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Animal behaviorist assesses dogs', cats' adoption potential

petnews
June 23rd, 2003, 07:30 AM
WALTER BRYANT
News staff writer

You're thinking about adopting the perfect pooch from the humane society.

You look in the kennel at three puppies. One sits quietly in the corner, staring at the floor. Another is boisterously yapping and jumping on the others. A third slowly approaches, sniffing as if trying to decide whether to like you.

The third one is the better of the three, especially if you have young children, according to Paula Grunwell, a behavior counselor at the Birmingham Humane Society. Her goal is to get the right pet matched with the right family. It takes guesswork out of pet adoption at the Humane Society shelter on Lomb Avenue.

"A little bit of caution is healthy," Grunwell said.

The overly frisky, bullying puppy might behave that way around little children after you take him home. He looked promising at first, but might not be a good match.

If pets and their owners have adjustment problems afterward, it's better to find and fix the problem than to start over with a different pet.

"It comes down to relationships and territory," said Grunwell.

A native of England and former Humane Society employee there, she has studied dogs and their behavior as seriously as other counselors study human behavior. She is working on becoming certified by the Academy of Canine Behavior Theory, a college in Ontario, Canada.

The school's Web site at www.cynologycollege.com said it offers online courses in dog behavior counseling and modification theory, advanced canine psychology, canine aggression and professional dog nutrition consulting.

Grunwell said she has specialized in dog behavior, but many of the same principles apply also to cats. She insists that she is not a pet psychic.

"I certainly cannot read a dog's thoughts," she said. "But just by body language, I can tell what its next move will likely be."

She watches tail wagging: a tail tucked or wagging low means passivity, whereas a tail held up high while wagging means confidence. A dog that sits down or walks away while you are rubbing its back suggests a dog disinterested in human contact.

Applying psychology to animal adoption is an effort to make sure the relationships between pets and their owners start off on a solid foundation.

But problems may develop even in the best of homes. And for a $55 fee, Grunwell will make house calls to assess what is causing behavioral problems in a dog or cat and what strategy may turn things around.

Although pet behavior counseling is a relatively new program, she said she feels it is a vital service because pets play such a big roll in some families' social structure.

Grunwell was hired by the Greater Birmingham Humane Society a year ago as part of its animal behavior program. In addition to matching pets and owners, she teaches puppy socialization classes and trains staff and volunteers.


Has made changes:

She has made changes to boost socialization, such as putting several dogs or several cats together. "Dogs exhibit less kennel stress when they have a buddy," she said.

Grunwell gives dogs temperament screenings after they have adjusted to the shelter to assess their adoption potential.

She takes a dog to a small fenced area in a relatively quiet corner of the shelter. The cubicle is furnished to resemble a living room. Furniture includes an old sofa, coffee table and a couple of chairs. A carpet is on the floor, and a plastic food dish, ball and other dog toys are available.

"We want to find out whether or not they are social," she said.

Grunwell wants to find out if a dog warms up to her or a staff member, responds to petting or just wants out of the area.

Cats may not get a temperament evaluation if shelter staff notice they seem social around other cats.

Rosemary Chesser, director of the Humane Society of Shelby County in Columbiana, said few shelters can afford behavior counselors. The benefits of their services are known, but budgets just do not allow for an additional employee.

Instead, shelters may send staff to workshops on animal behavior and psychology.

Grunwell said she believes the burden of satisfactory pet relationships rests with owners.

"Dogs are not little people and do not understand English," she said. "Rather than shouting louder to make them understand, we need to learn their language."