Special Report: Good Dogs, Bad Start

Taylor Holt
July 26, 2017 10:42 PM

Meet 7-year-old Shiloh.


"He's very laid back," said his owner Ethan Larson, holding the pup.

Under the little Chihuahua's fur, there were big obstacles he had to overcome. 

"He came to the shelter in April of 2014," Larson said.

He was one of many dogs that came from a rough background with clear-cut behavior issues.

"He was abused," said Larson. "He was a little shy, timid and afraid of men." 

Three weeks later, Larson ended up adopting Shiloh, but working at a shelter he knew Shiloh needed more. About the same time, the shelter was getting ready to launch a unique behavior modification program called Mod Squad. 

"He was one of the first four that was in the program," said Larson.

He was also one of many success stories to come out of it. But the journey wasn't easy. Shiloh's case took time.

"The volunteers were training him. I was basically was doing some human interaction and socialization," Larson said.

So how does Mod Squad work? First, it's completely volunteer-run. Second, each dog has a training plan designed specifically for their needs.

"It's not a class," said Larson.

The first to use the method was a Wisconsin shelter. A behavioralist trained volunteers on the techniques. Now, Great River Rescue in Bemidji is one of only three shelters in the country using it.

Every dog that comes in gets a physical assessment, and other issues are identified. 

"The issues are wide-ranging from timidness and food aggression, to dog on dog aggression, dog on person aggression," said Larson. "The ones that have more severe behavior issues we recommend be in the program." 

For Shiloh, the biggest thing was overcoming his fear of men. 

There are 12 exercises each dog does. For example, for food aggression - one activity's called "Drop it, Leave it". If a possessive dog has a piece of food in it's mouth or on the floor in front of them, the volunteer trains the dog to leave it and the animal is rewarded with a treat.

For Shiloh's timidness, "Treat and Retreat" was used to build trust. That's when the volunteer will walk past a dog's kennel with treats in their hand. The goal is to get them to react.

The volunteers aim to work with the dogs 4 to 5 times a week for 20 to 30 minutes. 

It takes patience and repetition.

"It could take a week or two weeks or three weeks or a month," said Larson.

After two and a half months, Shiloh reached his milestone.

"He's very well socialized," said Larson.

Shiloh is now inspiration for others still on track. Currently, two dogs are in Mod Squad - one is 5-year-old Lola. The high-energy pitbull has been in the program for a couple months now.

"There's indications in her behavior that show that she's insecure and kind of scared at times," said Larson. "We just work really hard to make her feel secure and safe and calm." 

Part of the goal is keeping her focused, which was her biggest problem. 

"She goes to a point where she's not paying any attention and she's not thinking about what she's doing," said Larson. "She needs to be able to walk down the street and do well."

Eyewitness News took a firsthand look into what she does for at least 20 minutes everyday. It starts with basic commands.

During that part of Lola's training session, the command was to sit. On the first try, the distractions were taking over, and it took her a while to follow the command. After a little more than 30 seconds though, she finally sits.

"And everything is positive reinforcement that we do," said Terri Collyard, Lola's trainer and Mod Squad Mentor, as she gave a treat to Lola for obeying her. 

Perhaps her most important exercise is called Tellington Touch - which is basically switching up the way she is petted. 

"Typically when people pet their dogs you do it very quickly and do it very roughly because we think were playing but we don't want to do that because we actually want to not excite her," said Collyard.

After about two minutes of the petting exercise, a clear difference is seen in Lola. She is calmer and relaxed.

"Eventually, they'll just kind of lay down and decide this is awesome, and this is what we want to see happen," Collyard said. 

This activity also gets her more comfortable with being touched in sensitive places.

"She has had injuries to her rear pad they had gotten sliced at some point so she's pretty protective," said Collyard.

Lola has come a long way.

"When we first started working with her, I would not sit on the ground beside her and do Tellington Touch because she would have probably jumped up and head butted me," Collyard said.

That same transformation has happened in 66 mod squad dogs that have been adopted.

"I like to say they graduate the program," said Larson.

"We have engaged a lot of those dogs that would have been are long term dogs," said Collyard. 

Average stays have been cut in half - from a year to six months, but the work remains challenging and the problem dogs keep coming in.

"Another dog that we had last year came out of a hoarding situation and he didn't have any socialization skills. No training," Larson said.

Training doesn't have to stop though once adopted.

"We share a lot of the scripts we use for the training directly with the adopters so that they're not reproducing the wheel," said Collyard. 

The result, dogs are staying in homes permanently, and that's the hope for Lola.

"Being in the kennel is very hard on them, very hard on them and so we'll just continue to work with her until she finally does get adopted. Hopefully soon, I always hope for that," Collyard added.

Shiloh still continues his training, but for now he is making the most of his title.

"He is our Mod Squad Ambassador," Larson said.

For Larson, the most rewarding part is seeing the countless hours volunteers put in pay off.

"They are basically on the front lines of training these dogs and they do the hard work," said Larson.

The biggest reward is seeing the ultimate goal reached...turning a bad start into a good dog and new beginning.

"We want them to find a loving and happy and forever home," Larson. 

If you would like to get involved in helping save these dogs or want to learn more about Mod Squad, you can join Great River Rescue's website.

Other success stories: 

Woodtick is a two-year-old Pit Bull Terrier. He had a lot of medical issues, didn't like other animals and had aggressions issues. Woodtick started in the Mod Squad program on April 25th and spent two months in program. He was adopted on June 23rd. A loving family looked past his medical issues and had room in their hearts for him to find his forever home.

Butter is a five-year-old Terrier mix. Butter arrived at the shelter in January of 2016 from a hoarding situation. He had no socialization and no training. He had trust issues, was scared of everyone, and struggled with timidness. One of the Mod Squad volunteers took Butter under his wing and worked with him almost daily for six months. First, he got Butter to trust him, then worked from there on his other issues. Butter was adopted in June 2016 to a very loving family. 


Taylor Holt

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