Jan 4, 2019

Second Chances for Severely Fearful Shelter Dogs

People who see fearful dogs often think that if they just give those animals love, they will come around. While this may be true for some, it wasn’t the case for two dogs, Nanook and Dexter, who were rescued by the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response team as part of a cruelty case last March. Nanook and Dexter were among more than 50 animals living in deplorable conditions, isolated and left to fend for themselves.

Having had no opportunities to socialize with people, both dogs were extremely fearful of all who tried to comfort them. How could we help them become comfortable around people and learn to feel love?

We are challenged by this dilemma every day at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC), the first and only facility dedicated to the study and rehabilitation of undersocialized, homeless dogs suffering from severe fear, often caused by cruelty and neglect. Based in Weaverville, North Carolina, the BRC has the capacity to treat 65 dogs at any given time and provides research-based training for select animal welfare groups from all over the U.S. While the success of rehabilitation depends on each individual dog and the severity of their behavior issues, all dogs who come to our facility show fearful behavior severe enough to compromise their quality of life and make adoption impossible.

When Nanook and Dexter arrived at our Rehab Center, they hid at the back of their runs, trembling at the sight of us and showing no interest in other dogs, toys or even food. They refused to eat during the day in sight of our staff and kept a nocturnal schedule, daring to eat only at night. They had never been walked on a leash and were terrified of it. They didn’t make eye contact with us, never wagged their tails, had no interest in exploring or playing, and spent most of the day hiding. We could only wait patiently to see if our interventions could change all that.

Early on in their treatment program, we had doubts about whether Nanook and Dexter could overcome their anxiety and enjoy activities and people like “normal,” well-adjusted pets do. We were these dogs’ last resort, and after a lifetime of mistreatment, they deserved second chances.

We took baby-steps at first, teaching the two dogs to eat their meals in the presence of people. Later we worked on helping them get used to walking on a leash, playing with other dogs, enjoying petting and riding in a car. Seems simple? Not for these dogs! What’s simple for other dogs was a tremendous challenge for these two.

Dexter’s main challenges were his fear of people, especially when people made eye contact with him, as well as trying to flee when walked on leash. After we made creative adjustments to our protocols and used a harness in place of a standard collar and leash, Dexter was able to make a positive connection with people and began enjoying life. Nanook’s behavior issues were more severe, as she had extreme difficulty even eating in the presence of people and panicked every time we tried walking her on a leash. Our Behavior experts worked with her over the course of several months to help her gradually tolerate being handled and touched, which included using a harness so she could enjoy daily walks outside. While she still struggled to eat in our presence, she eventually developed a trust in people—something necessary for success in a home, as her new family continues to help her build confidence.

After several months of intensive rehabilitation, Nanook and Dexter made significant improvements. They met our graduation guidelines, which help us determine when a dog is ready to leave our facility and go to a shelter or rescue group to be made available for adoption. Nanook was placed with Asheville Humane Society in North Carolina, and Dexter was placed with Monmouth County SPCA in New Jersey. Shortly after being placed with these shelters, we were thrilled to hear that Nanook and Dexter were adopted into safe and loving homes.

It’s so rewarding to witness severely fearful, undersocialized dogs make such amazing transformations after spending time at the BRC. After five years of working with these behaviorally compromised dogs, they never cease to amaze me. Helping them conquer their fears is one of the greatest gifts that we, as a team, can give them. In turn, it keeps us motivated to continue to bring more and more dogs into the program and changing—and saving—more vulnerable lives.

Nanook and Dexter had to learn what love is and how to truly enjoy life in a new home. Now they’re enjoying treats, belly rubs and long walks with people who care for and love them as much as we did.


Oct 9, 2018

Jah's Journey: How One Blind Dog Overcame the Odds


It had been four years since Steven and Jacqueline Berry and their family lost their Siberian Husky, Missy, to old age. But when Steven saw a media segment about the Clear the Shelters adoption event at the ASPCA on August 18, he knew the time was right to bring a new canine companion into their home. 

By the time Steven and his family arrived at the ASPCA Adoption Center that same Saturday afternoon, only one dog was left for adoption: a blind, two-year-old pit bull named Jah.

They hesitated at first, but all misgivings quickly disappeared when Steven saw how Jah interacted with his four children, girls Heavenly and Janey, boys Caillou and Elijah, ages seven to 13, and Steve’s sister, Shanear.

“He came right up to us like he had known us for years,” recalls Steven, whose wife and sister were also present. “The kids were petting him, touching him, rubbing his stomach. He even rolled over.” 

“I remember thinking, ‘This is the perfect home for Jah,’” says Stephen Cameron, Admission and Foster Programs Coordinator at the Adoption Center, who processed Jah’s adoption. “They asked all the right questions and were very excited about him. It was an amazing moment, so full of life and love.” 

It only took Jah a few days to adjust to his new home, despite his blindness.

“He learned the layout of our house quickly,” says Steven. “The way he moves around now, you wouldn’t know he has a vision problem.”

Jah first showed up on the ASPCA’s radar when Lisa Kisiel, Community Engagement Case Manager, and Dr. Jasmine Bruno, Community Medicine veterinarian, visited his previous owner to provide food, vaccines and a microchip for Jah.

“Jah approached us by smelling us,” Lisa recalls. “So we suspected he was blind.”

An ophthalmic assessment at the ASPCA Animal Hospital confirmed Jah’s blindness as well as progressive retinal degeneration, an inherited disease, in both eyes.

When Jah’s owner transitioned to living in a homeless shelter, he was forced to relinquish Jah to the ASPCA. 

“He did everything he could to keep Jah,” recalls Katherine Good, Community Engagement Coordinator and the lead on Jah’s case. “But his situation wasn’t sustainable.”

