By: Sarah A. Neikam, Operations Manager

Michelle Jurnak began her work with the SPCA Albrecht Center as a volunteer several years ago. She became such a regular and reliable volunteer that her supervisor decided to add her to the payroll when a Pet Care Specialist position became available. Soon after, her work in this role demonstrated an understanding of dog behavior and a desire to focus on shelter dog enrichment.

Now, as our Canine Behaviorist, Michelle works to improve shelter life for the dogs in our care and prepare them for a successful life in their adoptive home. Her rewards-based training style provides both physical and mental stimulation for the dogs and helps our pet care and adoption team determine the best type of home for each dog.

Most visitors to the shelter only ever see Michelle walking, training, or playing with a dog, so it may appear that her job is more fun than work. Fellow staff members, however, have seen Michelle come to work early, stay late and often work on her days off to support shelter staff, care for sick puppies, catch a loose dog, or, as one of only two certified euthanasia technicians in our shelter, relieve the suffering of an untreatable dog.

I asked Michelle a few questions to get a better understanding of what her job entails.

What duties does a typical day in your job consist of? “Most mornings I check in with staff to see which dogs are ready for spay/neuter surgery, or if any medical or behavior issues have come up. I return phone calls almost every day, from dog owners wanting to surrender their dog to the shelter. I schedule behavior evaluations for them, usually three days per week, to evaluate the dog’s behavior and medical condition to make sure they’re a good fit for the shelter. If they’re not, then I make other recommendations. I also evaluate city strays after they’re brought in. I help administer vaccinations, and a couple days a month I train volunteers to work with the dogs; they are a big help to the behavioral health of the dogs; helping them destress and provide additional enrichment. And then working with the dogs myself to improve their behavior in the shelter and help them get adopted.”

What do you most look forward to in a typical day on the job? “Seeing a dog who was shy or medically not in a good place, get adopted. That’s also the hardest part sometimes. And in the afternoons when I walk through the adoption area to do ‘click for quiet’ which trains the dogs to come to the front of their door and sit quietly. The behavior is reinforced with a clicker and treats.”

What have you learned in this job? “So much! About vaccinations, behavior, reading body language and how enrichment helps the dogs. I’ve been able to attend lots of conferences and trainings to help me become more knowledgeable about dogs in general and that no two dogs are ever alike.

What’s your advice to someone considering this job? “Don’t be too confident in your ability; not being aware enough will get you hurt. Always be aware of the dog’s body language. The job is rewarding, but stressful. And take advantage of every opportunity to learn more.”

What would you like to tell people about shelter dogs? “If you’re going to adopt, be sure to meet the dog first and decide based on his personality, not just looks or what possible breed he might be. And despite popular belief, not all pit bulls are bad.”

If you have questions for Michelle, about the surrender process or any of our available dogs, she can be reached at 803-648-6863 or [email protected].

Sarah Neikam has been with the SPCA Albrecht Center since 2012 serving first as Volunteer Coordinator, then Digital Media Manager, followed by Marketing Director and now Operations Manager. Sarah lives in Aiken with her husband Tom and their three adopted cats: Bastian, Luna and Grady plus three “former feral” cats: Willow, Big Boy & Phoebe.

The SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare is a private, nonprofit, no kill animal shelter in Aiken, SC. The SPCA also operates a local Thrift Store (“Where Shopping Saves Lives”), a public, affordable Veterinary Care Center & a Dog Park. It is our mission to improve the lives of companion animals by rehoming abused, abandoned, and neglected pets while fighting for their well-being through vigorous legislative efforts, humane education, and by offering affordable veterinary care for all.