Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Founded in 2000, Open Paw is the brainchild of Certified Pet Dog Trainer Kelly Gorman, and world renowned animal behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar. Open Paw is a non-profit organization committed to helping people and animals build successful relationships with each other and their community. The organization is dedicated to decreasing the surrender and abandonment of unwanted animals by making sure that they don't become unwanted because of lack of training and education. Open Paw is working toward this end in three ways:

  1. Humane education: teaching people how to be responsible guardians before they acquire a pet so they know what to expect from their new pet, how to prepare for their new pet and how to train their pet easily.
  2. Animal training and behavior counseling for animal shelter staff and volunteers: turning animal shelters into Dog and Cat Universities where pets learn basic manners and socialization skills through a process that models efficient, animal friendly training methods for the public to apply at home.
  3. Promoting the adoption of Minimum Mental Health Requirements (MMHR): providing for the essential needs of sheltered animals, specifically regarding their comfort, companionship, entertainment, and education - and, as a result, their adoptability.

Simple in content, the Minimum Mental Health Requirements are profound in that they call for a new way of relating to and caring for homeless, abandoned shelter pets.

Minimal Mental Health Requirements for Dogs

  1. A comfortable bed or den
  2. At least three daily opportunities to use a dog toilet area (outside of their kennel) and be rewarded for using it.
  3. Sufficient entertainment (environmental enrichment, or occupational therapy)--stuffed chew toys such as Kongs or Big Kahunas.
  4. Hand feeding, with remainder of food stuffed in chew toys: in other words, no feeding from bowls.
  5. Interaction with at least 20 people, including at least five unfamiliar people, each day.
  6. Daily education (basic manners training) and mental stimulation (walks).
  7. Quiet kennel "down time" each day, allowing for a scheduled break from the public.
  8. At least 20 minutes out of their kennel run each day, used either for training, socialization, playtime, exercise or "down time" in somebody's office.
  9. Canine companionship - either housing with other dogs, or daily 20 minute play/training sessions.

Requirements for puppies under four months are slightly different.

Minimal Mental Health Requirements for Cats

  1. A warm clean environment with comfortable hiding place.
  2. A separate litter box area.
  3. A litter box that is cleaned regularly (feces removed immediately when noticed).
  4. A convenient scratching post with suspended toys.
  5. Interaction with at least 20 people, including at least five unfamiliar people, daily.
  6. Daily handling, gentling and grooming by at least three people, daily.
  7. Feline companionship for social cats (group housing).

Requirements for kittens under 4 months are slightly different.

Some might say the Minimal Mental Health Requirements are too hard or too time consuming to implement in an animal shelter. It could also be argued that not implementing them, at least to some degree, is a major disservice to the animals.

Comments Dr. Sheila Segurson, Maddie's® Shelter Medicine/Behavior Resident at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine: "I think all shelters should strive to implement Open Paw's Minimum Requirements. As a behaviorist, I'm concerned about an animal's mental health. As shelters keep pets longer, they need to change their level of care, and not just with improved housing. If you improve the animal's physical surroundings but fail to deal with his mental health, I question whether the animal is really any better off."

Echoes Open Paw's Kelly Gorman, "Many shelters are extremely concerned about keeping their facility clean and preventing the spread of disease, but not much emphasis is placed on the maintenance and improvement of the animal's mental health and well-being. If we are to call ourselves humane societies, we have to do more than provide a clean shelter. An animal's mental health should not be an afterthought or a bonus, but a priority that is on par with physical health concerns and part of the standard protocol for care."

"Animal shelters are incredibly stressful," continues Gorman. "The constant noise and the level of noise - the barking, bad acoustics, and distress noises - are all very hard on the animals. The cleaning chemicals and other harsh odors are an assault on animal's sensitive sense of smell. There are barrier issues, over-stimulation and the uncertainty of what happens next. Placed in this high stress environment, an animal's behavior begins to worsen and they often become de-housetrained, hyperactive, noisy, anxious and lonely. "

"Dogs, particularly herding breeds and terriers, can deteriorate quickly in a shelter," adds Segurson. "Once dogs cascade into deterioration because they don't have enough mental or physical stimulation, many start repetitive behaviors such as barking, jumping or circling. These activities help relieve the stress and make the animals feel better, but that makes it hard to get them to stop. That's why it's important to get them into a program like Open Paw before these behaviors begin. Open Paw also addresses a cat's mental health, and cats often get overlooked in shelters. When a cat is stressed, he hunches up and doesn't move, but the stress is there all the same and it needs to be addressed."

