Matt’s Blog: Solving a Life-Threatening Animal Behavior Challenge
By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker
For canine survivors of puppy mills, hoarding, dogfighting and other forms of cruelty, behavior challenges can be severe—and life-threatening—due to the traumas experienced and extreme fears that often result. Moments as commonplace as the feel of a leash, a gentle stroke, sudden sounds and the presence of people can cause extreme anxiety and intense responses that are devastating to an animal’s quality of life and adoption chances.
In a September 2022 ASPCA nationwide survey of shelters and rescues, more than two-thirds of shelter professionals said their inability to manage the frequency and severity of animal behavior needs is a top barrier to placing animals into adoptive homes.
Healing these inner scars on a meaningful scale requires not only innovative, effective and science-backed behavioral treatment, but also effective ways to share groundbreaking learnings, tactics and new best practices with animal welfare professionals and shelters so those insights and techniques can be widely adopted.
Tackling both imperatives head on are the ASPCA’s pioneering Learning Lab and Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC), which recently passed a significant five-year milestone.
A Place for Healing and Learning
Opened in May 2018, the BRC is a first-of-its-kind facility dedicated to the rehabilitation and study of homeless dogs suffering from severe fear, most of whom were rescued from animal cruelty and neglect situations such as hoarding and puppy mills.
Since launching, the BRC has directly saved the lives of hundreds of traumatized dogs from ASPCA national cruelty cases and transported from animal welfare organizations across the country. Even more importantly, we share critical learnings and innovations uncovered and hone in those treatments with the field in many ways, including in-person ASPCA Learning Lab workshops at the BRC.
In these live workshops, participants closely observe the BRC team in action, discuss and create plans relevant to their operations and take home tips and tactics they can use when working with their own fearful dogs. Rehabilitation techniques implemented at the BRC and shared in workshops—including the use of helper dogs, a sensory garden and “real-life rooms”—help dogs become comfortable with unfamiliar people, household objects, sudden sounds, handling, walking on-leash and other real-life situations they would likely experience in a home.
Even after the workshops end, Learning Lab staff provide visiting training participants with ongoing consultative support.
Resources for All Shelter Professionals
In addition to attending in-person workshops, tens of thousands of animal welfare professionals representing more than 1,200 organizations nationwide have enrolled in virtual education opportunities provided by the Learning Lab. Even more professionals access information, data and recommendations regularly on ASPCApro, our online resource center that provides free animal behavior resources, research and recommendations.
Stories of Second Chances
When it comes to illustrating the impact of this work, stories always beat numbers, and many animal stories illustrate the transformative benefits of behavioral rehabilitation. Those stories include Lolly, a once-anxious puppy mill survivor who was adopted in 2022; Telli and Sirius, a pair of very fearful dogs who were rehabilitated and adopted together in 2022; and Brooks, who was rescued from severe neglect in 2021, treated at the BRC and adopted later that year.
If you live in the North Carolina, South Carolina or Tennessee area and are interested in adopting one of the BRC’s canine graduates, please visit aspca.org/NCdogs.
More Rehabilitation Opportunities
Two new facilities expand our capacity to care for some of the country’s most vulnerable animals.
Opened in 2022, the ASPCA Cruelty Recovery Center (CRC) in Columbus, Ohio, plays a critical role by providing sheltering expertise and care—often including medical and behavioral treatment—for animals rescued as part of our national cruelty and disaster response work, ensuring that they get the physical and emotional support they need and deserve.
The CRC also ensures that regional shelters without the capacity to take in large populations of seized animals can focus on helping other animals in their communities while the ASPCA provides ongoing sheltering, medical and behavioral care for the survivors of cruelty and neglect until courts determine their ownership.
And currently in development, the ASPCA Recovery & Rehabilitation Center (R&R), to be built in Pawling, New York, will provide advanced behavioral and medical interventions to effectively shelter, rehabilitate and rehome canine victims of cruelty and neglect, working in conjunction with the ASPCA's Canine Annex for Recovery & Enrichment and the Animal Recovery Center in New York City.
Focusing on treating dogs with severe stress, hyperarousal and reactivity, the R&R will enable the ASPCA to more than double its current capacity to care for the animals rescued through the NYPD partnership and survivors of cruelty and neglect from across the country.
At these facilities—as we do across the ASPCA—we will share new techniques and discoveries with the animal welfare field, maximizing the impact of our hands-on work.
With our partnership and support, shelter animal behavior interest and awareness is expanding at other organizations. In recent years, several organizations, including the Anti-Cruelty Society, the San Diego Humane Society, the Humane Society of Western Montana, Wayside Waifs and the Atlanta Humane Society—all Learning Lab partners—have turned their attention and resources toward advancing behavioral healthcare at their facilities.
A Hopeful Future for Animals in Need
The Behavioral Rehabilitation Center’s five-year milestone is a cause for celebration, but also an affirmation that—driven by collaboration, innovation, determination and a “do, learn, share” philosophy—countless animals can be redirected from hopeless fates to new paths toward safe and loving homes they need and deserve.
I can’t thank enough all the shelter partners who have shared their needs and ideas to help elevate the use of animal behavior expertise to save lives far and wide, making an incredible difference in the lives of at-risk animals who rely on us most.