Penn Vet partnership prepares shelter animals for happy homes

If given a choice, it’s a safe bet that most animals would prefer to be in a loving home than in a shelter. But for cases when a shelter is the best option available, veterinarians with expertise in animal behavior from the School of Veterinary Medicine are helping to ensure that shelter animals and their caretakers are as comfortable, happy, and as safe as possible.

Through a partnership with the Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals in Radnor, Pa., Penn Vet’s M. Leanne Lilly, a behavioral specialty intern, is offering training to Francisvale’s staff and volunteers, working directly with the facility’s cats and dogs, and offering post-adoption support and advice to families who welcome an animal into their “forever home.”

“The overall goal is to maximize the animals’ comfort, and maximize the ability of staff and volunteers to provide quality care,” says Lilly. “If we are better at managing an animal’s behavior, we increase the likelihood that that pet will be adopted.”

Francisvale is a no-kill shelter, which means some animals have lived there for a long time—in one dog’s case, eight years. In addition, almost all of the dogs at the shelter are taken for walks several times a day. While this provides much-needed enrichment and exercise for the animals, it also means “there are hundreds of dog-people interactions every day,” Lilly says. If a dog is sensitive, aggressive, or insecure, these interactions can be difficult.

The partnership between Penn Vet and the shelter began the facility’s staff reached out to Carlo Siracusa, director of the Animal Behavior Service at Ryan Veterinary Hospital, to help them manage their animals’ environment to improve behavioral issues.

Realizing this kind of support could be useful on an ongoing basis, the shelter and Penn Vet developed a partnership whereby Penn would support half of Lilly’s internship and Francisvale the other half. Lilly splits her time between Francisvale and Ryan, occasionally joined by Penn Vet students, other interns, and faculty.

Lilly and Siracusa have offered seminars and trainings for the shelter’s volunteers and staff on basic behavioral information, such as reading a dog’s body language, understanding how an animal’s brain and body reacts to stress, and using simple techniques like giving treats to modify behavior.

She also works individually with dogs that have specific behavioral concerns, and has occasionally intervened to manage issues with cats as well.

As part of her service, she provides three months of phone and email support to all families who adopt a pet from the shelter during Lilly's internship, consulting with their family vet in some cases. She says issues sometimes clear up after the animals leave the shelter since pets are in a quieter environment with fewer stressors.

Already, Lilly says she’s seen the impact of her work in the shelter in the volunteers, who have been taking her training to heart.

“I saw a volunteer had posted a picture of a dog practicing a cue that we had been teaching them,” says Lilly. “He was describing the technique and I heard my own words coming out of his mouth. That was one of the greatest compliments I could receive.”

Penn Francisvale