Fred was a wild-eyed chocolate lab mix. His whole body wagged when you walked past his kennel, his paws pitter-pattering in anticipation of human contact.
If you entered his kennel at the shelter, he jumped at you frantically, barking as he grabbed at your sleeves. He had a habit of tugging on leashes and once ripped a volunteer’s pants when he jumped and raked his nails down her leg.
Shelters around the country are full of “kennel crazy” dogs like Fred. These boisterous, often young, often sporting- or hunting-mix type dogs, are not bad dogs.
Kennel crazy dogs are stressed out, even if they “look happy.” Kennel crazy dogs can also be a liability for dogwalking volunteers, vet techs, and even well-meaning potential adopters.
Dogs that go crazy in their kennels often get overlooked. People may be alarmed by their “out of control” behavior. We know what that dog is like outside their kennel – playful, affectionate, silly – but to potential adopters they look like too much work.
So how can we help these kennel crazy dogs calm down and get out of the shelter? First, let’s think a little about where this behavior is coming from.
Why Do Dogs Go Kennel Crazy?
Imagine the life of an owned dog. She wakes up in a cozy bed, greets her person, and gets to go outside to potty. Outside, she smells the smells of their neighborhood, shifting in the breeze. She can smell the critters that have been in and out of the yard in the night. She goes back inside and eats a nice breakfast, receives more petting from her person, and then it’s time for a walk! Wow, now there are even MORE interesting smells!
She may even see a buddy or two while she’s out, or get admired by passersby. Back at home, her person prepares her with a nice KONG or puzzle toy for her to work on during the work day. Afterwards, she relaxes on the couch, suns herself near a big window, and before she knows it, her people are back!
Now it’s time to play fetch, or tug together, maybe even go on a sunset hike, or have a playdate! The possibilities are limitless!
The Life of a Shelter Dog
A shelter dog’s life is very different. He lives surrounded by the sounds, sights, smells of other dogs under stress. His kennel is likely small, uncomfortable, and he may have urinated in the corner during the night. It’s not his fault he wasn’t able to go outside after dinner!
But when a person comes by, maybe, just maybe, he gets to go for a walk! Fresh air! A nice ear rub! An overdue outdoor pee! An escape from the barking ringing in his ears and the smell of urine and chemical cleansers!
It’s little wonder that many shelter dogs appear frantic in their excitement to get out of the kennel.
For many shelter dogs, the possibility of exiting the kennel is overwhelmingly desirable. “Playing it cool” is just not an option. They are often under-stimulated, under-exercised, bored, stressed, and attention-starved.
It’s hard for us to blame the shelter dog for losing their minds at the sight, or even the sound of a person walking by. “Please!” they plead, “Get me out OUTTA HERE!”
How to Help Kennel Crazy Dogs
As the Canine Enrichment Coordinator at the Humane Society of Sonoma County, I spend a lot of time thinking about this. There’s always something more we can add to a dog’s day to make it better. The more we think about each dog as an individual, and get creative with ways that we can give them outlets for expression of their natural behaviors, the better their lives become. Happier dogs are much easier to adopt out!
Shelters are not homes – there’s just no way around it. BUT there are lots of ways we can make a shelter dog’s day less stressful. By providing more enrichment we can improve a dog’s ability to stay calm in their kennel. Here are some ideas:
- Getting out more often. This is the most obvious solution to many dogs’ hyperactivity. More outings mean more physical exercise. Walks also a nice break from the stressful shelter environment. Fresh air, new smells, and engagement with a person are all added benefits.
- Varying walk environments. A walk around the shelter may be the most convenient option, but creating an Out & About program is a great way to add variety to a dog’s day. These programs allow experienced volunteers to check dogs out of the shelter for group or solo adventures. They may take a hike, go for a swim, or even go for a trip to the pet store to pick out a special treat or toy! Plus this gives the dogs an opportunity to meet more potential adopters out in the world.
- Don’t dump and run. As much as taking the dog out of the kennel is beneficial, dogs often learn that all their kennel is an unhappy place. When bringing a dog back to their temporary home, it helps to spend some extra time with them. Try reading a book, giving a massage, or playing a game. This can help a dog learn that their kennel isn’t so bad after all.
