What a difference a field trip makes — for a shelter dog

In mid-March, we launched a new program for our shelter dogs called “Foster Field Trips” as part of a Maddie’s Fund study we are participating in to determine how getting dogs out of the shelter for a few hours on a “field trip” can improve overall well being, increase adoption chances and help shelters get a more well-rounded snapshot of dogs behavior.

It’s pretty simple. Our staff and volunteers can sign up to take a dog out for a fun afternoon field trip. It can be as basic as taking a dog for a walk at the park for two hours, a hike in the hills, or even just a lunch companion at a dog-friendly cafe. The activities can vary based on the volunteer and the dog. The point is to give the dog a much needed break from the stress of being in a shelter.

Pretty cool, right?

Within the first weekend of the program launch, we had 19 dogs go on field trips with employees and volunteers who were jumping at the chance to take our dogs on fun outings. Momentum built up very quickly – and enthusiasm for the concept spread like wildfire. It was pretty amazing – so over the weekend, I decided I’d write about it for this week’s column.

I couldn’t wait to get started, so when I got to work this morning I checked in with Emily, our Director of Customer Care and Placement, to find out how things were going so far.

She looked at me with concern on her face. In a very solemn tone, she told me over the last several days she’s had four volunteers come to her office in tears upon returning from a field trip.

My heart sank, and I slumped down in my chair. Not really wanting to know, I asked anyway, “What happened?”

She took a breath, and started. “We’ve had some really interesting results so far that have been a little…unexpected. You know Patches right? The 3 year old Australian Cattle Dog mix?”

“Yeah,” I said, instantly recalling her cute face rushing to the front of the kennel to bark hysterically at me every time I pass by. Immediately, I didn’t like where this was going.

“Ok, so you know that since she’s been here, she’s had some issues?”

I didn’t. My only experience with her was being barked at when I pass by. This is pretty common behavior in a shelter setting, so I didn’t give it much thought. I just assumed she just didn’t like what I was wearing and was voicing her concern that I should go home and change.

Emily explained to me that when Patches came to us at the beginning of March, her stress level was high, making it difficult for our veterinary staff to give her a health exam. She wouldn’t even sit still long enough for us to see whether or not she’d been spayed.

Given that the program is brand new, our team was a little nervous about sending her out on a field trip given the behavior she’s exhibited in the shelter setting. What if she doesn’t do well on a leash? How will she deal with sitting in a car? Will she let anyone get close to her?

Steeling myself, I asked, “Soooooo…what happened?”

Emily took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Dude, you’re killing me here.” I said, not enjoying the dramatic pause.

“The volunteer took Patches out on a hike, and took her out to lunch at an outdoor cafe.” Emily explained, “Patches behavior was not consistent with what we’ve seen here at the shelter. In fact, it was a pretty dramatic difference. Since she got here, she’s been very tense, anxious, difficult to get close too, and she hasn’t been very trusting of people.”

She paused again, appearing to be searching for the right words.

“But once she got out of the shelter, she loosened up and became very warm, friendly, and playful.” She said, “When she got back to the shelter, she’s been noticeably more relaxed and is even rolling over for belly rubs when volunteers come to visit her. The volunteer was in my office crying because she couldn’t believe what a huge difference a few hours out on the town did for Patches mood and overall well-being.”

A broad smile broke across Emily’s face, replacing the obviously manufactured look of doom and concern.
“April Fools!” she said cheerfully.

I shook my head slowly. “I hate you.”

She went on to tell me about several other great experiences other volunteers have had in the last week taking dogs out on field trips.

Before each trip, shelter staff completes a brief survey on the dog’s behavior in the shelter; the foster caregiver later completes the same survey on their behavior during the outing. Participants are asked to rate aspects of the dog’s behavior on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating that the behavior was not seen and 5 indicating that the behavior was seen all the time.

There are many reasons why short-term foster care is great for shelters and rescues. It enables us to learn more about the behavior of the dogs in our care and to market them in new ways. The flexibility of short-term foster options makes it easy for people to make a commitment, which can help to increase the total number of foster caregivers.

It’s pretty genius if you think about it. I’ll keep you posted with more great stories and photos as the study progresses. Find them in real time on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @pasadenahumane.

Click here to watch the latest Foster Field Trip Video.