Muffin runs along a raised plank at the Southern Oregon Humane Society’s agility training course Thursday in Medford. See more photos on today’s In Focus page on Page 8A, and at - Julia Moore

Gaining a new leash on life

Cookies, a 4-year-old Jack Russell Terrier mix, sits in a caged area in the front lobby of the Southern Oregon Humane Society in Medford waiting for the next visitor to fall in love with her and maybe even adopt her.

To increase the chance of that happening, staff members at the Humane Society are putting Cookies through a training course aimed at making her more adoptable.

As Cookies' handler, Ashley Schwab, hooks a blue leash to the dog's harness, the terrier cowers down and tucks her tail between her legs. It's time for her agility lesson, which she normally loves, albeit Cookies hasn't caught on yet.

But the minute she feels the rush of Medford's heat as she steps out the back door of the Humane Society, Cookies' black-spotted right ear slowly rises up and her tail shoots up from between her legs — she seems to realize it's agility time and she starts looking more confident.

The Humane Society in Medford is home to one of the few agility courses on the West Coast, says Humane Society Executive Director Kenn Altine.

"It's a very rare thing for an animal-welfare program to have such a structured and guided training program," he says, noting that the course opened in March.

The agility equipment, which the Humane Society received from various sponsors, is professional-grade equipment that is normally used to train dogs for agility competitions. The course contains a variety of elements, including three tunnels, hurdles, three different-sized teeter-totters, three different-sized A-frames and The Walk, a raised plank the dogs scamper across.

"A lot of places just let the dogs do whatever they want with the equipment," he says. "But here, we work with the dogs on the course because it builds their confidence."

Building confidence is especially important for dogs like Cookies, who has been at the shelter since March and is still awaiting adoption.

Before Cookies braves the teeter-totter, the medium-sized A-frame and The Walk, Altine bends over and gives her a soft T-bone treat.

Cookies steps onto the purple and orange teeter-totter with two goals — eat the treat and earn some affection.

As the teeter-totter drops to the other side, Cookies' ears rise higher and higher.

She then attempts the small A-frame, walking up one side and down the other, which she manages with no trouble at all.

"Such a good job, mama!" Altine says as he gives her another treat.

"This is amazing, because she is happy and engaged," he says.

And the happier she is, the better her chances of finding a new home.

"The more she succeeds, the more she builds her confidence," Altine says. "The more confident she is, the more adoptable she becomes."

Cookies isn't the only dog using the equipment in an effort to become more attractive to people looking for a new household companion.

Muffin, a 7-year-old, brown dachshund that has been at the Humane Society since July 3, is also working to build her confidence with the agility course.

Showing initiative, the wiener dog decides to brave the agility course without being bribed with treats.

"Some do it just for the love," Altine says.

Muffin can't seem to get enough of the course. Even with her tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth and drool dripping to the dirt, Muffin seems determined to accomplish almost every obstacle without a break.

She completes the teeter-totter without hesitation, and before Altine can congratulate her, she is already to the top of the small A-frame, where she pauses to look up at Altine with her big, brown eyes, as if waiting for him to acknowledge her speed.

"Such a good girl, mama!" he says to the exhausted Muffin.

But the small obstacles aren't enough of a challenge.

The 15-pound wiener dog looks up to the large A-frame. She is determined. And just as she completed the small obstacles with flying colors, the large A-frame is now also in her past.

"One last obstacle for the day," Altine says. "The hurdles."

For a low-to-the-ground wiener dog, this is a big deal, Altine says.

With Muffin's leash in hand, Schwab starts jogging to get Muffin ready.

In the blink of an eye, Muffin has jumped over three consecutive hurdles as if she were a golden retriever.

"This course is a huge confidence builder for shy dogs," Altine says. "It also calms hyper dogs down."

The agility course isn't just a confidence builder, it's a life-saver for many dogs.

Both Cookies and Muffin were slated for euthanasia at their previous public shelters.

The Southern Oregon Humane Society gave them a reprieve in hopes that the attention and confidence they gained on the agility course would make them more adoptable.

"Muffin is a sweetheart who will provide love and companionship every day of her life," he says. "Cookies tends to be shy, but working on the agility course with the trainers several times a week helps her to learn that humans do come back."

Reach Mail Tribune intern Amanda Barker at 541-776-4368 or at

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