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Instead of taking their coffee break in the company break room, Bonipak Packing Co. employees Gabriel Jaimes, Noemi Reyes and Andrea Velasquez spent part of their morning visiting with the dogs and cats of the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society.

"We always wanted to come across the street during our lunch time to look at the dogs," Reyes and Velasquez said. "When our Human Resources director brought the idea to the company to volunteer our time during our break, we went with it." 

Though the doors to the shelter, located at 1687 W. Stowell Road, are closed to the public Mondays and Tuesdays, all three were on hand Tuesday morning — armed with treats and eager to pet and play — to fill a much-needed gap in the facility's training program.

"We're grateful for their help on Mondays and Tuesdays because they're helping us fulfill our Open Paw program," said Jody Epstein, behavior and training manager for the Humane Society. "It turns out, employees frequently walk in the fields on their lunch break. We invited them over to interact with the animals, and in return, we give them coffee and pastries."

Designed by renowned animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar and trainer Kelly Gorman Dunbar, Epstein said Sean Hawkins, the Humane Society's executive director, brought the Open Paw training program to the shelter last year. Unlike traditional training methods that focus on correcting undesired behavior, Open Paw prioritizes an animal's mental and behavioral health (with the goal of minimizing the time spent at a shelter) by reducing stress and improving living conditions.

"Most shelters focus on keeping the space clean and providing food and water," Epstein said. "You are lucky if those dogs get one out-of-kennel bathroom break a day. Shelters try, but with limited staff and volunteers, it's just not happening all the time."

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Through the Humane Society's Open Paw program, dogs are guaranteed three out-of-kennel bathroom walks to practice leash skills and a minimum of 20 minutes of focused enrichment (training, play, off-property or clinic visits). In addition to the time spent out of the kennel, the program requires a minimum of 20 unique human interactions every day.

"We want our animals learn that humans are amazing," Epstein explained. "By doing that, we get them to generalize that all humans are exciting and good [regardless of their appearance.] They associate people with food and [that] makes them excited to meet them."

Barks and howls filled the kennel area before Velasquez, Jaimes and Reyes entered the building. The area was quiet within 10 minutes of the small group's arrival as they met and fed the animals. Classical music — previously inaudible over the canine chorus — could be heard from a small boom box near the center of the room.

"Interacting with animals makes a huge difference," Jaimes said. "Just like any human, the more you interact with someone the better behaved they will be. You're helping yourself and, also, helping them."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.