By Emma Castleberry
In May, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) opened the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC) in Weaverville. This facility, the first one of its kind in the country, is dedicated strictly to the study and behavioral rehabilitation of homeless dogs who suffer from severe fear and anxiety, including those rescued from puppy mills, hoarding situations and dog fighting cases. The ASPCA BRC is an expansion of the pilot program launched in 2013 at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey, which had an 86 percent success rate for rehabilitating traumatized dogs.
Kristen Collins, vice president of the ASPCA BRC, says that the need for a facility like this is a result of a changing landscape in animal welfare, likely as a result of spay and neuter initiatives. “We’re getting a handle on overpopulation in many parts of the country,” she says. “We’re just seeing a lot of dogs who need something more. One of the biggest problems is dogs entering shelters, from cruelty cases or other backgrounds, that are so fearful and anti-social that they can’t be adopted— so many of these dogs that don’t even have a chance.” The ASPCA BRC exists to give those dogs just that: a chance.
The ASPCA BRC can treat 65 dogs at a time, and it is currently full with a waiting list. Dogs come to the facility from the ASPCA’s own cases, other rescue groups and shelters across the country as well as locally. The facility is made up of individual kennels, “real-life rooms,” outdoor pens and an indoor training ring where behaviorists and trainers work daily with dogs in the program. On average, rehabilitation requires approximately 14 weeks of treatment. Since opening, the ASPCA BRC has graduated more than 80 dogs with a 91 percent success rate. “Even though this is a need, which is unfortunate, I feel proud that we are leaders in finding ways to help these animals and save the vast majority of them,” says Collins.
In addition to on-site rehabilitation, the ASPCA BRC is home to the Learning Lab, a research-based, collaborative training program available to select shelters around the country. The facility includes a dormitory and space for shelter professionals to visit and learn with the BRC team so they can implement targeted sheltering protocols focused on maximizing behavioral healthcare into their own operations. The first participants in the program were a team of 12 from the SPCA of Texas who attended the program for a week. “We have a population of animals here in Texas that come in from animal cruelty situations like puppy mills and hoarding situations,” says Val Masters, senior behavior manager for the SPCA of Texas. “They come in shy, shut down and fearful, with little to no socialization with people or even environmental socialization.”
Masters says the biggest takeaway from the week of training at the ASPCA BRC was the many tiny details that can impact an animal’s progress: how their space is cleaned, how a person interacts when he or she enters the animal’s setting, the importance of enrichment time and even the powerful addition of a “zen hour” every day. “We’ve taken the ASPCA’s model and adapted it to our set-up as best we can,” says Masters. “The ASPCA has taken four years to put together this program. It is based in science and data collection that allow for a positive outcome and high percentage of success.” Since attending the Learning Lab program in May, the SPCA of Texas has already graduated two rehabilitated dogs. “These animals would not have had a chance without this program,” Masters says. As the Learning Lab program evolves, the ASPCA plans to develop a national network of partner organizations who can share learnings and best practices with each other and other agencies in their communities. Also in the BRC’s future is an expansion of their volunteer program to include a foster home system for graduates. “We opened our doors, brought in all these animals and started working with them,” says Collins. “So they all graduated around the same time and placing them with our partners has been a flood. We’re successful, but we need to place these animals quickly.”
As the program’s success leaves more dogs ready for adoption, foster home volunteers can take care of the animals while they wait to be transported. “We have placed a few dogs locally, including at Asheville Humane, but our goal is to rehabilitate and place our graduates mainly with rescue groups and shelters out of the region,”says Collins.
Dennis Mankin, a retired behavioral psychologist and volunteer at the BRC, says he gets a sense of peace from working with these dogs. His volunteer shifts always start with a “drive-by,” when he tosses some treats over each kennel door to help dogs get used to seeing unfamiliar people. Other volunteer tasks include taking dogs for walks, cutting up treats or taking down and folding laundry. “I‘d never been into a place like this and I was nervous, but these people there aren’t going to let you take on something that you aren’t ready for,” says Mankin. “The bottom line is that we’re helping dogs get back into the community and that’s pretty cool.”
To learn more about the volunteer program, visit ASPCA.org/BRC and click “Volunteer.” Volunteer opportunities are available 7 days per week, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.. to 5 p.m.