How Highland Canine Training’s Life-Saving Program Is Helping Shelter Dogs In Iredell County

magdalena szymanska and icas shelter program

Each year, it is estimated that over six million pets enter animal shelters across the United States. Over three million of these are dogs. Often through no fault of their own, these pups are surrendered to shelters – leaving shelter staff to take on the difficult task of trying to re-home these pups to suitable families. 

In the wake of COVID-19, the number of animals who ended up in shelters saw a sharp increase. When the pandemic first struck and people spent more time at home, many families rushed to bring a dog into their lives to keep themselves occupied during stay-at-home orders. The wave of short-term thinking led to long-term consequences, however; as the world returned to something approaching normality and people went back to work outside of their home, those same families found they were no longer in a position to own a pet dog. This led to shelters often being overwhelmed by the sheer number of animals being brought to them.

At Highland Canine Training, our mission is to improve the human-canine relationship. This mission takes many forms. Recently, to help our local shelter, our team has partnered with Iredell County Animal Services (ICAS). Staff from Highland Canine, along with students at our School for Dog Trainers, are working alongside shelter staff to provide them with valuable tools and information to increase their knowledge and improve the chances of dogs being adopted from the shelter. 

In this article, we will learn more about the benefits this program is bringing to shelter staff – and how it can transform the lives of the dogs in the local community.

What does the program involve, and what are the benefits?

Every Wednesday morning, staff at Highland Canine, along with a rotating group of students studying at the School for Dog Trainers, head to the ICAS shelter for socialization sessions with dogs staying at the shelter, in addition to sharing expertise with ICAS staff.

“We have all the resources, and we can help them,” says Magdalena Szymanska, Director of Education Programs at the Main Campus of the School for Dog Trainers. “We are helping them to improve and to get the dogs adopted. Our team can diagnose the problematic behaviors, and give their team some tips. 

It is so important for dogs to be placed with a family who has an appropriate lifestyle for their temperament. For example, a high-drive working breed should usually be placed with a more active family who will give the dog the physical exercise they require. For older people or retirees, a dog with less energy may be a better fit.”

In addition, students are able to carry out short training sessions with shelter dogs. These sessions involve bursts of controlled socialization and teaching some basic obedience skills – both of which are vital to building a well-rounded and confident pup.

shelter dog being socialized

For Christina Lowe, Assistant Director at ICAS, the program has had undeniable benefits for the dogs and her staff.

“I would describe the program with Highland Canine as a life-saver for many of the dogs in our care,” explains Christina. “Literally life-saving. These dogs often come to our shelter with no obedience commands, no formal training, and it can often be a struggle for these dogs to be adopted. The fact that Highland staff and students are able to work directly with the dogs at our shelter improves their chances of being adopted – no doubt. 

There are a couple of other benefits that I also want to note, too.

Firstly, when dogs are adopted out of our shelter, we often see them again very quickly because families realize they are not a good fit. This constant moving is unsettling for the dog, and it can be frustrating for our staff. With guidance from Highland’s team, we are able to make good recommendations to families on the type of dog that will work for their lifestyle. This reduces the potential for the dog to come back to the shelter because of an unsuitable living environment.

Additionally, the knowledge being passed on to our staff at the shelter is incredibly valuable. With every session and every conversation, we can learn strategies that can help us to better serve every dog we come into contact with. More than anything, that knowledge sharing has had such an influence across our activities here. I have nothing but positive words for the impact this program is having on our community.”

icas shelter dog program

Why socializing a dog matters

There are several components which contribute to a stable behavioral foundation with our four-legged friends – but socialization is a critical, and often overlooked, part of the process. 

As part of their studies at the School for Dog Trainers, Master Dog Trainer students learn a lot in their six-month program. When understanding the fundamentals for what creates a solid foundation for a dog’s behavior, they learn the value of positive socialization. We spoke with two of the students in the current Master Dog Trainer class – Chris Urban and Lisa Owens – who both emphasized why socialization is important. 

“Controlled socialization is important because most people that adopt rescue dogs have other pets and family members at home,” explains Chris. “If the dogs aren’t exposed to a social environment, they can be overwhelmed and become reactive because they don’t know what is acceptable behavior.  Controlled socialization is great for developing obedience so when the distractions are at the highest level, the dog has something to fall back on.”

Lisa agrees with Chris’s assessment.

“There are so many dogs there that I think the students can make a great impact with their presence,” says Lisa. “Each week we go there and work with these dogs that are dealing with fear, and every time we do, I think it really helps them. The students’ physical contact with these dogs can – and I think has – helped these dogs overcome some of the obstacles faced with finding them a home.”

shelter dog working obedience

Benefits for School for Dog Trainers students

The partnership between Highland Canine Training and ICAS brings unique benefits for students like Chris and Lisa, who are studying the Master Dog Trainer program at the Main Campus of the School for Dog Trainers. Hands-on training opportunities with unfamiliar dogs presents a scenario that they will face after graduation as they move forward in their dog training career.

“There are a lot of benefits for students by being a part of this program,” says Chris. “I have learned and observed the need for a training aspect for the sheltered dogs. The benefits range from exercise, structure, and basic obedience that helps with the overall ability to place a rescue dog. Also, the opportunity to train dogs with different needs and behaviors helps to build a dog trainer’s knowledge and experience.”

In conclusion

Whether you’re a member of the ICAS team, a student at the School for Dog Trainers, or a dog simply looking for their forever home – the partnership between Highland Canine and ICAS has already brought so many benefits. 

Sharing knowledge and expertise on the complex world of dog training has been at the core of our business since day one. When we are able to share information, we empower others to take action that has notable and immeasurable benefits. These are benefits that could even be described as life-saving.

As this program continues to evolve, we cannot wait to continue to help and improve the life opportunities for dogs across Iredell County and beyond.

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