Grant brings dog trainer to Charlotte-Mecklenburg shelter to boost adoptions
by Kara Lopp
Karen Owens expects a lot from her students.
But when they show improvement and are well-behaved they’re handsomely rewarded – with belly rubs and bits of hot dogs.
Owens is a trainer at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care & Control and her “students” are dogs eagerly awaiting adoption. The 35-year-old former school teacher turned certified dog trainer is working at the shelter courtesy of a $40,000, one-year grant from the Petfinder.com Foundation’s Train to Adopt Program. The shelter is one of only four nationwide selected to receive the grant aimed at improving dogs’ mental, emotional and behavioral health to increase their chances of being adopted. Other trainers have been hired through the program in Philadelphia, Tucson and St. Louis.
Since Owens started work Feb. 1, 31 of the dogs she’s trained have been adopted.
As part of the program, Owens – a past volunteer at the shelter – will be teaching staff and volunteers so they can continue training man’s best friend long after the grant ends.
With a master’s degree in special education, Owens taught school for nine years, mostly first graders. Then, about eight years ago, the Concord resident launched her own dog training business, Clever Canine Dog Training. A member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, Owens has worked with prison dog training programs and search and rescue teams in her native Ohio and North Carolina. She has three border collies of her own: Poco, 13; Juno, 8; and Vic, 14 months.
There’s “not much” difference between teaching a dog and teaching a young child, Owens said, noting success with both hinge on repetition and positive reinforcement.
“I’m a teacher. I’ve learned that I’m a teacher whether I’m working with kids or with dogs,” she said. “You’re learning how to shape behavior. The two careers are very similar in nature.”
A former volunteer at the shelter, Owens said she’s thrilled to be working alongside pooches in need.
“It’s the opportunity to give these dogs the skills they need to make them successful in a home,” she said. “Life is stressful living in a shelter, so giving our animals mental stimulation is extremely important. Stress manifests itself as jumping and spinning and more. When people see a dog doing that in the kennel they think ‘I don’t want to adopt that dog.’ With training, they learn that calmness gets them attention.”
That was the lesson 1-year-old Buddy, a yellow lab mix, was learning at the shelter last week. During a training session with Owens, the pooch – who came to the shelter March 13 after his owner gave him up – was eager for the treats Owens held in her hand and started acting up. But to get the treat, Buddy had to learn that he needed to sit first.After the lesson, the two sat in the grass outside the shelter, basking in the sun. Just spending time with the dogs outside the confines of a kennel is necessary, too, Owens said.
“The program is not just the training but at least 20 minutes of human contact and connection. Sometimes that can mean just taking them outside and sitting,” she said. “I think it’s important for them to have that people connection.”
That’s what led Charlotte-resident Yolanda Butler to the shelter. A volunteer since January, she walks dogs on Saturdays and enjoys being able to spend time with them outside their kennels. In fact, one of those regulars came home with her Friday, March 18.
After convincing her boyfriend, Kenneth Myrick, the couple needed a pet, Butler adopted Bear. The 2-year-old chow mix was a stray who came to the shelter Dec. 22 after being transferred from the Humane Society of Charlotte.
He was Owens’ most tenured pupil.
Calling Bear a “sweetheart,” Butler admits that when she first met him he wasn’t the easiest pooch to work with. Owens’ training changed him dramatically, she said.
“Before, you would go in the kennel to put a leash on him and he’d be jumping and causing trouble. It was really hard to get that leash on him. After training, he would sit down for you to put the leash on.”
And if his new demeanor wasn’t enough, Owens taught Bear a trick to win over any heart. On the command “Are you sleepy?” Bear will lay down, his head between his paws and look up at you with adoring eyes.
“I thought that was so cute,” Butler said, adding Bear showed the trick to her boyfriend when he got home.
And Bear, it seems, has now realized he’s found a forever home.
“On Saturday we went out in the car on errands. You could tell he was just taking everything in; it’s like he’s seeing the world for the first time,” Butler said. “We went to Freedom Park, I brought him a blanket and water and he sat there and just people watched. He just seemed so relaxed.
“On Sunday I was laying on the couch and he was beside me on the floor, he just slept all day. I told my boyfriend ‘It’s probably the first good night’s sleep he’s had,’” she said. “He just seemed so at peace.”