Washougal shelter hopes training will help cats find new homes

Washougal’s West Columbia Gorge Humane Society has taken a “paw-sitive” step forward in its efforts to increase cat adoption rates.

The Jackson Galaxy Project (JGP), a signature program of greatergood.org, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the health and well-being of people, pets and the planet, recently selected 55 animal welfare organizations from across the United States, including the Washougal animal shelter, to participate in the 2020 Cat Pawsitive class, an initiative that introduces positive-reinforcement training to cats in shelters and rescues.

The training program aims to increase feline adoption rates and maintain cat “mojo,” according to a news release issued by the Washougal animal shelter.

“(West Columbia Gorge Humane Society) is thrilled to have been chosen for the Cat Pawsitive program,” said Megan Dennis, the local humane society’s executive director. “We identified the need for advanced behavior support for cats who stay in our shelter longer than normal, often due to behavior, or sometimes a combination of behavior, age or health issues that makes the cat more challenging to adopt.”

Dennis said the three-month program, which began in January, “is the perfect way to provide ongoing and advanced enrichment that cats need while simultaneously helping to improve their ‘adoptability.'”

“We also see this as a way to help certain cats build up their resilience to change, making their transition into a home smoother,” she said. “Our dedicated volunteers are excited to have more training in cat behavior modification, and are looking forward to seeing it help our community’s pets during their stay with WCGHS.”

Jackson Galaxy, star of the Animal Planet show “My Cat from Hell” and founder of JGP, developed Cat Pawsitive with a team of feline behavior experts to maintain cat “adoptability” and feline social skills to enrich cats’ day-to-day lives; increase adoptions; decrease length of stay; engage and empower volunteers and staff members; and show potential adopters that cats are “cool” and can be trained.

“As a shelter worker in the early 1990s, I found myself frustrated by the lack of resources and know-how afforded to the cats in my care,” Galaxy stated in the news release. “Unsocialized cats, traumatized cats and adoptable cats whose spirits were dwindling from lack of stimulation were all being euthanized. Dogs, however, were being saved thanks in part to burgeoning enrichment programs geared towards physical exercise, confidence-building and the bond created with the humans participating in these programs.”

With the help of a dog trainer, he adapted the “clicker-based” programs to cats, and “the results were immediate and, at least in my eyes, profound,” he said.

“My overwhelming desire at the time was to bring the liberating effects of this approach to as many other shelters and rescues as I could,” Galaxy added.

The Cat Pawsitive program introduces positive, engaging reinforcement-based activities that help cats connect more quickly with potential adopters. Cats are taught to give high-fives and head bumps, and to sit and come when called.

“We have some cats in the program who are really treat-motivated, so if they come to the front of the kennel or seek out attention, they get a treat for that,” said the shelter’s animal care and operations manager, Delaney Edison. “We have other cats that are solely play-motivated, so if they’re coming up to the front of the kennel or touching the target stick, they get specialized toys. And we have other cats that just want to be petted.”

Employees and volunteers of the selected organizations undergo three hours of webinar training before implementing the program, then report back to the JGP on a regular basis to provide updates and receive feedback.

Galaxy is sharing highlights of the program on the JGP’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

“Every week we send in videos of the training behaviors that we’re working on so their behaviorists can say, ‘Yes, that was right,’ or ‘Let’s try this differently,'” Edison said. “They only release access to (a certain amount of information) each month, so it’s manageable, and you’re not overloaded with information. But the great thing about the program is that even though it only runs three months, we’ll (always) have access to that knowledge base, so it’s something we can continually use in our organization.”

According to the news release, more than 1,200 cats have been adopted from 174 animal welfare organizations during Cat Pawsitive semesters since 2016.

“Some cats are really shy,” Dennis said. “It’s really hard when you have an adopter come through and that cat is really standoffish. That makes them less adoptable because, typically, when people are coming through they want to interact with cats. That’s how they connect with them, and that’s how they choose them, or they feel that the cat chooses them. That can be challenging. With the program, it’s helpful when we’re rewarding the cats who are coming to the front of the cage or having those positive interactions. The stress level of the cats has decreased just from having that positive reinforcement and engaging with the volunteers on a daily basis.”

The program has already delivered a positive result for the local shelter — one of the five original participating felines, a cat named Honey Kitty, has found a forever home.

“She didn’t like the other cats, so just being in the shelter was very stressful for her,” Edison said of Honey Kitty. “The program was a way for her to get that stress out. It not only mentally tired her out but also physically tired her out so she wasn’t solely focused on the other cats passing by her. She was a really quick study. She learned to sit in like two days. She was very treat-motivated, so that helps.”

Honey Kitty was at the shelter for 110 days before being adopted “because of her strong personality,” Edison said.

“She had a four-pet maximum at times,” she said. “(But this program) really helped showcase her in a different light. (The adopters) were really excited. They sent us a video of her at home, laid out on the couch receiving all the pets. She was making ‘biscuits’ on the couch blanket, which is behavior that we never saw from her before in the shelter. That’s a true testament to how the program helped her truly blossom in a home environment.”

The Washougal cat shelter is located at 2675 Index St. For more information, visit wcghs.org or thejacksongalaxyproject.org.

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