News Item | PAWS Chicago

Managing Behavior Challenges in the No Kill Model

by Keri Buscaglia | May 01, 2014

Gold Star Dogs Special Rescue Pups and the Program that Helps to Find Them Homes

The No Kill movement is grounded in one major tenet: preservation of life. Despite the proven success of No Kill, many private shelters continue to operate in failed models of the past where killing is an acceptable population management tool. But that is slowly changing. 

PAWS Chicago continues to develop its No Kill Model as a guide for shelters and communities, showing that No Kill can be successfully scaled to care for large number of animals, while every pet is given the individualized care needed for quality of life. 

The foundation of the No Kill Model is a community coming together to support four pillars: a robust adoption program to unite homeless pets with loving families; a high-volume spay/neuter program targeted to low-income families who could not otherwise afford it; a comprehensive volunteer program that encourages individuals to get hands-on in every possible way to save animals; and a program dedicated to holistic animal health and well-being. This last pillar consists of a state-of-the-art shelter medicine program to heal the body and a comprehensive animal behavior program to enrich the mind. 

Animals in shelters are wounded in many ways. They might have been lost, found surviving on the streets, or discarded by the only family they ever had. Others have had a revolving door of families. Some are victims of abuse. Each one has suffered a profound loss. 

No matter how nice the accommodations, shelters are a stressful environment for homeless pets. This stress reveals itself in a litany of physical illnesses and in less visible emotional damage. 

Just as a No Kill shelter will not take an animal’s life because of a curable or manageable physical disease like upper-respiratory infection, ringworm or mange, a No Kill will not take life because of fear, lack of socialization, bad manners or protectiveness, so long as there is quality of life for the animal and experts believe that there is no danger to others. 

PAWS Chicago’s shelter medicine team heals the physical health challenges and the behavior team works to instill confidence and communication skills through training and behavior modification. Read on to learn more about the Gold Star program at PAWS Chicago.

All you have to do is look at Maximus and you can tell he knows what it’s like to be loved. You can see it when you look into his bright eyes, or hear the confident thump of his tail when you say his name. But there’s a quiet insecurity to this four-year-old Shepherd Mix, an eagerness to please and perhaps, more touchingly, a palpable sense of need… to replace the stable family he once knew. Maximus had his world turned upside down after the tragic and sudden loss of his owner; in the blink of an eye, the only life he’d ever known was replaced with the cold, harsh reality of the city pound. He was anxious, confused and stressed by the time he found his way to PAWS Chicago – behavior that is now making it difficult for him to fit in and more importantly, find a new home. Maximus has a special set of social challenges that make him, what we call, a Gold Star.

Why A Gold Star? 

The ‘Gold Star’ is a program designation PAWS Chicago uses to find the right family for behaviorally or socially challenged rescue dogs. The program consists of support services designed to help harder to place pets, like Maximus, find the special environment and training that both dog and adopter need to be successful. The program is also about dispelling common misconceptions that challenged dogs ‘aren’t adoptable’, ‘have too much baggage’ or are in a shelter because ‘they didn’t make good pets’. 

While it’s true that a Gold Star Dog may have a bumpy past or may exhibit challenging behaviors, second chances are possible, according to Joan Harris, Director of Training and Canine Behavior at PAWS Chicago. “It’s about finding the right adopter and the right home environment,” she explains, likening the process of finding the right home for a dog, to that of a person trying to do the same thing. 

“Most of us consider our environment carefully when deciding where we will be happy and thrive,” she says. “You might want to live in a house on a tree-lined street in a quiet neighborhood. But now, imagine your state of mind if that search resulted in the complete opposite. It’s fair to say you might exhibit undesirable behavior because you are living under conditions so obviously not suited to your personality.” Harris says it’s the same for a dog. 

“If I have a reactive dog that barks at every little noise or at every person that walks by the window, placing them into a condominium in Bucktown isn’t going to do anything but frustrate everyone in that relationship,” she says. “Finding a quieter environment will give the dog a chance at success. Removing the behavior triggers and getting them in the right environment can work wonders.”

Gold Star Training 

Removing behavior triggers and finding the right environment - that’s the foundation of the Gold Star Training program, because according to Harris, if you don’t start there, the problem behavior will continue to be a problem. But it’s the training that gives both dog and future owner the skills or, as Harris calls it,“the language,” to manage. 

