When you consider the years of cruelty, neglect and isolation dogs rescued from puppy mills and hoarding situations endure, it’s not surprising that they often struggle with persistent behavioral problems, even after they’re rescued. Most of these dogs have never played with toys, walked on a leash, or had positive interactions with people. As a result, many are so fearful and untrusting that they’re not ready for adoption after rescue.
In the past, there was no happy ending for these dogs. Because of the severe behavioral damage they sustained, they often languished in shelters or faced euthanasia. Their quality of life was very poor, and they simply couldn’t function as companion animals. Feeling that these victims of animal cruelty deserved a second chance, we decided to open the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Madison, New Jersey—the first-ever facility dedicated to rehabilitating vulnerable and victimized dogs.
Since the opening of our Rehab Center in 2013, I’ve watched hundreds of dogs—big and small, young and old—transform from hopeless cases into happy dogs, romping around in our play yards, tails wagging, enjoying human affection and interaction for the first time, after weeks of intensive behavioral rehabilitation. Sometimes the progress these animals make is slow, but they continue to amaze and inspire our team of behavior experts, often teaching us new lessons that we can apply to other dogs in our program.
To help dogs in our program overcome their debilitating fears, we created about 35 behavior modification protocols based on sound scientific principles. We employ a variety of tools, from tasty food to toys to socialization time with other dogs. In fact, incorporating other dogs into our treatment sessions has proven one of the most effective strategies we employ. We pair up “helper dogs” — confident, friendly dogs — with more fearful ones. The presence of canine helpers often gives anxious animals the boost they need to make progress. My own dogs, Juno, Toefu and Wink, served as valuable helper dogs, and it was amazing to watch their calming influence coax timid dogs out of their shells.
We conduct our treatment sessions indoors and out, carefully introducing our undersocialized dogs to many environments they’ve never experienced before. We even have several rooms designed to look like typical rooms in a house, including a living room and a bedroom, because traumatized dogs need to get used to and feel comfortable in these particular settings if they’re to thrive in adoptive homes.
Of the hundreds of animals who’ve graduated from our program, many stand out in my memory. A severely undersocialized Jack Russell Terrier named Coconut remains one of my favorite cases. Coco was rescued from a puppy mill, where she lived in isolation for years. When she first arrived at the Rehab Center, she’d shrink away when we entered her kennel. She found even gentle handling highly aversive, thrashing violently to get away from us if we attempted to pet her. If she couldn’t escape, she’d sometimes resort to snapping at us. It was clear to all of us that Coco needed our help to become suitable for adoption. To our delight and surprise, after six weeks of patience and intensive rehabilitation, Coco was able to not only leave her kennel with confidence, but leave her fear — and her past — behind. She learned to wear a leash and trot beside us on walks, explore new places, meet new friends and enjoy a good scratch. Today, she’s living with a wonderful couple in New Jersey.
A dog named Kaya stands out in my memory, too. A Shiba Inu, Kaya was rescued from a meat farm overseas, where she was bred not for human companionship but human consumption. She was all but feral when she came to us and had no idea how to adjust to the world. She was a challenging case. Her progress was slow, but one day, Kaya turned a corner. Taking a brave step out of her comfort zone, she decided to start lying down next to my feet, under my desk, in my office. Not long after, she learned to perform some simple behaviors, like placing a paw on my leg, for food. This sounds like a small, mundane thing, but for Kaya, it was a major breakthrough that took a lot of courage. We continued to expand her repertoire of behaviors, using rewards to build her confidence and give her the tools she needed to overcome her fear. I eventually decided to foster Kaya myself and I have to admit, it’s becoming harder and harder to not think of her as part of my family. After the loss of my 14-year-old pit bull Juno, there might be permanent room for Kaya in my home, just as there’s always been room for her in my heart.
After working with approximately 300 dogs, many of whom have already been adopted, and producing a 2016 documentary on our work called “Second Chance Dogs,” we decided it was time to take a developmental step up ourselves. Late next year, we are opening a permanent facility in Weaverville, North Carolina, where we will not only continue our research and hands-on work with behaviorally challenged dogs but also expand to include a national shelter mentorship program. We’ll invite other shelter professionals to come, learn and take new knowledge back to their own organizations.
The big idea is to achieve widespread impact through education and collaboration, to see the lessons we’ve learned — and the hope they inspire — spread around the country, so that abused and neglected dogs can get the second chances they not only need, but deeply deserve after lifetimes of brutality and betrayal.