How the ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team Turns Trauma Victims Into Great Pets

An ASPCA worker examines a Dachshund rescued from a puppy mill.

Hollywood’s hard-partying starlets and injured pro athletes aren’t the only ones headed to rehab these days. Thanks to the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, members of the fluffier set are now getting the much-needed medical and psychological help they need to recuperate from mistreatment.

For the past two years, this novel department of the animal welfare organization has grown into the nation’s only major squad dedicated to rehabilitating puppy mill, hoarding and dog fighting victims.

“The animals really need our help because, without it, many of them will not make good companions,” explains Dr. Pamela Reid, CAAB, vice president of the special Anti-Cruelty division of the ASPCA. “It was needed because we didn’t have a large-scale program to help treat cruelty cases in this way, making sure that their psychological state is tip-top.”

Thanks to Dr. Reid, along with directors Kristen Collins, MS, ACAAB, and Dr. Kat Miller, CAAB, CPDT, animals across the country are transforming from traumatized victims into wonderful pets.

Surveying the Scene Through Forensics

When Dr. Reid describes what it's like to rescue animals as a member of the Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, it’s hard not to picture a Law & Order crime scene, complete with cops huddled together on a rain-soaked patch of pavement.

Typically, law enforcement officials in a given state contact the ASPCA’s Field Investigation & Response Team — and that’s when Dr. Reid's unit steps in. Depending on the number of animals who need rescuing from such unhappy circumstances as puppy mills and hoarding situations, one or all of the women may be called upon to assess the scene and then determine the nature of the psychological damage done to the animals.

“Being on-site helps us to gather crucial information, so we can better monitor the animals' temporary shelter housing,” Dr. Reid says. “It allows us to make sure that animals who came in together can be housed as a group and that shyer animals are kept in private, quieter areas.”

Getting the living circumstances just right is essential in order to protect the animals from further emotional and physical stress. And since temporary housing can be anything from a converted warehouse to empty fairgrounds — where the animals are often in limbo for months while court cases with former owners are settled — it’s important for the team to get properly situated and quickly start the rehabilitation process.

After a few days, the members of the team assess each animal for behavior quirks, so they can then pinpoint the correct courses of treatment. This can include everything from waiting to see if a dog or cat initiates human contact to noting whether an animal responds well to the type of handling that typically happens at a veterinarian’s office.

“This is not a pass/fail evaluation,” explains Collins, a former dog trainer with a master's in applied animal behavior. “It’s about getting a full picture of how the animal will react in different scenarios.”

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