On Friday afternoon, Ann Kinney shows off Reno, a young black pup with a few white markings, eager for treats and praise – he just learned that morning how to sit and lie down.
Kinney takes him around the Morton & Adah Marr Education and Training Center located inside the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare with small hot dog pieces that Reno is working so hard for. He is participating in the Phideaux University Program which started in late September and has had approximately 30 graduates.
Most recently, this program earned the Aiken SPCA the Pedigree Foundation's Innovation Award which was only received by a few of several hundred applicants. The award was for $19,265.52 and will go toward the first year of the Phideaux University, according to Aiken SPCA Developmental Director Chrissey Miller.
Kinney, the main trainer of the program, has watched many canine students go from hyperactive pups to well-behaved dogs who are finding forever homes.
“I love doing this. It's so rewarding,” Kinney said. “I just think this program is so important, and it's been a long time coming.”
Miller, Kinney and Shelter Manager Sybil Altman started working on the program in February. By late June, they submitted an application for the grant.
Miller said the organization is not only grateful for the grant but for what the Pedigree Foundation taught the nonprofit through the process of obtaining it.
The Foundation's goal when awarding these grants is to find groups that come up with ideas to make adoptions more sustainable.
The Aiken SPCA had a 2 to 4 percent return-to-shelter rate, mostly due to behavioral issues, but Miller did pull some startling numbers showing the average stay for their dogs was 60 days.
Through even more research, she learned dogs that live in shelter environments for extended periods of time experience behavioral changes. With strangers walking through when searching for a new pet, new animals coming in and other activities, the dogs may experience some hypervigilance and stress. They never truly settle down like they would in the familiar surroundings of a home of their own. With that comes such behaviors as barking and jumping from overexcitement.
The goals of the Phideaux University Program are to reduce each dog's stay at the shelter, decrease returns and give volunteers a feeling of accomplishment. The program offers dogs the mental stimulation they need and a chance to shine when someone is looking to add a four-legged friend to their family.
Through the work of Kinney and volunteers, the dogs entered into the Phideaux program are taught the basic life skills they need along with a few other tricks that make them more intriguing to those looking to adopt.
Kinney has a few students that stand out in her mind like Sweet Tea, a sweet but extremely hyper bully breed who had been at the shelter for about a year. Kinney started working with her, and Sweet Tea began to vastly improve. One day, Kinney was working with Sweet Tea outside when a couple drove up and were impressed by her great behavior. She was adopted that day.
Nelson, a dog that had been there for about two years, also got a home through the program.
The program is set up in a variety of degrees just like a university. Volunteers are academic advisers who teach the dogs the basics like sit, down and relax. Those dogs receive an undergraduate degree in “Petiquette.” After those skills are mastered, the dog gets its Pet-Degree. The canine student then can “study abroad,” meaning they can go to a park or visit an academic adviser's home as they work on their “Master's” and “Ph.D.”
“These dogs are basically learning what they need to know in the real world and become more adoptable,” Kinney said.
Miller thanks the volunteers who have made the program so successful.
“They're amazing and they're really such dedicated people,” Miller said. “They've made a huge difference in these dogs' lives. You could tell in the dogs, like Nelson and Sweet Tea, that they would say 'thank you' if they could.”
Miller, on behalf of the Aiken SPCA, thanks the Pedigree Foundation and said they are honored that the organization feels the center is heading in the right direction with its new program.
Anyone who would like to volunteer at the SPCA can attend its next orientation on Jan. 12 at 10 a.m.
Orientation for the Phideaux program will follow at 11 a.m.
Those interested in volunteering must attend an orientation before volunteering in the Phideaux University program.