Willamette Humane Society’s Behavior Program Manager: Meet Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA

The life of a shelter dog in a kennel environment can be a stressful adjustment for any dog. Our partner, Willamette Humane Society, goes above and beyond to help rescue dogs cope with this change and behavioral issues that present themselves.  A large percentage of returns, instances when adopted dogs are given back to shelters, is due to behavioral quirks that present themselves after adoption.

The Open Paw Shelter Program at WHS, uses classical and operant conditioning to improve kennel presentation, with all dog walkers trained to use positive reinforcement techniques during walks. Their Kennel Buddy Program allows trained volunteers to hang out in the kennel with the dog and provide grooming, companionship and low-stress interactions. WHS also has a volunteer massage therapist who gives daily massages to the animals and fantastic information back to the staff. Most importantly, the shelter has a new behavior team who implements specific training exercises that Behavioral Program Manager, Catherine Comden (CPDT-KA), assigns to their most challenged dogs. This team meets once a week as a unit to learn the strategies and then they have daily shifts to carry out the plans. Catherine also ensures that the dogs get to interact with one another.  Their dog play groups allows Catherine and team to supervise how different shelter dogs interact with one another during play.

Catherine has been training dogs since 1977. She started as a youth in 4H, raising Guide Dog puppies. She became a registered veterinary technician in 1985 and a professional dog trainer in the early ’90s. Catherine has experience training dogs as mobility aids, hearing dogs, hunting dogs, competitive dog sports and therapy work. She was hired as the first veterinary behavior technologist at Purdue University working in the behavior clinic in 1998. That’s when she started working more with multiple species, refining her puppy classes and learning science-based methods for behavior rehabilitation of challenging dogs, cats, birds and a few horses.

Now, as Willamette Humane Society’s Behavior Program Manager, Catherine continually comes up with new ways to better the lives of their shelter dogs as they wait for adoption. She says, “confinement in the kennel environment is tremendously stressful for our companion animals. Even as wonderful a place as WHS, where we have multiple dog walking shifts, playgroups, daily enrichment, quiet time and kennel buddies is still not as relaxing as real life in a home.”

Dogs in a shelter environment are subjected to barking and the scents of distress and fear from their neighbors. They pick up on every mood change in the building, whether that is human or animal.  The behaviors Catherine most notices are related to whether or not the animal is able to deal with the stress. It’s a continuum and can vary by day. She might see anxiety and fear exhibited in drooling and licking the kennel gates, distress barking, excessively frantic greetings with a lot of mouthing and jumping or avoidance behavior coupled with defensive aggression. Catherine may see all of the above from different dogs in the same row of kennels.

It’s a tough job but rewarding to see the huge improvements in the lives and behavior of their shelter dogs. WHS offers dog training classes to their local community and all families of adopted dogs from the shelter.  Adopters can also tune into their weekly Trust a Trainer blog to learn tips and tricks to enjoy your pets more.

Jax Adoption 020

For new rescue dog owners, Catherine has this advice, “go slowly when you bring the new pet home.  Expect the dog to take 4-6 weeks to settle in and make introductions gradually.”  Dogs who have been in shelters for months, even years may need adjustment periods filled with patience and understanding from their new family. Catherine is a huge fan of the fantastic resources offered by the ASPCA Virtual Behaviorist. Her favorite quote about animals is “believe the dog”. Dogs are truthful about how they feel, what they need, what they know and how they want to learn. Catherine wants everyone to pay attention, read the dog’s body language and respond with compassion to earn their trust, improve our relationships with them and enjoy them for all the days they are able to give us.


Written by Kara Hamada, Founder & Executive Director of Core Paws



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