Victoria Wells, ASPCA Manager of Shelter Behavior and TrainingNovember 30, 2007
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Victoria Wells a miracle worker. As the ASPCA’s Manager of Shelter Behavior and Training, Wells works daily to rehabilitate animals rescued from abuse by our Humane Law Enforcement officers. You may have seen her featured on Animal Precinct. If you’ve ever wondered what happens after the police work is done, read on!
My husband and I have been watching Animal Precinct since the beginning. We always comment on how wonderful you are and how grateful we are that there are people in the world willing to do the work you do! On an unrelated note, we always love your style and hair!
Thank you so much! I can't tell you how thankful I am to do what I do. I don’t understand how these animals who were hurt so badly can ever trust people again, but somehow they do. I have learned so much from them.
P.S. My hair is black today!
I watch Animal Precinct religiously, and I’ve always wondered: Is it hard not to get attached to the animal you help?
I am glad you asked that. I get really attached to the animals I rehab. Since you watch the show, you might remember Samson and Delilah, the Cane Corso mastiffs who came in starved. Delilah was really fearful, and I worked with her for months to get her over her problems. Well, she and I became best friends, and happily she was adopted to a great home. It turns out she lives three blocks away from me. I saw her last week for the first time, walking down the street. I couldn't believe it! I had shopping bags in my hands and I threw them on the sidewalk, ran up to her and started crying. Her owner thought I was a real freak! He didn't know who I was, so he thought I was just off my rocker. She looked soooo great! I told him I worked at the ASPCA so he wouldn't have me arrested. But yes, I do get attached because I see how horrible these dogs look when they come in and how great they look and act when they leave!
Do you agree with Cesar Millan's methods (Dog Whisperer, National Geographic Channel)? Who are your mentors as far as dog training goes?
I am so glad you asked this question! We have very different methods and philosophies, although the ultimate goal is the same. We both want to keep dogs alive. I deal with a very different population of dogs than he does. If I attempted the style of training he practices, the results would not be successful. I work with severely abused animals who need to know they can trust people. I take a lot of different trainers’ and behaviorists’ methods and apply them to what I do. Two people from whom I have learned tons are Dr. Amy Marder and the ASPCA’s Dr. Pam Reid.
Soon I will be studying to be a veterinary technician, but I would love to one day do what you do. Can you give me some advice on how to get started?
Also, my dog is the sweetest baby in the world, but she barks and scares anyone new who enters our house. She has never bitten anyone, she just likes to bark for a good half hour. Is there anything I could do to help her realize the difference between friend and foe? Thank you for all you do and keep up the great work!
I think volunteering at a shelter is the best way to get started in anything related to rehabilitation. You learn from so many different dogs who have come from varied situations. You might think of attending a training academy such as one at the San Francisco SPCAs. This will give you a basic knowledge in learning theory and dog training methodology. Become a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. They offer seminars and conferences to keep you up on the latest in behavior and training methods.
I think you should consider calling a certified trainer or behaviorist in to help you with your dog, but here are a few tips until then: Keep your dog behind a baby gate or in a crate when someone is visiting. Your dog is just as nervous as they are and this will make her feel a little more secure. Toss her treats when your friends walk through the door. I would keep her separated from your guests for the duration of the visit unless she really trusts them. Movement, eye contact and petting will trigger a response. Please get your pup professional help. It's something that is best addressed in person. Thanks so much!
Hello, Victoria! What are the danger signs that you look for to determine if a dog can be successfully rehabilitated and re-homed? I used to work at a no-kill shelter that puts animals down for fixable behavior problems. How do you get people to trust your opinion? How did you become a behaviorist? Thanks for being an advocate for the animals!
Every dog is an individual and you have to take into account the severity of the behavior issue and the nature of the problem. I can say from experience that fear-related aggression is one of the toughest behaviors to modify. If a dog is displaying aggression out of fear in a shelter environment, the problem can get worse when he becomes comfortable in a home. This is not always the case, but it’s something to be aware of. Dogs really need to be exposed to all sorts of people, events and objects when they are puppies, and many dogs seized from abusive situations have not been. I think people trust my opinion (I hope they do!). I went through a behavioral apprenticeship many years ago, and that’s how I started in behavior.