Benefiting Shelters

As important as Open Paw is to the wellbeing of the animal, it's also important to the shelter's lifesaving mission.

When adopters see that shelter animals are calm, friendly, well-adjusted and well-behaved, adoptions increase and turnover improves. And, word of mouth about the quality of the shelter animals continues to increase foot traffic, which increases adoptions and so on.

Says Gorman, "People will change their view of shelters and see them as the BEST places to get an animal if they see that the animals are friendly and well-trained and have learned basic skills. At the same time, the shelters are modeling fun, friendly training methods to teach people how to better care for the animal in the home."

"I've seen Open Paw's results from my work at the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society," says Segurson. "The first thing you notice is the huge difference in the noise level - no barking! The dogs find homes quicker because they're much more adoptable. Many people turn pets into shelters because of annoying behaviors like jumping up or pulling on leash. Correcting these behaviors with Open Paw greatly increases the animal's chance for adoption."

Educating the Community

Teaching people how to be responsible pet owners is one of the main goals of Open Paw. Says Gorman, "Shelters should set an example for the community and demonstrate how best to treat animals. In my opinion, modeling proper care for the animals in our shelters is the most effective and important kind of humane education we can possibly provide. If shelters can educate the public about good pet keeping practices, we can greatly diminish the homeless pet problem."

Dr. Segurson agrees. "The more problem behaviors I see in shelter animals like aggression and litter box problems, the more I realize that an educated public could have avoided these problems in the first place. Open Paw shows the public what they should be providing for their pets. It demonstrate responsible pet guardianship and gives people a resource to turn to if they need help with their own animals in the home.


The Minimum Mental Health Requirements are generally implemented by shelter volunteers who have gone through the Open Paw Volunteer Training Program.

The program gets high praise from Dr. Segurson. "I think Open Paw provides a very well organized system that enables volunteers to learn about animal behavior and training, become competent working with the dogs, and stay safe in the process. The volunteers go through four levels of training and achieve different degrees of competency and privileges with each level. Volunteers like the program because it gives them a them a very important job to do, a way to help with hands-on care and a way to make a huge difference in the life of these animals. It provides them with very rewarding service. In many volunteer programs, people don't get enough direction or support, but this program provides it. The program also gives volunteers consistency, and consistency in training is critical. With it, the dogs learn very fast."


Maddie's Fund interviewed OPEN PAW users to see how it works in practice. Those questioned were:

  • Angela Bockelman, Ph.D., Director of Operations and Behavior Programs, Lee County Humane Society, Auburn, Alabama;
  • Marlene Petrocchi, Volunteer Dog Trainer, Operation Kindness, Dallas, Texas;
  • Mim Carlson, Executive Director, Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, Berkeley, California.

Q. Why did you decide to try OPEN PAW?

A. Angela: "I've been at the Lee County Humane Society for about a year. I learned about Open Paw from Dr. Brenda Griffin at Auburn University's Veterinary School. I thought it might be a great program for us because we have many long-term dogs here. Many of our big dogs (over 50 lbs) are with us for three to four months, some even longer. So last May I started a pilot project and followed as much of the Open Paw Program as possible."

Marlene: "I read about the Open Paw Volunteer program and thought it would be a great fit for our shelter. I didn't feel I was accomplishing very much as a volunteer before Open Paw. Other volunteers felt overwhelmed and they didn't know what to do. There was a lot of turnover. Open Paw looked like a structured program that would be good for volunteers and good for our dogs. Our shelter has a lot of big dogs (50-80 lbs) and they generally get adopted slowly, some taking up to six to eight months. There was a lot of barking and frenzy among the long-term dogs when I first started here. I ordered the Open Paw materials and approached the Volunteer Coordinator for her opinion. The idea moved up the chain of command until it got the blessing of the Executive Director. In December 2004, we began training shelter staff. In January, we began training the volunteers."

