A Shelter Story – CARAT

From my Canadian friend & fellow trainer Catherine Thomas, an interesting look at the value of CARAT in animal shelter placements. Enjoy – Suzanne

A guest post by Catherine Thomas

My introduction to CARAT was many years ago when Suzanne started to introduce it to trainers. It held an immediate appeal for me, which has continued to grow as I deepen my understanding of this assessment tool. Over the years, I have been working to grasp its subtleties and have come to see CARAT as useful tool in every interaction I have with dogs. As I continue to hone my observation skills, I constantly find myself pondering traits and thinking about how they fit together.

Over the past eighteen months, I have worked quite closely with my local shelter, (the Charlotte County SPCA, in St Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada), to improve our assessments of dogs and to place them in appropriate homes for each individual dog. I have a partner in crime in this work in my friend Gail Flaherty. She spends countless hours talking to people about what they are going to do with their unwanted animals, transporting dogs, caring for dogs when they come into the shelter, running the shelter FaceBook page … the list of all that she does, well it’s endless and all on a voluntary basis.

About ten months ago, Gail and I began to hatch out a better system for matching dogs with people. We had our first big success in September when we placed an older lab shepherd cross in a family home with two very sweet, busy toddlers. The family had been traumatized over the summer when they adopted a dog from another shelter, who clearly was not a suitable match for a family with small children. I asked them for a detailed description of what their ideal dog would be. I received a very long thoughtful email. I’ll be honest, when Gail and I read it, we did not think a dog who fit this description would turn up. Within several weeks of our initial discussion, a dog did arrive. She didn’t look great, her coat was mottled from some sort of allergic reaction, she needed to shed a few pounds and she was definitely a little stiff in the rear end, but it was evident immediately that she was a pretty special dog – a grand dame!

It was clear when we met with the family and introduced them to Lucy that she thought the kids were quite her cup of tea. She lay at someone’s feet during our meeting time and her eyes sparkled with contentment as she listened to all the bustling humans. We certainly could have made this match without CARAT, but without the tool, we would have been saying vague things like, “she is a nice dog”, “so friendly and sweet” instead of – “did you notice her social use of space? She was so appropriate, always choosing a spot to snooze right at someone’s feet” or, “isn’t it lovely how biddable she is, always checking in with someone and asking what can I do for you now?”

The feedback from this family has been glowing. Several months ago, they approached the shelter about adding in a second dog. Gail placed Tasha in their home – a dog who had been languishing in another shelter for months, overlooked perhaps because of her age. She is a spry five year old. Once again, beyond the obvious assessments, good with cats/other dogs, humans of all sizes, we found ourselves talking in terms of arousal, confidence, social use of space. CARAT provided us with a way to frame our conversations and to “see” the dog in a far more complete and useful way.

I finally did CARAT 1.1 with Suzanne in September of last year and was very pleased by the way my understanding of the traits was starting to fall into place. Gail and I continued to talk about observable traits and to carefully match people and dogs all through the fall and winter months.

About a month ago, an amazing story began to unfold. A woman called Anne phoned the shelter inquiring about adopting a dog for her family. Anne has a two and a half year old child with some pretty substantial special needs. The shelter suggested that Anne contact me. It turned out that Anne had actually come to me for dog training with her first dog many years ago. I remembered Anne as having exceptionally good natural training abilities. She is very interested in dog training. We talked on the phone for a long time. I asked Anne to write to me about what she was looking for in a dog. Once again, it was a long and pretty daunting description. Gail and I were pretty skeptical that we could match Anne and her family with a “just right dog”.

I sent Anne off to meet the first family, initially thinking that a dog like Lucy or Tasha would be the ideal match. Anne met the dogs and commented that although they were lovely, she thought she would like to have a dog with more “spark” than Lucy or Tasha – who are both, in CARAT terms, about as midline as you are going to get.

Mentally, I started to create a picture of the dog I wanted to find for Anne. I wanted an active dog who was a natural retriever, who was biddable, confident and who did not go into high arousal. Oh yes, and I needed a dog who did not have tactile or noise sensitivities. I did not write down a profile but I did begin to map out in my mind what Anne’s dog would “feel like”. One tremendous animal!

Several weeks ago, Gail asked me to come to the shelter to assess a dog. I drove into the parking lot and saw Gail coming down the road working hard to not be towed by a gorgeous black and tan Rottie cross. I have no way of explaining it but I fell instantly in love with that animal. He had just come in to the shelter and was driving everyone a little nuts with his high energy and “enthusiasm”. I spent all of five seconds with him that day but drove away knowing that if there had been room in my house for another dog, he would have come home with me.

Over the course of the next few days, Gail sent me pictures and videos of the big black dog. He morphed seemingly overnight into a dog the staff loved. He quickly revealed that he was a natural retriever. He started to learn how to sit and to walk nicely on the leash. By Wednesday, a crazy notion filled my mind. Could this be the dog for Anne and her family? I sent an email off to everyone. I hedged my bets, saying that I would like to set up a meeting BUT that this dog might not be a fit at all.

Unfortunately, we do not have much in the way of video from that first meeting, which really was a very accurate snap shot of who beautiful Bo is. What excited Gail and me was, that thanks to a rudimentary understanding of CARAT, we were able to nail down what was so clearly RIGHT about this fit, using precise language as we observed and discussed Bo’s behaviour. Gail noted that he was completely unfazed when Nathan’s Dad, Freddy, entered the tiny shelter reception room with Nathan in his stroller. As I talked with enthusiasm to Anne and Freddy, Bo lay at my feet watching anyone who was speaking with keen interest. When we took him out to play ball, he eagerly retrieved and maintained a steady level of arousal. He was confident, social and willingly engaged with all us.

Bo has been in his home for a couple of weeks now. He is only fourteen months, which means that a long life of companionship stretches ahead of Bo, Anne, Freddy and Nathan. Anne has already taught some new skills and can hardly believe how rapidly Bo picks up on training. She keeps saying, “he must have been trained by his first owner” … Nope … he was running at large most of his early days. Anne and I hope he will evolve into something of a service dog for Nathan. He has already blessed us with his presence in more ways than we can fathom.

Fast Forward to today July 4th, 2014, one year after I wrote this blog. Gail and I are sitting on my kitchen floor with three of my dogs and our newest shelter addition. Her name is Chloe, she is about twelve weeks old. Chloe came today from a very busy shelter in Northern New Brunswick. She will stay with me until we find the perfect match for her. She is one AWESOME little girl … a busy, social, bold as brass puppy. We would like you to know that since we started talking traits using the ideas Suzanne teaches in CARAT not ONE dog has been returned to the shelter for behavioral reasons. We are pretty proud of that. We both love dogs so very much. We just to help as many of them as can to have wonderful lives. We hope to create a survey for owner to help as to track the success we are having with CARAT. If you work at a shelter and are interested in talking to us about what we have learned so far, please feel free to get in touch … together we are stronger 🙂