Behind the scenes of helping VIP animals find forever homes

by | Interesting |

You may have noticed the “VIP” status on our adoption page, which stands for “Very Important Paws.” These furry friends are animals in our care who may need a little extra support finding a home. There are countless people involved in helping these VIP animals find forever homes, including animal care teams and foster volunteers. But behind the scenes, playing a crucial role in the process, are our animal behaviour coordinators. Today we want to share what their work looks like and how it impacts animals in need across the province! 

Who are our animal behaviour coordinators? 

The Ontario SPCA and Humane Society has two animal behaviour coordinators. Their roles are focused on caring for the mental and psychological well-being of animals in each of the animal centres in their region. 

Working in the Eastern region, Kassie Dickson initially began working with animals professionally when she was 15 years old and began pursuing a full-time career in animal behaviour work over six years ago. A certified dog behaviour consultant and a certified dog trainer, among other animal behaviour certifications, Dickson has a passion for helping animals be understood.  

“There’s quite a lot that goes into the role because we not only support the animal centre staff, but because the team supports the communities that surround them, we also support those communities,” says Dickson. 

Working in the Central region, Megan Holmes became a certified dog trainer over 13 years ago and has also been involved in animal training from a young age. Over the past seven years she has utilized those skills at the Ontario SPCA. She’s also grown her skills through further certification courses, such as the Fear Free® Animal Trainer Certification Program.  

“I really enjoy working with animals who may need a little more assistance. To see them grow, reduce their stress and help create a more enriching experience in the shelter setting is very fulfilling to me,” says Holmes. 

How do animal behaviour coordinators support VIP animals in our centres? 

In their roles at the Ontario SPCA, Dickson and Holmes develop individualized care plans for animals with behavioural concerns and provide support to animal centre care teams. They also support VIP foster volunteers, and families who have just adopted an animal with behavioural needs, or who have an animal with specialized needs and need advice to keep them in their home.  

“A lot of people think when you work with animals that you’re working just with animals, but that really isn’t the case. There’s a lot that goes into taking a compassionate and trauma-informed approach, especially in animal welfare,” says Dickson. 

When an animal is identified as “VIP” (Very Important Paws), the animal behaviour coordinator for that centre is consulted to evaluate the animal and develop a plan for that animal’s needs. The coordinator then provides continued support for the team as the plan is implemented for the animal. This plan may include components of enrichment, positive reinforcement or desensitization and counter-conditioning, which means training an animal to display a behaviour different than his current reaction to a stimulus. 

“Being in a shelter environment can sometimes be stressful, so helping them change a potentially negative association to a positive one is very important for the animals,” says Holmes. 

The role of the Provincial Dog Rehabilitation Centre 

Sometimes a dog needs more intensive support than animal centre team and setting can provide. This is where the Ontario SPCA Provincial Dog Rehabilitation Centre comes in. 

Dickson is based out of the Provincial Dog Rehabilitation Centre in Peterborough, where all the dogs are VIP! The Provincial Dog Rehabilitation Centre has been custom built to help dogs who need more individualized care than a typical animal centre can provide to help them get adopted. 

“We really strive to make sure that we’re treating each animal as an individual and meeting their needs first and foremost,” says Dickson. 

Why does this work matter? 

When animals are provided with the support and environment needed for them to thrive, not only is their quality of life improved, but they can also find their forever home more quickly.  

“You get to see their entire journey from start to finish and how they can become such great dogs or cats, just because they’ve been provided a little more support,” says Holmes. “I love the work that I get to do.” 

The work the animal behaviour team is doing is also helping to educate the public about how animals communicate and respond to different situations. The goal is to help keep animals in their homes.  

“If I can pass on that knowledge to even one adopter, to understand their animal better and to understand that their animal really is having a hard time, not giving them a hard time, that impact can broaden the knowledge and understanding of many more people,” says Dickson. 

View animals available for adoption and learn more about the Provincial Dog Rehabilitation Centre on our website.  


For every animal you save

For every animal you save, every animal who feels loved in their last moments, and for everything else you do; thank you and God Bless.