Q. Was it hard to implement?

A. Angela. "Four volunteers helped me with the pilot. The volunteers really liked the program, but the staff wasn't particularly in favor of it. Now that I proved its value, the Executive Director is totally supportive, and when I fully implement the program we'll have better staff support."

Marlene. "We got a mixed response from the staff. Some of the younger folks liked it, while some of the older staff were a little skeptical. We started a Yahoo list serve for the volunteers, and this has been a real boon! The volunteers go online to problem solve and work with each other. One might say, "I tried this with this dog and this is what worked....."

Q. Have you had success with OPEN PAW?

A. Angela. "We started with about six dogs. A few got adopted right away. One dog that had started jumping and spinning stopped doing that. All of the dogs were considerably calmer. Once we put them in the program, they had a much shorter length of stay. All in all, we did more adoptions and our turnover increased. The public really liked the program because the dogs had such good manners."

Marlene: "Some of our dogs are definitely getting adopted quicker. Almost every dog can sit, lie down, and walk nicely. We're getting great comments from the public. They talk about how quiet the shelter is and say, "look how the dogs are just sitting there". All of the dogs are sitting at the front of the kennels waiting for food out of the bucket - they figured that out quickly. And, thanks to the potty breaks, the kennels are much cleaner than they were before and staff doesn't have to spend nearly as much time on cleaning."

Mim: "Open Paw has helped our dogs and cats live a more fulfilling life while at the shelter, but it has also proven to be a great training program for staff and volunteers. They know more about dog and cat behavior, feeding, and socializing skills. Their knowledge spreads out further into the community as they talk to others, and this helps animals outside the shelter environment too. The real secret to success for a shelter Open Paw program is a strong group of volunteers who can carry out all the daily activities."

Q. Are you still using it?

A. Angela. "We are, but on a limited basis. I'm applying for a grant to get some additional money to buy more beds and toys and hire one person to run the program. We plan to implement it shelter-wide soon."

Mim: "I started at the shelter a year ago. By the time I arrived, staff and board were not in favor of strictly implementing the program. People felt it was too expensive in terms of the time commitment and staffing requirements. However, we continue to incorporate many aspects of Open Paw for the dogs, and we follow it completely for the cats. When it comes to dogs, we get them out for their potty training and walks three to four times per day, and we do the hand feeding and the socializing and provide the kongs. As for the training, we only use levels one through three and we don't train all of the staff and volunteers. Basically, we use a hybrid of the training and protocols."

Marlene: "We've fully implemented the program for most of the large dogs. We started with six dog runs, and now we're up to ten. About eight really solid volunteers are carrying out the program. We've made a slight change: instead of focusing on walking the dogs three to four times a day for potty breaks, we put the dogs into playgroups two to three times a day. The volunteers now have more time to spend on training, socializing, playing games, grooming, etc. The potty breaks were using up all of our volunteer resources. Also, the public is not encouraged to feed the dogs;only staff and volunteers do this."

Q. What are some of the best things about Open Paw?

A. Marlene: "Volunteers and staff have learned how to train dogs. Now we know how to make the dogs better citizens. Before, no one was worrying about manners.

In general, I think Open Paw is a wonderful concept. It's great to have a structured program for training and behavior issues. What also made a huge difference for me is that Open Paw has Ian Dunbar's name on it, and Dr. Dunbar has some of the best training materials out there."

MMHRs for puppies: Puppies under four months must be housed together in a self-training, long-term confinement area, with constant access to a puppy toilet area, and fed only by hand (during conditioning and training) or from stuffed chewtoys, (i.e., no feeding from bowls). Puppies require daily handling, grooming, and manners training by at least five unfamiliar people. Puppies should be fostered whenever possible.

MMHRs for kittens: Kittens under four months should be housed together in a self-training, long-term confinement area, with constant access to a scratching surface with suspended toys and to a separate litter box area. Kittens require daily handling, gentling and grooming by at least five unfamiliar people.

Open Paw
P.O. Box 9097
Berkeley, CA 94709
Email: info@openpaw.org

or contact Kelly Gorman, kellyg@openpaw.org