Canine Good Citizen graduate

Trainer helps shelter dogs find forever homes

Sometimes in the blink of an eye, a beloved pet can become a shelter dog. Perhaps he snapped at the new baby, attacked the mail carrier, or maybe he bit a friendly crossing guard during a morning walk. Or the dog might have separation anxiety or the tornadic energy of an extremely hyper puppy. Those behaviors can brand an animal as “at-risk.”

This year, with the help of local animal trainer Carmen Marburger and a small group of Williamson County Animal Shelter volunteers, the shelter is making strides to solve a previously intractable problem: how to adopt out “unadoptable” or “at-risk” dogs.

Carmen Marburger and a dog

“Some of the dogs don’t present themselves well and have been in the shelter for a considerable amount of time—maybe three months or more,” says Carmen. “Others have been in and out of the shelter. . . . So we look at their track record and pick a few ‘longtime lovable’ dogs to work with.”

Carmen, founder and owner of the professional dog-training business Cougar Canine College, has a gift for training dogs of all ages, breeds, and temperaments, regularly taking dogs from “dangerous” to “family pet.” And so, at the beginning of 2015, she offered her services to the shelter free of charge.

With the help of four committed volunteers, Carmen leads classes in training at-risk dogs to follow basic commands and present themselves in a friendly manner. Classes are reward-based and utilize a method of operant conditioning called “clicker training” or “marker training” to develop a common language between dog and trainer.

Samson the dog

“When we want to tell the dog, ‘Yes, good job,’ we immediately press the clicker device and reward it with positive reinforcement like treats or toys,” says Carmen. In time, the dog’s desired behavior becomes a reward in itself, and trainers can begin to wean the dog off needing additional modalities of positive reinforcement.

During the final week of the seven-week program, the dogs complete the Canine Good Citizen test, an American Kennel Club (AKC) title that certifies that dogs are proficient in 10 skill sets including appearance, handling, and basic commands.

“By training the dogs and putting the title of ‘Canine Good Citizen’ on them, we’ve found it’s much easier to adopt them into good homes,” says Carmen. She estimates that 80 percent of the dogs that go through training get adopted out during the course of the program.

Reggie the dog

Take Regi and Samson, for example: Before training for the Canine Good Citizen test, both were labeled as “dangerous dogs,” dogs that bite or attack people, and had been in the Williamson County Animal Shelter for more than 180 days. However, with a little attention and training, they were soon able to find loving homes.

Then there’s Lady, a mixed-breed dog who was totally out of control—too high energy and prone to jumping on people—and had been living in the shelter for an entire year. Participation in Carmen’s training transformed her into a much calmer animal, which helped her find her forever home.

“Of course, none of this would be possible without our generous volunteers,” Carmen continues. “I teach the class, but the other volunteers are the ones who take the class with the shelter dogs. They’ll come in during the week to practice with their assigned dogs. They really bond with them, and they get so happy when their dog finds a home.”

Canine Good Citizen graduation

While Carmen has seen tremendous success with the dogs she’s worked with, she can’t help but feel that she could make a bigger difference at the shelter if more people stepped up to volunteer.

“Right now, we have four dogs going through the program every Thursday morning,” she says. “My dream is to have 12 volunteers, so we could have classes three times a week and be helping 12 dogs.”


To adopt a pet or become a volunteer for the Williamson County Animal Shelter, visit pets.wilco.org.

To sign up for clicker-training classes with Carmen, visit the Cougar Canine College at www.k9-college.com.

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