MERIDIAN — It used to be that dogs were truly just pets — a family member, but not involved with activities outside the home and the occasional walk.
Today, dogs are ingrained in American culture in and outside of the home. Dog parks and off-leash spaces are becoming ever more popular, dog-friendly restaurants and pubs are ubiquitous, and dog-friendly workplaces are coveted by employees.
With that societal change has come an expectation for every dog to be well-behaved and comfortable in a variety of situations, which doesn’t always come naturally. That’s where Meridian Canine Rescue tries to step in.
The rescue got its start almost six years ago, founded by a group of volunteers who wanted to keep helping relinquished dogs even after the city of Meridian closed its shelter and contracted instead with the Idaho Humane Society. Then in 2017, the shelter moved to a new location near the city’s dog park and changed its name from the Meridian Valley Humane Society to the Meridian Canine Rescue.
For the past two years, rescue has been taking in 10 to 15 dogs at a time, often surrendered dogs or transfers from other shelters, and focuses on behavioral training and enrichment activities that will help set a dog up for success and happiness when it is adopted. That involves patience, positive reinforcement, and accommodation for each dog.
“We believe that each dog is an individual. We take a lot of time to consider what would make them most comfortable and least stressed,” said Jessica Ewing, executive director of the shelter. “If a dog is fearful, as an example, then we’ll completely change up kennel spaces and rearrangements, and everyone is involved in that. And we’re very flexible.”
Besides focusing on the animal, the shelter also puts an emphasis on humans and their understanding of dogs.
“We also believe in giving dogs chances, and we are big proponents of education, so we spend a lot of time teaching people about dog handling, body language, and things like that in order to make sure our dogs are set up for success in their interactions with humans, and also recognizing that things don’t always go perfectly,” Ewing said.
The training programs at Meridian Canine Rescue are called “force free,” which means they focus on positive reinforcement with no negative punishments such as shock collars, spray bottles or other aversions. Instead, treats and clickers are used to reinforce good behavior. Hillary Hayward, director of rescue programs at the shelter and a certified professional dog trainer, said this approach yields the best results.
“I love clicker training. It’s one of the fastest ways to train dogs and makes it super easy for them to understand,” Hayward said. “Especially when you’re training dogs in shelters and rescues when they’re under more stress, it’s nice to know we’re not adding any more stress to their life with the type of training they’re getting.”
Hayward works part time for the shelter alongside a trainer, who also works part time. A group of about 100 volunteers assist with training efforts and enrichment, including puzzle feeders and treat dispensers that are mentally stimulating for the dogs.
“The other things we try to do is teach them adoptable skills,” Hayward said. “...If dogs are really jumpy and mouthy, we work on a program of teaching them to walk next to their handler calmly and redirect them to a toy. So we’re not trying to inhibit behaviors, but just redirect them.”
The shelter also emphasizes telling the “story” of each dog in their adoption profiles.
“We are a small group, but we’re committed to telling each dog’s individual stories … and we hope that resonates with the community,” Ewing said.
The shelter, located near Meridian Speedway on Scenery Lane, will likely remain where it is for a while. But Ewing said one day they hope to find a space they can turn into more of a home-like atmosphere so that the dogs get used to such an environment before being adopted.
Meridian Canine Rescue is also working on offering more public workshop trainings for people and their dogs.
“Everything is about the animals here,” Hayward said, “and I’m super proud I have the opportunity to work here.”