Open Paw: Turning Animals Shelters Into Dog and Cat Universities

Dove is an Open Paw shelter dog available for adoption from the Alachua County Animal Shelter

Hello everyone! It’s been ages since I blogged here at Dog Star Daily and that is a shame. I’ve been very busy with the redesign of the site, revamping puppy training protocols for SIRIUS®, traveling teaching fun scent work games for pet dogs, and with the encouraging boom of Open Paw® shelter training workshops. Regardless, my apologies for staying away for so long!


Have you heard of Open Paw? It’s one of my very favorite projects and I don’t think I’ve ever written about it here on DSD. People like to call it a shelter dog and cat training and behavior program, but I like to call it a people-training program where animals are the ultimate teachers. The beautiful side effect of their teaching is that the shelter animals learn the skills they need to get adopted and stay adopted!


I’ll probably write about Open Paw and shelter work in general over the next few weeks, but for now I’ll start with an overview of the program. Here’s a little excerpt from our manual:


“Imagine walking into an animal shelter where all is quiet and it smells good. The dogs are peacefully, lounging on beds chewing away on delectable food-stuffed chew toys or sitting calmly at the front of their kennels wagging “Hello” at every passer by. The cats are either curled up in beds on elevated platforms or batting at dangling catnip toys. Volunteers are busily training dogs throughout the facility and patiently teaching young playful cats to retract their claws before getting over-excited. This is a shelter where people come for miles, clamoring to adopt the friendly, well-trained residents. These are cats and dogs that will easily settle into their new, permanent homes. This is a shelter where everyone that walks in, walks out just a little bit smarter, more aware of their animal companion’s needs. This is an Open Paw shelter.


Open Paw is a non-profit organization that was founded in January of 2000 by Kelly Gorman Dunbar. It is designed to help stop the surrender and euthanasia of unwanted dogs and cats through the education of people and animals.  The primary goal of Open Paw is to educate pet owners and especially prospective owners about animal general behavior and care.  Our second goal is to turn every animal shelter into a pleasant, friendly, quiet place where members of the community can go to learn about animal training, and about basic behavior problem prevention/resolution.  Thirdly, we want to change the way shelters are structured, so that animals learn or retain social skills, house training and basic manners while they are in the shelter instead of losing those skills.  Thus, pets leave the shelter much better able to live successfully in a new home.  We want every animal shelter to become a Dog and Cat University, a frontline resource, where not only animals but also people can learn to coexist contentedly in our modern society.”


Sound impossible? Not at all. And the very best part? All of the above can be accomplished on a shoestring budget and without a fancy multimillion-dollar redesign to the shelter.


With Open Paw we redesign what is inside the shelter, using people-power, with tremendous results.


Ultimately, people are responsible for animals and for most of their behavior, either directly or indirectly. Therefore, the best way to create change in a shelter environment is to educate every single person that walks into a shelter from the staff and volunteers, to potential adopters, and yes, even those who surrender their dog or cat.


Most animals end up in shelters because of a failing in early basic training and companion animal manners that down the road leads to a breakdown in the relationship with their caregiver.


We know what the majority of the problems are, house soiling or property destruction, or general unruliness/hyperactivity including: scratching, biting, mouthing, jumping, barking, pulling, escaping and roaming. It’s no coincidence that shelters are inundated with adolescent animals.


Our job is to treat these basic “problems” which are really just normal animal behaviors; by teaching dogs and cats how we humans would rather they behave. At Open Paw, one of our favorite mottos is: “If what your animal is doing is “wrong”, proactively teach them what is “right”. It is much easier to channel behavior into the proper outlets than it is to constantly say, “No, don’t do that! Get your nose out of the trashcan! No, don’t do that either! Stop jumping on the counter! And don’t chew my shoes!”


Unfortunately there are lots of possible “wrong” things that dogs and cats do from our point of view. However, the good news is that it’s so easy to teach them to want to do what we want them to do! Enter training!


Open Paw has designed a bare-bones program that both enriches animals’ lives during their stay in the shelter and provides easy training protocols for staff and volunteers to practice in order to prevent or resolve the very problems that land animals in shelters in the first place.


Open Paw’s vision is to raise the bar for basic domestic companion animal care in shelters as well as to help shelters serve as models, rather than just receptacles, for simple and humane care and training for the public.


Open Paw’s mission is to give people and their pets the tools they need to develop a successful relationship with one another and also with their communities.


I’ll be writing more about what shelters can do to better model the home environment most animals will encounter post-adoption and how to best prepare their residents for life outside of the shelter in upcoming posts. For now, if you’d like to learn more about Open Paw please go to

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