AUSTIN (KXAN) — Helping pets settle into their new homes is key — and can be even more of a challenge in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
PAWS Shelter of Central Texas has always been there to help families that adopt new pets. Jyl Hershman-Ross has worked as a trainer with the organization for years. She says every time someone takes a pet home, shelter staff check-in a couple weeks later to make sure the animals are adapting to the change.
“How are things going, do you have any issues, do you have any questions? They just want to make sure everything’s alright,” she said.
Any issues reported during those check ins used to send Hershman-Ross to people’s homes for one-on-one training sessions. When COVID-19 began to spread, social distancing requirements and safety concerns forced her re-evaluate how she helps families. Now, she hosts training sessions on Zoom.
“I’m not the most digitally-advanced human being,” she joked during a Zoom call, “but I can do this.”
Previously, the training sessions were available to adopters who took pets home from PAWS Shelter of Central Texas as part of their PAWS Up program. But the transition to technology that came with the COVID-19 pandemic also allowed Hershamn-Ross to help more people. She’s started hosting free happy hour training sessions on alternate Wednesday nights to anyone who signs up.
“I can’t solve the problems of the world or help you with your extremely aggressive dog in 30 minutes over a Zoom session, but what I can do is give you some basic pointers, hints and suggestions,” she said.
KXAN’s David Yeomans and his dog Panda sat down with Hershman-Ross to get a few pointers of their own.
“We got our sweet Panda here from a different rescue organization less than a year ago,” Yeomans told Hershman-Ross during their Zoom call. “He’s a good boy. But I know we struggle with something that a lot of people maybe struggle with, too, which is that he’s a very high-energy breed, he’s very excitable, and he likes to jump up on us.”
One of the trainer’s suggestions is to expend energy in a healthy way. When it’s too hot to run outside, that could mean exercising dogs’ brains with toys.
“Tiring their brains out tires their body out,” Hershman-Ross said.
Another suggestion: be mindful of the signals you’re giving your pets. They want your attention, and struggle to differentiate between praise and disapproval.
“If you look, or touch, or talk to your dog, you’re rewarding the behavior he’s offering you,” she explained. “When your dog jumps on you and you say, ‘No, no, get down, don’t jump on me,’ you’re saying, ‘Keep jumping on me.’ The idea is that you’ve got to retrain the human because what you naturally want to do isn’t giving you the effect you want.”
Hershman-Ross’ training emphasizes positive reinforcement. It’s reward and emotion based. With that in mind, she said it’s possible to physically correct a jumpy dog without doing any damage.
Over Zoom, she showed Yeomans how to make “house line.” The simple light-weight cord can be attached to a collar or a harness to redirect dogs back to the ground without causing the animal any discomfort.
“If your dog jumps up, rather than saying ‘no, no Fido, get down,’ rewarding the undesired behavior, you can take that line and place their feet on the ground. “
Hershman-Ross explained owners using the “house line” method shouldn’t speak to their pets while redirecting them to the ground. Instead, she said they should wait until the animal’s feet are on the floor before reinforcing the behavior with attention.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just impacted the way PAWS Shelter of Central Texas conducts training sessions. It also forced staff to cancel fundraisers. While the happy hour training sessions are free, Hershman-Ross hopes people who benefit from them will consider giving back.
“My goal personally as a trainer is, I want you to love living with your animal,” she said. “I don’t want training, the cost of training, to be an issue between having a happy life with your pet. Our hope is that you find out what PAWS is doing, and then maybe for some of our upcoming fundraisers, you know things that we’re doing in the future, you pay it forward.”
PAWS Shelter of Central Texas operates two locations. Adopting an animal at their smaller facility in Kyle requires an appointment. Its Dripping Springs location is large enough to safely welcome walk-in guests, but appointments are still encouraged. For more information, or to sign up for a training session, visit its website.