In his new home, Jah’s disability requires some cautious measures. Steven and his family make sure Jah’s environment is always safe and they use a harness to guide him on outdoor walks at nearby Crotona Park in the Bronx.

“His sense of smell is 100 percent,” reports Steven. “Even though his sight is gone, you really can’t tell he’s blind. He even darts for the front door when it’s time to go out.”

“Jah is proof that an animal who is irreversibly blind can have an excellent quality of life and be a loving companion,” says Dr. Felicia Magnaterra, a veterinarian at the Adoption Center who oversaw Jah’s care.

Jah gets a number of walks during the day, and the outings benefit the family as well as their new pet. 

“Jah gets me walking more, and in general, our whole family is more active now,” Steven says.  “He’s fun to play and run with,” adds Caillou.

“It’s refreshing to see a family who just accepts Jah the way he is,” says Katherine. “I couldn’t have imagined a better turnaround for him. He was loved before, but now he has ten times the attention, stimulation and entertainment.”

Jah may have been the only available dog at the shelter the day Steven and his family walked in, but they don’t see it that way. “Jah was the last one left,” Steven says. “So I guess it was just meant to be.”

Jah’s story is just one example of how for every shelter dog, there is a match waiting to take them home. No matter their shape, size or age, there is someone for everyone. This month, as we celebrate Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, we hope that you will get involved to help more dogs like Jah find loving homes through our #FindYourFido campaign!


Jul 16, 2018

Maxwell's Big Comeback

Animals have a resilience that is sometimes difficult for humans to comprehend, and Maxwell, a once-abused and neglected German Shepherd, is no exception.

Found in a Queens, New York, backyard without food or water, eight-year-old Maxwell was rescued by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in January 2017. He spent the next five months at the ASPCA Animal Hospital (AAH), where he was treated for severe skin disease, hair loss and for being severely underweight. 

Maxwell shortly after being brought to the ASPCA
Maxwell shortly after his arrival at the ASPCA.

“I could tell he was quite regal at one point,” says Joanne Langman, an ASPCA Behavior Counselor who helped rehabilitate Maxwell and has personally rescued more than 25 shepherds over the last 15 years. “He was also friendly and smart.”

Maxwell was also hard to miss. Eventually weighing in at 100 lb., he quickly became a staff favorite. 

Johan Aguero and Maxwell
Johan Aguero, an ASPCA Animal Care Technician, helped care for Maxwell.

“Considering all he’s been through, Max has a wonderful demeanor,” adds Joanne. “He really takes things in stride.”

Maxwell with a ball
Maxwell loved playing ball while in the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center.

Maxwell turned out to be very playful, tirelessly scampering back and forth across the ASPCA’s play terrace with his favorite red ball. He even enjoyed baths. “He tried to chase and eat the water,” explains Johan Aguero, an Animal Care Technician who cared for Maxwell at the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center. “He made us all laugh.” Maxwell later spent time in a foster home to get ready for adoption.

According to Dr. Laura Niestat, Forensic Veterinarian at the ASPCA, who oversaw his care, in his time with us Maxwell conquered bloat—a life-threatening condition in which the stomach dilates and twists upon itself. A blood clot in his spleen also landed him in emergency surgery, as did a testicular tumor that turned out to be benign. But, despite these severe ailments, Maxwell’s resilience continued to pull him through.

Johan and Maxwell playing
Johan and Maxwell at play.

In May 2017, at Joanne’s suggestion, Maxwell was transported to the Sedona Shepherd Sanctuary, which finds homes primarily for adult and senior shepherds—75 percent of whom come from shelters.  

“Maxwell is an amazing dog,” says James Dascoli, President of the Sedona Sanctuary. “He has an engaging personality and is very people focused. His trust in humans, despite being neglected and treated inhumanely, shows how dogs still place their faith in humans, even when we don’t live up to their expectations.”  

About the time Max arrived at Sedona, Ed B., his wife Christine and their 12-year-old son Jackson were saying a final goodbye to their dog Emmett, a pointer Ed and his co-workers had rescued from a Newark roadway the previous October after he was hit by a car. Emmett, suffering from liver cancer, passed away after living with the family for seven months.

Maximus with his new family
Ed, his wife Christine and their son Jackson with the newly named Maximus.

“We agreed that we would not wait long to rescue another senior dog,” said Ed, whose previous shepherds, Tequila and Shamrock, lived well into old age. When Ed and Christine met Maxwell, they formed an instant connection. They adopted him in July 2017, renaming him Maximus, or Max for short, after Russell Crowe’s character in the film “Gladiator.”

“Like his mythical movie counterpart, Maximus has a spirit that can’t be broken, regardless of the bad hand his previous life dealt,” says Ed. “He has shown real toughness in the face of neglect.” 

After adopting Max, the family spent several months continuing to improve his health. They helped him gain weight slowly by giving him small grain-free meals, which also helped normalize his skin. And they administered antibiotics to alleviate edema in his paws, which leaked fluid frequently.

Maximus on a hike and vacation
Maximus accompanies the family on hikes and vacations.

Before long, Max was able to participate in the family’s favorite activity: hiking in the Poconos. Max also joined the family at a cabin in Vermont for Thanksgiving. 

“Max has quickly become the center of our world; we can’t imagine what life would be without Max in it,” says Ed, who adds with a wink, “We don’t spoil him at all.”

Maximus in his bed
Maximus at home, at bedtime.

*Max’s previous owner recently pled guilty to misdemeanor cruelty and is banned from owning animals for one year. With the help of our supporters, we’ll continue to fight against animal cruelty and to be there for dogs like Max, helping them to heal and to finally find loving homes.

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