A handful of dogs, spread around the grassy expanse of a far East Austin park, sit patiently at the end of their leashes. Some wait for cues from their owners. Most, however, are there with trainers from a new Austin nonprofit, Dogs Out Loud, that aims to find the dogs permanent homes away from area animal shelters.
It’s harder for these dogs, often more than 30 pounds and healthy, to get adopted in part because they don’t handle being cooped up in a shelter very well, and they react by being withdrawn, frustrated or anxious. That can lead to jumping, barking and other behaviors that turn off potential owners.
But Saturday mornings at Richard Moya Park are devoted to fixing those behavior issues, all varied and some worse than others. At one class in late April, the dogs sniffed out treats in small cardboard boxes. They all were able to concentrate long enough to find the treat and expect another in the box, a focus that they might not show in the high-energy environment of a shelter.
Although Austin, through the work of shelters and rescue groups, consistently has been able to save 90 percent of the animals in its care, a certain subset of dogs, lacking aggression or sickness, are still at risk of not making it out of the shelter alive. Five longtime volunteers at animal rescue organization Austin Pets Alive noticed that these dogs, often some of their favorites, were continually skipped over and sometimes labeled “unadoptable.”
“Our city has incredible programs to support nearly all of the vulnerable shelter populations save one: medium to large breed dogs with behavior problems that cannot be addressed in, or are exacerbated by, life in a high-volume adoption shelter,” said Amy Fitzsimmons, one of the DOL founders.
To help these dogs become more adoptable, DOL offers free behavior rehabilitation and training classes on Saturdays at a park with plenty of space for the dogs to go on walks and to feel unthreatened by the other dogs. In the classes, dogs learn basic commands, develop social skills with humans and dogs, and build their confidence levels. Some catch on more quickly than others; the ones slow to respond receive more personalized training. The five founders each have years of experience teaching better manners to these types of dogs.
Eight to 12 dogs participate in each class cycle — four classes, followed by a group hike — including dogs that have been adopted but are acting out in their new homes. That’s another key component to Dogs Out Loud’s mission, said DOL co-founder Jen Germann: to make sure dogs who have found homes stay in them.
“A bunch of (dog owners) are like, ‘We didn’t realize what we were getting into when we adopted them, but we love them and don’t want to give them up, so please help us!’ And obviously we want to provide that resource,” Germann said.
Take Miklo and his owner, Rob Thurlow, for example. Thurlow wasn’t aware when he adopted the 3-year-old mixed breed from APA that Miklo didn’t know how to act around people or dogs. Full of energy, he was too friendly with people and jumped on them in greeting, and too insecure around other dogs. Thurlow and Miklo have made a lot of progress.
At the April class, Miklo sat when Thurlow gave the command and did not launch himself as often at the DOL volunteers who approached. He also remained calm alongside other dogs during walks – signs that the many Dogs Out Loud classes Miklo’s attended have “benefited Miklo tremendously,” Thurlow said.
Other dogs have improved from DOL’s care and attention, too. Latte, a small pit bull mix that has been at APA since last July, grew so advanced with the basics taught at the classes that she started learning how to roll over, a trick she picked up after several tries with Fitzsimmons and a volunteer.
But there’s much more Dogs Out Loud wants to do. Fitzsimmons and Germann, along with co-founders Dawn Morehouse, Ariana Gum and Annie Johnson, have a wish list that includes 10 to 20 acres of land for their own rescue retreat. They plan to build home-like structures where healthy dogs can detox from time in the shelter and work on fixable behavior issues. They’ve just held their first fundraiser, Change for Change, and plan on having many more.
Dogs Out Loud
Established: 501(c)3 nonprofit founded in 2012.
Online: Read more about their mission to save medium-to-large dogs with behavior challenges, part of the ‘last 10 percent’ in the no-kill movement, on the group’s website, www.dogsoutloud.org. Twitter @DogsOutLoud.
Needs: Space for their center is a priority. A wish list, including items such as Kongs, toys, dog food and martingale collars, is on the website. They primarily work with dogs from Austin Animal Center and Austin Pets Alive, and adopters and fosters are always welcome.
Fun fact: The Dogs Out Loud logo is a drawing by artist Lili Chin of Cupcake, an Austin Pets Alive dog who is pretty much the original Dog Out Loud.
Quote: “You will find no talk of broken dogs here. At Dogs Out Loud, we are canine bravery and resilience in partnership with human leadership and ingenuity.”
This story is part of an occasional series of profiles of Central Texas shelters and rescue groups. If you have a group to suggest, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of our pet coverage, go to statesman.com/pets.