- Puzzle toys. Puzzle toys give dogs an opportunity to use their brain to access a reward. They can be used for meals, as well as special treats. There are lots of versions of puzzle toys; easy slow feeders, more active KONG Wobblers, or cost effective DIY options. Try gathering cardboard boxes from day to day life (like cereal boxes, for example). Fill them with goodies and let the dog make a mess by ripping them up to get to the treat. Make sure the puzzle difficulty is appropriate for the dog you are giving it to. The last thing we want to do is add more frustration to a shelter dog’s life!
- Short term fosters. Fostering doesn’t have to be long term. Many dogs enjoy a weekend break from the shelter, or even having a “slumber party.” Getting to relax in a home is not only a great experience for the dog, but can also provide useful information in placing a dog in the right home.
- Office fosters. Most shelter staff members work at a shelter because they love animals. An office is a great place for a dog to practice the invaluable skill of relaxing with a person. Hanging out in an office for the day is a great break from the kennel.
- Playgroups. Not all dogs enjoy the presence of others, but for those that do, there’s nothing quite as fun and exhilarating as a good romp with a new friend! Volunteers that run playgroups should be very experienced in reading canine body language. It’s important to use care in pairing dogs and facilitating introductions.
- Cohousing. For some dogs, having a little companionship in a kennel can be a great comfort. It’s important to use caution in introducing dogs and picking compatible roomies. Use management at feeding times to avoid resource guarding issues. Having a snuggle buddy can make a big difference, especially for the little guys that don’t take up much space.
- Nosework games. Scenting games are a fun way to get a shelter dog’s mind working and give them some relief. You can make it pretty simple. Hide tasty morsels for them to discover through varied obstacles. If possible, use a larger space, so you can spread out. Boxes, cones, baskets and x-pens create fun mazes for dogs to solve one at a time.
- Get creative! Every dog is different, and every shelter has a different set up. Think about ways that you can engage each of a dog’s senses. Get creative with the resources and space you have available any try new things!
On the popular Facebook group, Canine Enrichment, Shay Kelly lays out the Five Elements of Canine Enrichment. Keep in mind, these are outlined for owned dogs, so for a shelter dog, we want to go above and beyond! They include:
- Safe Environment. Free from pain and fear.
- Natural Behavior. Sniffing and chewing.
- Companionship & Bonding. Interaction with family unit.
- Food Enrichment. Stuffing toys and hiding food.
- Non-Food Enrichment. Enjoying an interesting life.
I would add to this list that a dog’s physical exercise needs need to be met.
A Sample Day for a Kennel-Crazy Dog
So for a shelter dog, particularly a high energy shelter dog, what might an ideal day look like?
- Morning potty walk. Prioritize getting these stress cases out ASAP to relieve themselves.
- Breakfast in a food puzzle. Make sure the puzzle is appropriate in difficulty. The dog should be able to access their meal without frustration.
- Mid-morning outing. A long walk or off-campus hike would be ideal to burn off some steam before adopters arrive at the shelter! This would be a great time for a group walk or playgroup for social dogs, too.
- Post-walk down time. Handler remains in their kennel to help them “cool down.” Great time for a massage or some easy, low arousal training games.
- Afternoon walk or playtime. Another break from the kennel. A game of fetch or tug in a yard. If you live somewhere hot, this is a great time to pull out the kiddy pool! Another afternoon activity we offer our dogs Canine Exploratorium, or K9X. For this activity, volunteers set up the training room full of interesting stuff – bins of toys, boxes stuffed with treats, and puzzles. The dogs come into the room one by one and explore. This is one part of their lives in which they are given choice. Do they want to play tug? Do they want to find a new favorite squeaky toy? Do they want to hunt for treats? Or do they just want a snuggle? This is great for hot days or rainy days when being outside is less appealing.
- In-kennel food enrichment. Remember, we want to make good things happen in the kennel as well as out! Try a licky mat, a “pupsicle,” or a Nylabone or chew toy smeared with peanut butter.
