the dog sees the once scary-thing and looks to the volunteer for a treat. Dogs might need 10 minutes of Ad Prep, or up to 13 hours. Volunteers typically work with dogs 15 minutes a day.
She recalled one chocolate lab named Gracie, a dog so scared she would go to the back of the kennel run and lie in the gutter.
In July, the shelter got a letter from Gracie's new “person.” “She is still a little timid, but she has come a long way,” it read. “Gracie likes to ride in the car although at first she was hesitant about getting out. She is much better about that now and jumps right out when we take her to the ‘doggie' park.”