Take Rhubarb. This young dog is full of puppy energy. She’s social, loves to play, fetch and run alongside anyone willing to take her. More importantly, Rhubarb is eager and enthusiastic when it comes to her training. She was found as a stray, undernourished and neglected, but the resilience that helped her survive is now her biggest challenge as a Gold Star Dog. “These are resolvable issues for many,” according to Harris. “Maybe they are fearful when they see other people or get too excited around other dogs, these reactions help me connect the dots and understand what a dog needs in a home.” The Gold Star program is specifically designed to address the harder cases and give dogs with special needs, like Maximus and Rhubarb, the chance to find a good home. And while the program is structured to help each dog, based on its individual needs, some typical skill deficits Harris and her team work on include behavior such as leash reactivity, greeting strangers, modifying a dog’s response when handled or touched, mouthiness, resource-guarding and impulse control.

The Gold Standard in Volunteering

Just ask Mark Lukas, a Gold Star Volunteer at PAWS Chicago. He isn’t shy about his love for this special group of dogs and says if you ask any volunteer about Gold Star Dogs “you will probably hear something like ‘they are the best.’” 

Lukas, who has been with PAWS since 2005, is one of 66 Gold Star Volunteers specially trained to work with these challenged rescues. This special relationship provides the dogs with oneon-one attention, training designed to enrich their specific challenges, and the opportunity to bond with a caregiver, a tremendous benefit when it comes to placing the dog in the right home. 

“We get to know these dogs very well - from their favorite toys and treats, teaching them basic commands to offering focused exercises like agility training and group running,” Lukas explains. “These dogs become like a member of our family.” 

In fact, Gold Star Volunteers often foster dogs, in their homes with their families for several weeks at a time and become what Lukas calls “ambassadors” for them and their stories.

Fostering: A Cornerstone of the Gold Star Program 

Fosters, like Lukas, are a critical component to any rescue program, but nowhere does a foster program have more impact than when working with socially challenged dogs. That is because Gold Star Dogs typically present challenging enough behavior to merit individual attention, according to Harris, and time out of the Adopter Center is a key stop before being placed responsibly in a home. 

“It gives us insight into behavior we might not otherwise be able to observe, especially the good behavior,” she says. There are times when a dog that is especially stressed and not improving “but then we get them in with a Gold Star Foster and see it’s doing fine in a different environment.” 

Gold Star Foster Gloria Rojas likes to think of herself as a bridge; helping the dog go from where a dog was, to its new home. 

“One of my greatest joys comes from watching these dogs emerge from being frightened, confused to being happier, healthier and more secure dogs again,” Rojas said about her role as a Gold Star Foster. “It is one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs I’ve ever undertaken.”

It’s that transformation that, for Harris, is the ultimate benefit of foster care. 

A foster home is what made the difference for Cleora, a stray Yorkshire Terrier who came to PAWS last fall with a personality altering fear that made her inconsolable. She would cower in a corner and nip at anyone who tried to cajole her. Cleora was in such a state that she was immediately placed in a foster home, where she eventually relaxed, stopped snapping and eventually took to snuggling with her foster family. 

“The day-to-day at the Adoption Center can be a tough environment for some dogs, so having the ability to give these guys a bit of a break is a wonderful opportunity,” says Diane Wilkerson, PAWS Chicago’s Lincoln Park Adoption Center Director. She credits the predictability of a home environment as the primary factor in enabling dogs to relax when in foster. “And that allows the door to open for some trust work and training reinforcement, which is invaluable.” 

According to both Wilkerson and Harris, the Gold Star Foster program is why PAWS is able to save some of the more difficult cases. “Because we know that with many of these dogs, time, training and love can put them back together. Our foster programs have the power to turn animals in need into the loving pets of tomorrow,” says Wilkerson. 

Cleora turned out to be such a special girl, that her new family drove all the way from Indiana this past February to meet her after seeing her on

Are You A Gold Star Adopter? 

So besides a big heart, what does it take to rescue one of these special dogs? The first and primary consideration is commitment. “It’s everything when it comes to the success of these dogs,” says Harris, who explained that this special type of adopter has to be ready for a lifetime of training and reinforcement. 

“It’s about commitment and consistency because here’s the thing, if you bring the dog into an environment that you’ve agreed to create, then it’s not fair to change the deal half-way through. The relationship will no longer be successful,” says Harris. 

