New Hope for Fear and Anxiety in Abused Dogs

Dog Rehabilitation

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recently the ASPCA opened the Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Madison, NJ, a first-of-its-kind facility dedicated exclusively to helping rehabilitate dogs that have been victims of animal cruelty.
  • The center’s patients will come from shelters across the country as well as from ASPCA-involved seizures, and will primarily be victims of puppy mills and hoarding situations.
  • Dogs with extreme fear disorders are in danger of being euthanized unless they can be rehabilitated – a job that typically falls to shelter workers and rescue groups. The ASPCA’s new center, which is launching a two-year research project, has committed to share its findings with shelters and rescue organizations across the U.S.
  • The Behavioral Rehabilitation Center has over two dozen kennels, treatment rooms, “real life” rooms, and common areas. There are 10 staff members, including two behavior experts, plus volunteers and daily caretakers. The ASPCA invested over a half a million dollars in the center, and will pay for all patient expenses, including vet care.
  • For many animals, being rescued from a lifetime of neglect and abuse is just the beginning of a long journey to recovery. The Behavioral Rehabilitation Center’s goal is to provide rescued dogs with customized behavior therapy and more time to recover, which will increase their chances of being adopted.

By Dr. Becker

Recently the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) opened the Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, NJ, as part of a two-year research project.

Per an ASPCA press release, the center is “the first-ever facility dedicated strictly to providing behavioral rehabilitation to canine victims of cruelty, such as those confiscated from puppy mills and hoarding cases.” According to center director Kristen Collins, the center will also treat a certain number of dogs that have been confined for long periods because they are “evidence” in court cases.

The Behavior Rehabilitation Center’s canine patients will come from shelters across the U.S. as well as from ASPCA-involved seizures from puppy mills and hoarders. According to Collins, the center is the first facility of its kind in that it will be focused exclusively on providing rehabilitation for dogs that are victims of animal cruelty.

The Center’s findings as part of the two-year research project will be shared with shelters and rescue organizations throughout the U.S.

Dogs with Extreme Fear Disorders Are Euthanasia Candidates

Dogs suffering from extreme fear are prone to symptoms such as shaking, cowering, loss of bladder control, growling and biting. In some cases, the fear is always present and causes the animal a great deal of pain. These cases are very hard to treat.

This level of fear is commonly seen in dogs that have survived life in puppy mills or hoarding situations. Once free, fear consumes them because their previous miserable, often abusive existence is all they’ve ever known. Typically, these animals are turned over to shelters and rescue groups who try to work with the dogs to help them overcome their fears. The alternative for many of these dogs is, sadly, euthanasia.

Dogs cowering in the back of their shelter kennels certainly have no quality of life, and prospective owners seldom choose them. If they do get adopted, without treatment they are ill-prepared to blend into a family environment, and many new owners are disappointed or at a loss to know what to do to help their new four-legged family member.

One of the things the ASPCA’s research project will do is provide some statistics to work with. Presently, no one really knows how many dogs with fear disorders are placed in adoptive homes, or how they do once they go to their new families. The Behavioral Rehabilitation Center staff will follow up on placed animals to document how well they are doing in their new environment.

Most Dogs Will Stay at the Center for Six to Eight Weeks

The ASPCA’s new center has over two dozen kennels, treatment rooms, “real life” rooms, common areas, and an office. There are 10 people on staff at the center, including two behavior experts from St. Hubert’s. There are also volunteers and caretakers who feed the dogs and clean their kennels.

Center behaviorists will provide customized behavior modification therapy to reduce fear and anxiety in abused dogs. From a recent press release:

"Treatment plans will incorporate the use of scientifically sound techniques designed to reduce the dogs' fear of people and other dogs, acquainting them to unfamiliar objects, sounds, living areas, and real-life situations that can induce trauma and severe stress among this population."

The ASPCA spent over half a million dollars on the center, and will foot the bill for all patient expenses, including veterinary care.

Most dogs will stay at the facility for six to eight weeks, with some requiring a more lengthy or shorter stay, depending on their individual situation. “Graduates” of the center will return to a shelter for placement, and ongoing therapy will be provided as needed.

"For some animals, the reality is that after a lifetime of neglect and abuse, the rescue is just the beginning of their journey to recovery," said Dr. Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. The Behavioral Rehabilitation Center’s goal is to provide rescued dogs individualized behavior therapy and more time to recover from past abuse. This will increase the likelihood of successful adoption.

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Rescued Alaskan Malamutes Some of Center’s First Residents

Some of the first patients at the new center were a few Alaskan malamutes taken from a Montana breeder who was convicted in December 2012 of over 90 counts of animal cruelty. A total of 213 malamutes were rescued from starvation and filthy living conditions in that case. The dogs were transferred to other kennels and kept as evidence for 16 months during trial preparation.

Eighteen of the dogs were pregnant, one of which weighed just 48 pounds (the average weight of an Alaskan malamute is 75 pounds). She delivered a litter of eight puppies. Only one survived.

Once the dogs were no longer “evidence,” they were sent to a humane society in Helena where they were spayed and neutered. Another animal welfare group helped begin placing the dogs. Some of the malamutes have found new homes; some are living in rescues awaiting adoption.

One of the dogs was adopted by the president of the Alaska Malamute Assistance League in Anchorage. The dog, a 6 year-old female named Cinder, is missing the tip of one ear, has broken teeth and a broken toe – all caused by food fights among the starving dogs while they lived at the breeding facility in Montana. According to Cinder’s owner, many of the malamutes are missing their tongues for the same reason.

Cinder’s owner, Bob Sutherland, says she has come a long way:

"We took a shy dog, and she's all grins and giggles now. If you work with these dogs, they rise and shine. That's why this ASPCA facility is so valuable to us. We were super excited to get these dogs in there to go through a training regimen. It saves us a lot of heartbreak about what we do with these dogs.”

Hope for the Future of Mistreated Animals

Sadly, there will be dogs that cannot overcome their fear, no matter how extensive the rehabilitation. But the center’s behaviorists are committed to do everything possible to help dogs recover. Euthanasia will be a last resort for dogs with an extremely poor quality of life, or those who pose a significant threat to people or other animals.

The Behavioral Rehabilitation Center will only be able to handle about 400 animals during the two-year project, so it won’t take much burden off shelters in the immediate future. The hope is that researchers will develop new ways to treat fear, anxiety and shyness in dogs that have been abused, and those techniques can be shared on a broad scale with other facilities and groups doing similar work.

According to Collins, success with this project could expand future projects to include fighting dogs, and even cats.