How the ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team Turns Trauma Victims Into Great Pets
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.”
Getting Down to Rehab Work
Animals who haven’t been exposed to normal aspects of daily life, like house training and even wearing collars, often suffer from severe anxiety and timidness, which the team works to combat. “When it comes to shyness or fearfulness, we use behavior modification to change their perception of the world, instead of trying to teach them new things,” Dr. Reid says. “For a dog who doesn’t feel comfortable being touched, for example, that means building up to the point when you’re able to touch his foot through a lot of repetition and rewards.”
Since dogs pick up cues from fellow pups, the experts also use “social facilitation” techniques, which may mean pairing an outgoing dog with a shy pup who can perhaps mimic the confident dog's reactions to humans. “You can certainly make an animal like an individual person, but making them like many people is even more helpful," Collins says. "And happy body language will make them more likely to get adopted.”
Although dogs are frequently the focus in these situations, felines sometimes require the team's help, too. In February 2012, investigators alerted the ASPCA to at least 700 neglected cats who were living at a supposed “sanctuary” in Florida known as the Caboodle Ranch. The animals were transferred to a temporary shelter in Jacksonville, where they now reside.
“The efforts that we’ve undergone have been very, very intensive,” Dr. Reid says. “When they first came to us, they were unhealthy and frightened. Cats are also less amenable to certain types of interventions, so some may not care if you touch them or give them tuna, but some do.”
Dr. Miller, who has been to Florida three times to work with the cats, is something of a feline expert. “Cats are near and dear to my heart,” she says. “There are relatively few cat specialists out there, [but] I’ve been lucky to develop my skills. Dogs and cats behave very differently when they’re stressed or afraid. What we know about dogs can lead us down the wrong path with cats. For instance, a dog rolls over on its back for a tummy rub, but cats use that as a defensive pose to get their back claws out and ready.”
Live, Learn and Dole Out Lots of Love
As horrifying as the Caboodle Ranch situation was to manage, members of the team understand that the situation also presented them with a chance to learn more about abused animals.
“It’s surprising how little research has been done with companion animals, compared to livestock and laboratory animals,” says Dr. Miller, who has worked at the ASPCA since 2005. “We have the unique opportunity to observe and track the behavior of these animals over time.”
Case in point: In October 2011, the team traveled to Morehead, Ky., where 118 puppy mill survivors were rescued, and then set up for almost five months of temporary living.
“I was lucky enough to see all the progress that the animals made, as well as the challenges that they ran into,” says Collins, who was present from the beginning to the point when the dogs went to more permanent residences. “There was a longhaired Chihuahua who was so scared that she was completely catatonic during her entrance evaluation. By the end, she was approaching people, and she even climbed onto my lap and sniffed my face. That’s a huge success. Even the animals who are most traumatized can recover.”
So what keeps these ladies going during such bleak situations?
“For me, it’s seeing success stories, especially when we know where the animals came from,” says Dr. Reid, “like a Pit Bull on a long chain, with a plastic barrel for a house, who comes to us and starts to enjoy life, and then gets adopted by a family that loves him.”