She gives an example of one common game changer that can upset the balance: kids. “Time won’t change a dog’s personality so if you know you will eventually want kids, and a dog that’s ok with them, look for a dog that is confident and outgoing. Because once fearful or timid, it’s possible that they will always fearful and timid.” 

The other absolute for a Gold Star Adopter is experience. “People need to understand that they are adopting a dog that is going to need a lifetime of special attention,” says Harris, underscoring the need to make sure the right dog is going to an experienced dog owner, the right household and the right environment to keep “our Gold Star Dogs safe.”

In addition to the foster, volunteer and training services that support the Gold Star program, PAWS Chicago encourages and points adopters to resources for continued training and enrichment of these dogs. Gold Star Adopter and Volunteer Michael Lin couldn’t agree more with the importance of commitment and consistency when it comes to the success of the dogs in the program. “I wanted to adopt a dog who would otherwise have a hard time getting adopted,” he said about his PAWS dog, Brady, a black Pit Bull that Lin adopted after working with him as a volunteer, “He is such a sweet and affectionate dog and I love seeing him flourish when most other people wouldn’t have even looked at him. Working with a special needs dog is definitely not easy but it is worth it because of the special bond you build.” 

So What about Maximus? 

Maximus is working hard to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of finding his new home. His biggest challenge right now is his separation anxiety. His time in foster has helped, by building his confidence and proving invaluable to his spirit. As is the case with so many other Gold Star Dogs, the right family is out there, somewhere, Maximus is just waiting for them to find him…and bring him home.

BEHAVIOR MYTH: It’s the dog’s problem. 

False: Quite often, it’s the handler’s problem also, according to Joan Harris, Director of Behavior and Training for PAWS Chicago. Dogs and their owners have a language but it has to be learned. “When I see a dog that is not trained,” she says, “I see a dog that has no language.”

BEHAVIOR MYTH: All Behavior Problems Can Be Trained Out 

False: Harris says you can’t train all behavior problems out of a dog but you can set up your environment to remove triggers that encourage the undesired behavior.

What if I want to VOLUNTEER?

Volunteers are what make PAWS Chicago work. There are a variety of opportunities, including the advanced work with Gold Star Dogs, but they all start with attending a New Volunteer Orientation. To become a Gold Star Volunteer it’s all about experience. Here’s where to start:


  1. Register for an orientation online at 
  2. Complete Dog Town Training program 
  3. Sign up for shifts and gain experience caring for our general dog population 
  4. With time, experience and commitment, you can continue your training and become a Gold Star Volunteer or  


What if I want to FOSTER?

Our foster volunteers are dedicated, animal-loving individuals who provide a temporary home for adoptable pets with unique care needs. In addition to our Gold Star Foster Program, animals may need a temporary home for other reasons such as: 


  • They are too young to be spayed or neutered 
  • They may have minor, but contagious, health conditions 
  • They simply need a break from the shelter environment

How Do I Get Started? 

Complete the Foster Care Application at

To be a Gold Star Foster, families must schedule a consultation with the PAWS Chicago Behavior Team to ensure a good fit. 

What if I want to ADOPT a Gold Star Dog?

 Making a family match for a Gold Star Dog relies heavily on getting to know potential adopters; from lifestyle and home setting to personalities and family dynamics. “It’s super super important …for success.” 

There is a lot of ‘get to know you’ time built into our process. Here’s what to expect if you’ve got your eye on a Gold Star Dog: 



  1. The Consultation: Harris, and her team of trainers, sit down with potential adopters to review the dog’s behavior evaluation. This first step is when social and behavioral challenges are disclosed and the ideal home environment is discussed. If it is a good fit, the process continues. 
  2. Meet and Greet: The next step is to meet your special dog! Harris and her team will facilitate an introduction and let everyone spend time together. Every family member must meet with the dog before moving forward with adoption. This is also an opportunity to talk through specific concerns around things such as continued training recommendations, triggers, lifestyle and home environment. 
  3. Home Visit: Not always required but when necessary or desired, a home visit can be arranged with Harris and her team. 
  4. Adoption: Congratulations! You have rescued a very special dog. And PAWS will be there for the lifetime of your relationship by offering training resources, recommendations and support. 
  5. Training & Resources: Harris recommends that Gold Star adoptees get into a regular training program as soon as possible. This can be a home visit, private sessions or a group class, like the ones offered at the PAWS Chicago Training Center (for programs and schedules see page 16 or