Dog Room Gets Makeover

Marcia Chambers PhotoWalk into the dog room at the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter and your eyes immediately gaze up at a classy, splashy wall mural. Not just one, but many. You smile. You relax.

The walls are telling a story. And the 19 dogs in their individual kennels are watching the person looking at the walls. They seem relaxed. They aren’t barking.

This reaction, a would-be dog owner looking up at the murals, not staring down at the dogs, is just what Laura Burban, the director of the shelter, wants to achieve. Her aim is to change the behavior of humans as they enter a new dog room in search of a dog in need of adoption.

What had been happening, Burban explained, was that when people walked into what was once called “the kennel,” they would get upset. “They saw dog after dog in a large cage. And they would be sad. They would feel so badly seeing dogs in big cages, even though the dogs had blankets and toys and other goodies.”

Dogs would react. They picked up on people’s body language. People not only were upset at seeing the dogs in the cages but conveyed that upset by staring in the dogs’ eyes. That, it turns out, is a no-no.

“A dog doesn’t know why you are staring at it. For us, for humans, we stare at each other. We look each other in the eye and we talk,” Burban said. 

“But that’s not how dogs do it. Dogs get upset when we stare at them. It’s uncomfortable for them. If you have ever seen a dog greet a new dog on the street, the first thing the dog does is sniff the other dog’s butt.  If we were to greet a dog properly we would turn around and let it sniff our butt. But we humans are not going to do that,” Burban says.

In Burban’s office one recent afternoon, a curled albino yellow-striped Kingsnake was iin a small tank. Someone had found the Kingsnake in the center of town not long ago. Sometimes Katy Prete,(pictured), the shelter’s program coordinator and Burban’s administrative assistant, introduces the snake, Kaa, to others. “We took the name from The Jungle Book,” Burban said. Prete oversees the shelter’s animal camp program. (For information about the camp’s schedules, contact Prete.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).)

The snake sat in a tank not far from where a Macaw and a ferret once resided.  Nearby, on a dog bed, was Cupid, the dog Burban adopted from a litter abandoned near the Branford Motel on Christmas Eve 2009. Here is Burban (pictured)during that time. 

The Story of the Walls 

Burban described the evolution of the mural project.  “At first I thought let’s paint the walls a nice color so that it will be brighter, so people will have a different reaction. Then I thought what if we did murals in the kennels on each wall.  Each wall would tell a different story. So people would immediately look at the walls and hopefully feel good and happy and say, ‘oh my goodness.’

“And the dogs would not necessarily know they weren’t talking about them. They would just be thinking that the people are happy to be there.  So I was hoping the vibes people give off would make the dogs greet them in a better way. 

I asked if I could check out the idea. I walked into the kennel, now called a dog room, to test the theory. My eyes went right to the murals on the wall. I smiled. I went from wall to wall, taking each one in. I didn’t look down at the dogs because I was looking elsewhere. But they watched me. Then when I did look down, the dogs were looking up, their tails wagging.

Back in Burban’s office, I said, “It is working.” The dogs seemed really upbeat.

From Kennel To Dog Room

Why did Burban change the name of the kennel to a dog room? First, Burban said, “We have always had a cat room. I want to be able to say to people, would you like to go into a dog room? There is psychology involved. We want people to think they are going into a room, instead of a kennel.”

What is the connotation of “kennel”?

“When people think of a kennel, they think of the pound. The state calls it a pound,” she said. Pound, she said, “is an awful word. It should be changed. The state needs to change the language. We are not a pound. We are a shelter.”

Once Burban got the idea for a mural everyone on the staff and many volunteers couldn’t wait to start a new dog room. “We all volunteered our time to do it.”

They included Katy Prete, Dawn Buffone, Pam Medlyn, Wendy Joyce, Eve Vandewarker, Bonnie Plass, Pat Dyer, Joe Martucci, Nicole Domorod, Rick Weiss, Jody McGovern, Joanne Prete, Colleen McDonald, Pauline Handy, the marketing director at VF McNeil Insurance and Daniel McNamara, president of VF McNeil and Burban. The shelter’s three interns, Megan Kinney, Cassandra Ibarra and Elizabeth Stagg provided a great deal of help, Burban said. The artists who created the murals signed off on the project by leaving their own messages on a wall near the entry to the dog room. 

“Branford Paint [288 E. Main St.] really helped by donating supplies and discounting a lot of other stuff and some anonymous people donated money—they wanted to help me with it. Nothing came from tax dollars to do it. We had private donors or chipped in ourselves.

“We did it all in a week.

“Mike down at Branford Paint was so amazing. He came to check on us and to see what we needed. They were just wonderful. I kept badgering.  We need help, we need help. He helped us pick out the right paint and he made sure we were doing it appropriately.” 

The murals have been on the walls for about a month and Burban can see the difference. The idea, to deflect the attention of humans when they walk into the room, is working.

Burban’s other idea is to draw people to the shelter to see the murals.  “So it will bring in different foot traffic that maybe wouldn’t have come here. There will be people who want to see what we did. It may bring new prospective adopters but also different people who won’t simply be staring at dogs. 

“Come and look at the walls,” is the message. “And you are happy because you are looking at the walls. But then you look down and you see a cute dog. Oh, my god. Maybe I have to tell my cousin Anne about this cute dog.”

Burban is focused on how dogs behave in kennel life. It’s entirely different than how they behave in a natural home environment. The key is reducing the stress in a kennel, of making them better so that dogs are more adoptable. Here is Animal Control Officer Pam Medlyn’s [pictured] way. 

“This shelter is like my lab. Let’s try this, maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but it can’t hurt.”

The idea, she said, “is to design a room that sees the world from the dog’s perspective; not from the human’s. You know what I mean?” 

We do, indeed.


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posted by: parejkoj on July 3, 2012  10:30am

A very interesting idea. Applied social psychology at its finest.

Good luck to the Dog Room, and I’d love to hear a follow up about how this is working.