- Early afternoon “sniffari.” What is a sniffari? Technically, it’s a walk. But during this walk, you let the dog’s nose guide the way! Let go of your human agenda and let the dog take the lead. It can also be fun to set up little “treat pots” for the dog to discover ahead of time. This can encourage them to slow down and use that amazing nose instead of just charging ahead!
- Dinner in a puzzle. Let’s mix it up! Was breakfast served in a KONG Wobbler? Try serving dinner in a cardboard box for shredding!
- Evening walk or playtime. At the shelter where I work, we make sure each dog gets out one last time at 4:30pm or later. Whether it’s another walk or more off-leash time in the play yard, this last outing is important.
- In-kennel enrichment. Even as the end of the day approaches, we want to be mindful to make returning to the kennel a positive experience. Spend a few moments reading to the dog, give them one last evening KONG, or even try something simple like a treat scatter in their habitat!
While a schedule like this is not possible for all shelters, it’s something we can strive towards. Even dogs that are easier to handle can always benefit from more fun in their days.
These kinds of activities and are not only reserved for our kennel crazy friends! In fact, the more time I spend thinking about enrichment for shelter dogs, the more enrichment I’ve added to my own dogs’ lives!
Stay Safe With Kennel Crazy Dogs
Kennel crazy dogs make one thing clear – they want out! But when you have a large dog bouncing around in a small space, there is an increased risk of injury. So how can you stay safe while handling a kennel crazy dog?
- Occupy their mouth. A small handful of treats tossed into the kennel ahead of you is a good way to draw a dog’s attention down and away from you. This can allow you to enter a habitat without risk of jumping or mouthing. Sometimes a smear of peanut butter or cream cheese on a floor or wall will buy you even more time. For toy-lovers, plan ahead and bring a tug toy that they can grab onto instead of your body or clothing.
- Minimize equipment. Getting a dog situated in a harness can be hard in a small space when they’re raring to go. It may be easier to put a slip lead on the dog at the door, to avoid the process of entering the kennel all together. Once you get out to a yard, it’ll likely be easier to get the equipment put on. This is especially true for house trained dogs that are yearning to get out to potty.
- Know yourself. Before taking out a dog that is displaying out of control behaviors, make sure you are physically and mentally up to the task. If you’ve had any recent injuries, your balance feels compromised, or you’re feeling burned out, team up with another volunteer or staff member. If that’s not an option, it may be best to pass on to an easier to handle dog. Another option would be to work with the dog outside their kennel front. Targeting is a fun and easy behavior to teach without going into a dog’s space. Make sure the dog has at least been out to potty before attempting any training. Frustration may rise if they haven’t had an opportunity to relieve themselves.
Dogs like Fred can be hard to handle. No one wants to have their clothing bit at, or get scratched up when they take a dog out.
But once Fred is out of his kennel, and has been given a good long game of fetch, he’ll turn to you with that goofy face, tongue lolling out of his mouth, in a big smile of appreciation.
He’ll wag his whole body, push up against you for petting, and remind you why spending time with shelter dogs is so fulfilling.
One day, you’ll come back to the shelter to discover that Fred is gone. He’s met a runner that needed a buddy that could keep up! His shelter days are over, and you’ll know that by making Fred’s shelter stay better, you helped to save his life.
Keep in mind that no dog wants to be that crazy bouncing-off-the-walls dog that you see behind the kennel door.
They want to learn that they’re safe, that their needs will be met, and that a better life is just around the corner.
Adding more enrichment to the lives of shelter dogs can reduce stress, improve adoptability, and save lives.
All it takes is some compassion, a good dose of creativity, and some dog savvy and caution, and you can make a huge difference.
Tressa is a KPA certified dog trainer and writer living in Northern California. She specializes in working with behaviorally difficult dogs, as well as in addressing the challenges that often arise in households with both dogs and children. She works as the Canine Enrichment Coordinator at the Humane Society of Sonoma County, where she also teaches classes and workshops. She lives with her husband, their two dogs, and cat. When she’s not teaching or hanging out with shelter dogs, you can find her hiking with her dogs, or reading books.