In the classroom at the Southold Town animal shelter in Peconic, a 4-year-old dog named Claudia sits calmly, proudly sporting a blue and yellow bandanna around her neck.
Claudia, an orange and white boxer-bulldog mix, is the first graduate of the shelter’s American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen program, which helps dogs develop the social skills they need to be adopted easily and get along with their eventual owners for the long-term. The program started in August.
Dawn Bennett, who runs North Fork School for Dogs in Cutchogue, is a shelter volunteer and has been training several dogs there on good manners.
“As you can see, Claudia is very food-motivated,” Ms. Bennett said. Claudia’s eyes lit up as Ms. Bennett grabbed a handful before demonstrating some of the commands the dog had learned.
Ms. Bennett told Claudia to sit, then walked away from her and waited about 20 seconds. After seeing that Claudia had stayed put, Ms. Bennett gave her a reward.
“She’ll do anything for a treat,” the trainer said.
Claudia first came to the shelter two years ago this month, after she was found wandering the streets of Southold during a blizzard. Ms. Bennett said Claudia had to work hard to overcome her shyness, a personality trait can lead to aggressive behavior.
“Shyness is also fearfulness and they can lash out at humans or other dogs,” she explained.
Ms. Bennett uses “Meet and Greet Strangers” training, the first of the program’s 10 steps, to help the animals overcome shyness. Dogs are taught through a “touch” process that rewards them if they remain calm when sniffed by other dogs or petted.
“They don’t have to like everyone, but they have to learn that they can’t act aggressive,” Ms. Bennett said.
After about two months of Canine Good Citizen training, Claudia took her final exam this week. Ms. Bennett first tested her at the Feed Bag pet store in Cutchogue, where she practiced her “meeting strangers” skills. Then Claudia was tested on walking through a crowd on Love Lane in Mattituck.
“I’m very strict and I don’t just pass the dogs quickly through the program,” Ms. Bennett said. “Claudia didn’t receive any rewards during the exam and she passed with flying colors.”
Three other dogs are also scheduled to take their final exams this month: Pie, a pitbull-hound mix; Kiwi, a stafford-shepherd mix; and Dodger, a 7-year-old shepherd that came to the shelter after being displaced during Hurricane Katrina.
The program’s final step is to teach the dogs to lie down. This is the last step because it places the animal in a vulnerable position and a great sense of trust needs to exist between the animal and the trainer.
“Instead of pushing them down to the floor, we get them relaxed by massaging them,” Ms. Bennett said.
Once the dogs are relaxed, she trains them to lie down by lowering a piece of food to the floor.
Now that Claudia has graduated from the program, Ms. Bennett hopes she will soon be adopted into a loving family.
“When we take her to the park she doesn’t run around and just wants to hang out by a bench,” she said. “All she wants to do is snuggle.”