Sassy the dog had so much going against her, including that she had been rescued from reprehensible conditions with a hoarder. Those dogs — 29 in all — were so neglected and abused that they were terrified of humans and human contact. Many of them would have been thought unadopable.
But the ASPCA has a new effort underway that aims to take dogs like those and train the damage of their previous pain and horror out of them so they can get the love they deserve:
Often after a seizure by the ASPCA — or “the A,” as staffers call it — there are criminal charges pending against the owner and a scrum over custody of the dogs. In this case, however, the hoarder dodged jail time by agreeing to release her pets. (She also signed a binding — or else — waiver that she’d never own dogs again.) The ASPCA had already pivoted to phase two of rescue, installing a temp shelter in a warehouse. Domiciled for weeks there, the dogs were seen by vets, who performed surgery on the most badly injured patients. The ASPCA also flew behaviorists in to assess the mental health of the dogs. They were graded on several axes: fearfulness of people; aggression and hyperarousal; ease of handling and feeding. A few of them scored in the middle range of trauma, meaning the ASPCA could treat and train them at the temporary shelter and prepare them for local adoptions.
But the bulk were so stricken by the sight of human beings that they soiled themselves and hid in abject terror. Sassy was one of those petrified dogs. Besides her sundry ailments — a coat severely scarred by mange; “hookworms, whipworms, a grade-three heart murmur, pain from her skin condition, an ear infection, a low body-condition score (3/9), and grade-two, -three dental disease,” per her intake form — her psyche was so scrambled by neglect and cruelty that she lived in a state of dread. Staffers had to turn their backs when they fed her. She couldn’t bear being looked at, let alone touched. Failing an intervention, she’d join the 400,000 dogs put down each year for the crime of being homeless or having behavioral issues. The cruelty of their fate is almost cosmic. Saved from horrific circumstance by cops or rescue teams, they are euthanized shortly after to end their suffering.
But Sassy and her mates from the storage unit had a miracle in store. In the spring of 2020, they were trucked hundreds of miles to the world’s first clinic for severely traumatized dogs: the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC) in Weaverville, North Carolina. There, in three transformative months, they’d get a crash course of nurture and training from data-driven teams of pet behaviorists. In tiny blocks of treatment — 15 minutes a day — they’d haltingly push through their fear of people, discover the joy of being creatures at play, and emerge from lives of unspeakable pain to become someone’s wonder dog.
You can read the rest here at Rolling Stone.