Open Paw Program

Santa Maria Valley Humane Society has introduced a new animal care program called “Open Paw.”  Open Paw’s mission is to give people and pets the tools they need to develop successful relationships with one another and with our communities. This mission aligns with the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society’s vision of ensuring that every dog and cat in the Central Coast of California has a home.

Through embracing the Open Paw training program, Santa Maria Valley Humane Society will serve as a model for our community as well as other animal welfare organizations. The program is designed to teach shelter dogs and cats good behaviors in order to get them adopted, and stay adopted. Basic skills and friendly behaviors are taught in order to assure success in the real world. Open Paw teaches our animals how to greet people politely, which items are OK to chew or scratch on, where to eliminate appropriately, and more. The thorough daily handling and training of the cats and dogs provides the staff with valuable insight into each animal’s personality, which aids in finding permanent homes. Every visitor to our shelter is enlisted to help teach Open Paw manners and skills. Staff, volunteers and the public are all part of the training team.


The levels of Open Paw training for dogs includes:

  1. Basic classical conditioning (forming positive associations): Toss or hand-feed kibble to dogs regardless of the dog’s reaction, without hovering, requesting a behavior, or encouraging the dog to come forward. And Reward training: Identify & reward desirable doggy behavior with kibble; keep eyes & ears open for barking dogs & when they stop hurry over to them & reward as well.
  2. Desensitize the dog to seeing the leash and entering the kennel. Staff & volunteers will work on having the dog sit or, at the very least, “4 on the floor” before entering the kennel. Once inside the kennel will wait for calmness before putting on a collar or attaching the leash. Exiting the kennel. This level is to teach the dog appropriate manners while a person enters and exits the kennel, to teach the dog to sit politely while his collar & leash are attached and not to jump up.
  3. Begin to train dogs in basic obedience, use play in training as a reward. Staff & volunteers will lure the dog through basic standard training sequence of: Watch, Sit, Down, Come, Stay, and Leave It. Also at this level we are handling and progressive desensitization, handling the collar, paws, ears, rump, tail & muzzle.
  4. Focusing on walking the dog outside in the real world, integrating training with really big rewards. Off-leash training to sit, walking freely around a room and heel. Loose leash walking and polite greeting.
  5. This is reserved for “Project Dogs”. These are dogs who have a particular behavior or training issue that needs to be addressed quickly such as fear aggression.


Open Paw for cats includes:

Cats are involved just as much as dogs. Cats can be trained to high-five and be friendly to strangers. Staff and volunteers will play with them frequently to desensitize them to strangers petting them and giving them treats. We are also starting to practice real life skills with cats as well such as reading to them, sitting down and petting them, touching their feet, ears, and bellies. Higher levels of Open Paw will have staff & volunteers taking cats in and out of carriers to simulate when an owner would need to use a carrier for visits to the vet, and friend’s visits. Every cat goes home with litter box and training instructions so that new owners can understand what to expect from their new pet.

Implementation of public participation in Open Paw started on September 1, 2017 with a handout to all customers coming to the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society briefly explaining the Open Paw program and asking them to hand feed our dogs and cats. Staff and volunteers will be in the dog and cat rooms to further explain the program to interested customers.

As Santa Maria Valley Humane Society implements all of the component to the Open Paw program we will ask for your patience and your participation. This program is new to our organization and community. Over time the methodology will be embraced and celebrated as we see the results of more well-adjusted dogs and cats finding their forever homes.