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Shelter Program Offers Hope to Dogs

By: Debby Sharp

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Miracles are happening in shelters in Florida thanks to the vision and the legacy of one man who wanted to make a difference. Dog-lover Walter David Turken knew that the main reason dogs end up in shelters is because they are not "model canine citizens." He established a foundation with the singular purpose of training volunteers to teach manners and basic obedience to dogs that had been surrendered or abandoned.

The Turken Training Program strongly believes that the massive number of dogs without caring homes is a people problem rather than a dog problem. All too often, a dog that has been adopted from a shelter is returned because the family doesn't understand or cannot cope with the dog's behavior.

When Turken realized that he was dying, he called on his long-time friend and noted dog trainer, Brian Kilcommons, to set up and implement the program. The Humane Society of Collier County (FL) was chosen as the beta site for this project as Naples was the home of Walter and Jane Turken many months out of the year. Before Turken passed away in December of 1999, recruitment of volunteers for the program in Naples was well under way.

The volunteers underwent training each weekend, and upon graduation from the program on May 7, 2000, the 43 volunteers began work in the shelter in Naples.

Almost immediately the shelter noticed that the number of returns of adopted dogs fell dramatically. Volunteers from the Turken Program were not only teaching the dogs basic obedience but they were assisting the shelter's adoption counselors with matching the appropriate dog with prospective adopting families.

The Naples volunteers designed a reporting form as a means of communicating from one team of volunteers to the next as to how each dog was progressing. They can tell one another which dog needs more work on which aspect of the program and which dog has mastered a step and is ready to move on to more advanced work. Additionally, these volunteers designed a Dog's Report Card, complete with colorful "smiley faces" to show the progress of the dog to interested visitors to the shelter. Adopting families are given this report card when the dog goes to his/her new home.

It was the desire of Walter Turken, and now of his wife, Jane, that the Walter Turken Training for Adoption Program be taken to as many shelters in the country as possible. Currently, the Turken Training Program has now been instituted at the Peggy Adams Rescue League in West Palm Beach, Fla., and more than 65 volunteers are hard at work, making the lives of the shelter dogs there more worthwhile. These dedicated members of the community have seen how dogs react, and quickly, to positive training and gentle, loving reinforcement of the elements of the obedience program.

When adoptive families see what the dogs have learned and how well behaved they are, many of them are eager to build on the progress the dogs have made.

The Turken Program has been in the news, appearing on such shows as "Good Morning, America," the Discovery Channel, Pet Set Magazine, Dog Fancy Magazine, the AKC Gazette, and Vetcentric online magazine; and National Geographic has expressed an interest in doing a piece on the program. As a result, several other shelters are currently in line for the Turken Program and many shelters throughout the country have expressed an interest in having it come to their area.

If you would like more information about the Walter Turken Training for Adoption Program, call 941-596-7209, or e-mail at turkenteam@aol.com

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