What has been your most challenging case, and what case has been the most rewarding for you? Most importantly, how did you decide to become a animal behaviorist and trainer?
Not so long ago, a dog named Whiley came to us. He was starved, blind and terrified. He was blind pretty much since birth and lived outside in a junkyard all of his life. When he came in, he would crash to the ground when touched by a person. He would freeze in fear, shiver, droolhe was just a mess. I have never seen a dog so scared of people in my life. I really didn't have much hope for him because for two weeks I had to carry this 65-pound dog everywherethat's how scared he was. One day, I brought in another dog to meet him, because I ran out of ideas to get him over this intense fear of everything. For the first time in two weeks, I saw life in Whiley. He lifted his head off the ground, his tail started to wag and he moved from that one spot he had been glued to in the corner of the training room. HE STARTED TO WALK! I couldn't believe it. From that day forward, that was the treatment for Whiley. I brought in a group of dogs and he came to life. Soon he was walking around the block as if he had his sight. Later, he had an operation to restore sight in one of his eyes. He has since been adopted and lives in the country with three other dogs.
To answer your second question: I never thought about animal behavior when I was in school. It was never offered. I had always loved animals and learned about it after a career in design and music.
What’s your take on fostering? Obviously, being in a home with more direct attention is better than a shelter, but how do these dogs react when they previously have been given up from one family, then go to a shelter, to a foster home, then to a possible forever home (if that works out)? Does this compound problems, or help them adjust better? Thanks.
We want animals to be placed in forever homes, but we utilize the foster option if there is a benefit to it, such as medical rehabilitation or behavioral observation or rehabilitation. We never shuffle a dog or cat around to foster homes for his entire life. That would not be good for the animal.
Hi, Victoria. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us and answer our questions. What is your opinion on pit bulls in shelters? I work at a shelter that tries to adopt out pit bulls who are deemed "adoptable," but it seems that if there is a minor behavior problem (whether it is being overly shy, a little food aggressive, etc.), they are put down. There are a lot of shelters in the area that just put down pit bulls regardless of their temperament. What is your take on how these shelters should approach this breed? I personally have a 12-year-old pit bull at home and she’s such a sweetheart. I don't see how anyone could hate an animal just because of its breed.
I, too, have a pit and he is the best! Unfortunately, they are the most widely abused dog and I work with more pits than any other breed. It is important to look at them as individuals and not discriminate based on their breed.
After an abused animal is brought in by an officer and is terrified to go near people, what do you do? Do you give him a few days to chill, or do you begin work right away?
I have to assess how fearful they are and what their reaction to my interaction with them is going to be. Every interaction with a withdrawn dog is an attempt to counteract his fear, so I make every attempt to find out what is reinforcing to them and use it to bring them out of their shell. I won't force them to come out of their kennel if they are not ready. It doesn't take too long for them to understand I am there to help.
How do I become an animal rehabilitator?
I would start by volunteering at your local animal shelter. They need all the help they can get, and you will learn so much about animal behavior. You might want to attend a dog training academy or to think about a masters degree in animal sciences. Nothing is better than hands-on experience! Become a volunteer dog walkerit's a great start.
Hi Victoria, I volunteer with "difficult" behaviorally challenged shelter animals, and I'm stumpedoccasionally I foster dogs and cats with restricted diets (no treats) and wonder what I can use to positively reinforce them, especially the ones who don't like to be touched?
There are many different reinforcements you can use other than treats. I frequently use toys and play above treats, especially for dogs who have arousal issues. You can use scent, water or access to individual people. If animals like other animals, access or play can be reinforcing. It's all about being creative.
Hi, Victoria! I would like to know your feelings on Michael Vick and other people who fight dogs. I would also like to know if you think that pit bulls who have been fought ever have a chance at rehabilitation. Finally, I would like to know...what can I do to help? I love pits, and can't wait to work with them once I finish my education!
People who fight pits are not human! How can they be, when these animals are suffering so much and they just watch and even take pleasure in it? I know firsthand what goes into fighting, and it is beyond cruel. These dogs are bred to want to kill other dogs and really, there is no stopping them. They are conditioned to kill and it is so hard to modify something so ingrained. They can be lovely toward people, but forget it if a dog gets in the way. There are plenty of pit rescue groups that need volunteers, and plenty of shelters that need help training these dogs.