There's an old " Three Stooges" 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 dogs 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."
Road to adoption: Finishing school
Baxter the border collie was a bark-a-holic. But intensive training at Anti-Cruelty has lowered his voice and raised his chances for adoption.
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