Positive Reinforcement In Animal Shelters

In this post:

  1. What is “aversive training”?
  2. Why is it important to use positive reinforcement at shelters?
  3. How to use positive reinforcement to help get dogs adopted

If you’re anything like me, you wish that we didn’t have to have shelters. I always find myself wishing that each and every domesticated animal had a loving home of its own where he/she could live their richest lives.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. We live in a world where there are more dogs that need homes than families willing to take them in. In addition, most dogs don’t understand why they end up in these places and are scared, sad, and lonely. They need a little extra care in order to help them through their time in the shelter and find their loving forever homes.

What is “aversive training”?

Let’s start by defining “aversives.” According to Merriam-Webster, that is: “tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus” which seems like a really fancy way of saying that it’s the act of using negative consequences to promote desired behaviors.

An aversive can be an unpleasant sound, a physical correction, the pain caused by a shock collar or prong collar correction, or a harsh scolding. It’s considered an aversive if it’s something your dog will work to avoid in the first place or will work to stop in the moment. (We don’t want to show pictures of this here, so instead here is a shelter worker getting some love).


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Why is it important to use positive reinforcement at shelters?

“As a Star Wars fan, I echo what Yoda says: “Fear is the path to the dark side.” Although we’re not going to create any scary monsters or evil sith lords, using aversive techniques means that we would be introducing something that is painful or scary to an animal who probably doesn’t understand what we’re asking them. They just know that they’re being physically and/or emotionally injured.” – John Griffin

In fact, a study conducted by Linda Lombardi recently observed that dogs who were trained with these types of techniques and methods tended to look at their owners far less than those trained using forms of positive training and reinforcement. Remember, the ultimate goal of training your dog is to create a positive, loving, and mutually beneficial relationship. Using fear tactics to try to achieve that can be detrimental to the animals.

An additional study by The University of Pennsylvania showed that dogs were prone to aggression when their owners were aggressive. That data shows that when we use these aversive techniques, we could potentially get the exact opposite of what we are looking for. If I pin my dog down every time they exhibit behavior I don’t like, I’m just scaring them.

As humans, we’re more likely to do things we enjoy, so if we teach our dogs in a fun way and give them positive reinforcement (treats, toys, attention, praise…etc), they are more likely to do what we ask. If that’s the case and we don’t need to scare them or cause them pain, then why should we ever use that training method?

How to use positive reinforcement to help get dogs adopted

One of the shelter’s main goals is to help their animals get adopted into loving forever homes. This means that it’s necessary to work with some dogs in order to help them overcome their shyness and fear of strangers. So what types of enrichment opportunities can shelters provide to dogs in order to help them view strangers in a more positive way?

The Women’s Animal Center in Bensalem, PA, has a multi-pronged approach to enrichment. They keep treat buckets attached to every kennel so that they have the ability to work four on the floor or to reward quiet time when people are walking through. It also teaches them that when people are near, they get treats, which is a nice benefit and works to help them overcome any fear of strangers.

The treat bucket can serve many functions:

  • Reward good behavior: As volunteers, staff, and visitors walk by the kennel, they can easily throw a treat in when the dog is sitting nicely when he is not barking and when he is being good. This teaches the dog to be good when people are walking by.
  • Counter Conditioning 1: If a dog gets a treat every time a person walks by their kennel, they will learn that people mean “good things are going to happen for the dog!” They are going to be excited to see people walking by and that will make them more adoptable.
  • Counter Conditioning 2: If a dog is afraid of people or is extra shy, they are more likely to hang out in the corner. This makes a potential adopter not want them. However, if the dog is getting something yummy every time a person walks by, they are going to start coming out of their shell and be more adaptable.

Being in a shelter is very stressful for the majority of dogs. Providing extra enrichment while they are in their kennels can actually make them more adoptable and ensure that they’re able to find their forever homes.


How to make the treat baskets

If you run or work at a shelter or kennel and like the idea for a treat basket, here’s a quick tutorial on how to make and utilize them for your four-legged wards.

  1. Collect some Tupperware containers or any plastic container (something easily washable).
  2. Print this out: “If I am sitting quietly and not barking, please throw a treat in. If I am barking or jumping up, please wait for me to quiet down and then throw a treat in.”
  3. Attach the label to the container.
  4. Attach the container to each dog kennel
  5. Fill it up with a mix of treats and even some kibble.


When kennels choose to employ positive reinforcement techniques, as well as enrichment and rewards for good behavior, the dogs have a far better experience in the shelter and are more likely to lead happier lives.

Final Thoughts:

While it would be a wonderful world if every dog had its own loving family to live out its days with, there are some great and caring animal shelters out there, just like the Women’s Animal Center, who go the extra mile to care for, rehabilitate, and enrich the lives of the dogs who come through their doors. It’s through this type of care that dogs are prepared for lives outside of the shelter and have the best chances of being adopted and cherished.

Special thanks to:

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John Griffin

John Griffin is the director of shelter services at Women’s Animal Center in Bensalem, PA. They are committed to the humane and compassionate treatment of animals and are distinguished as America’s First Animal Shelter. John also volunteers his time with Big East Akita Rescue providing behavior evaluations and transports for homeless Akitas found or surrendered in the greater Philadelphia region.

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Women’s Animal Center: America’s First Animal Shelter

Founded in 1869 Women’s Animal Center is an open-admission shelter helping pets and their owners in Lower Bucks County and far Northeast Philadelphia. WAC takes in approximately 3,000 animals a year through the animal shelter with a live release rate of over 90%. WAC operates a full-service veterinary hospital whose services include; surgery, routine vaccines, x-rays, ultrasounds, and dental care.

Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB
Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB is one of the founders of Wag Enabled (originally Why Does My Dog). Aly has a certificate in applied animal behavior through the University of Washington and is a certified veterinary assistant and AKC Evaluator. She aims to provide an unbiased perspective on dog training by providing practical, intelligent, and caring advice for people to impart on their canine companions