There's an old "
" short that features the boys being transformed into gentlemen as part of a bet between two professors.
A similar scenario is being played out at Chicago's Anti-Cruelty Society, as the training staff has taken on a challenging fellow named Baxter with the aim of making him adoptable.
The mission of shelters such as Anti-Cruelty is to find homes for as many unwanted animals as possible. Unadoptable
don't have much of a future, so these organizations try to make them more desirable.
This brings us to Baxter, a 5-year-old border collie mix who — let's be generous here — needed work. He and his sister were surrendered by their owner Feb. 1. Back then, he was a canine trifecta of Larry, Moe and Curly, lacking only a bad haircut and eye-poking skills.
How much of a hellhound was he? One indication was a note on his cage to the staff: "I love to chew apart tennis balls, soft toys and rubber squeaky toys. ..."
But what was worse? His barking.
"We're trying to work on his cage presence," said Karen Okura, the manager of Anti-Cruelty's department of animal behavior and training, her words all but drowned out by Baxter's relentless, ear-piercing yelps.
Baxter does have his pluses. He's one fine-looking animal. He's housebroken. He's intelligent. He's friendly. He doesn't smoke, drink or swear. But that barking ...
The crate escape
As part of his training, Baxter is put in real-life situations, such as being walked around the shelter and in Anti-Cruelty's courtyard, interacting with people along the way. This he is good at. But most would-be adopters wouldn't get that far with him because his barking would deter them from taking him out of his kennel. Thus, they didn't get to see the rest of his personality.
"The problem is," Okura explained, "he's a border collie mix, and they're not supposed to be in the big city. They should be in the Highlands of Scotland. He's an example of a breed becoming popular because all the experts say they're the most intelligent breed. But then it's, ‘Oh, I have to take care of him?'"
Without the physical and mental stimulation they require, working dogs stuck in shelters can deteriorate quickly. But Baxter has kept his weight, hasn't gotten into tiffs with other dogs and seems fairly well-adjusted.
Typically, small dogs are adopted in a week or two. The larger the dog, the longer it generally takes. But even after three months, Baxter still has that border collie spunk.
"It's a testament to his makeup," Okura said. "Beneath the surface, he's a pretty good dog."
But that barking ...
Baxter's training is in the hands of Amanda Kowalski, an animal behaviorist and training specialist at Anti-Cruelty, and her Finishing School volunteers, a group of volunteers who focus on making dogs more adoption-friendly.
"The ultimate goal is to diminish his barking," Kowalski said, "so he doesn't do it 100 percent of the time." After three weeks, she said, he now barks only a third of the time.
"In addition to the time that I set aside each day to work with Baxter in his cage, our Finishing School volunteers also check on Baxter and find him being quiet."
Here, then, is how they've gone about remaking the beast.
The strategy was to employ treats and a clicker to correct Baxter's missteps. And because he was at his worst when prospective adopters would walk by his kennel — not the best way to ingratiate yourself with strangers, pal — the training was done there.
At the outset, whenever anyone approached, he'd bark, stand on his hind legs, and bark some more. "Just general rude behavior" is the way Okura described it.
Kowalski and her crew would stand outside his kennel, and as soon as he hesitated in his incessant barking — maybe he was trying to catch his breath — one of them would click her clicker and give Baxter a small treat. After about 5 minutes, he seemed to be catching on. His barking became less frequent; when he looked as though he was getting ready to bark: click, and a treat.
Soon, he was keeping his yap shut for 5, 10 seconds at a time. At one point, a trainer ran out of treats and turned to another for a fresh supply. Baxter, obviously starting to get it, actually sat down and silently waited. This was progress.
"I'm hoping in a week people will notice the difference," Kowalski said.
Kowalski reported that Baxter was doing well in his intensive training program (he was one of two dogs undergoing the enhanced training). "He has really been catching on and has made me become more creative as far as getting him to start barking." She said he was content just to lie in his cage. So she had other staff members run past his cage to induce barking so his training could continue.
What's worse than an ill-behaved dog? Ill-behaved teenagers. "We had an incident where some teenagers started banging on his cage to set him off," Kowalski reported. "That set us back a little bit."
He reverted to barking at every person who walked past, she said. But because Baxter had a basic foundation of click-equals-quiet, it took only a few days of work to get him back where he had been.
Kowalski gave Baxter a workout in a large play area before his scheduled training session, hoping to burn off any lingering teen-inspired angst. And his training went well. He spaced out his barking — sometimes more of a soft woof than a loud bark — and he seemed more mellow and attentive.
There's a second part to Baxter's training. He hates going back into his cage after being exercised. So Kowalski and her crew try to tire him out, and he is rewarded when he goes back into his cage.
"Baxter is still making progress on his cage presence," Kowalski reported, but "there are no solid adoption hits yet."
Two weeks into his training, and Baxter is improved. He's not perfect — heck, the Stooges started a face-slapping free-for-all at their coming-out party — but he's on the right track.
"In all honesty, we've made small progress, given the environment in here," Kowalski said. "It's noticeable to staff and those who come by. But he's nowhere near being cured. He's made improvements, but he still needs work."
That will be up to Baxter's new owners. Once he goes to a real home and gets out of the stressful environment of the kennel, he should continue to progress. But until then, Kowalski and her crew will work on him.
"He's a good dog."
Good to go
You can visit Baxter at the Anti-Cruelty Society, 157 W. Grand Ave. For adoption information, go to