by Zoe Strothkamp
The dog was visibly traumatized. From her muzzle—open and panting—to her tail—tucked deep between her legs—the signs of fear radiated from her body. Her unfocused eyes, ringed with white, stared like a deer into headlights. Something in this wide room would harm her, she knew. Her sense of impending doom and overwhelming terror, distracting her beyond all other thought, made her freeze, sit, cower in a corner of the room by the door. She noticeably shook, her muscles, ready for flight, contracting a hundred times a second as she waited to run. The reason for her fear? An unfamiliar room.
Her trauma resulted from years spent in a hoarding situation. Little is known about her particular experience, but most hoarding cases entail tens, even hundreds, of animals kept in one house or trailer or property. Cages stacked on top of each other, leaking feces and urine that drip, slide from wire to wire, dog to dog. Paws that cut themselves on metal grating and tangled mats of fur that cover eyes, block movement, drown hope. Ribs that protrude from skin, hip bones sharpened to points. Scars and open wounds from fighting for food that fester, turn rancid, infection seeping through skin, bone, blood. The situations and severity vary greatly, but all of the animals are neglected and unsocialized. In some cases, they live in eternal darkness. For many, this is the only life they have ever known. It’s no surprise that they come out broken.
Yet, despite her behavioral problems, this traumatized dog, named Lana, will be adopted. Some animals that come to shelters are brought to their forever homes on the same day. For her, it might take weeks. Months. But it will happen, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds. She just needs a little extra help.
For Lana, this help comes from the behavior and training department at the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) and the many staff and volunteers, led by manager Tanya Roberts, who spend countless hours working for even the smallest improvement—a few steps of her own volition, less shaking, a moment of eye contact. For some dogs, progress is fast. For others, it follows a meandering road—small steps forward, more backward, maybe a side route down a different path. Each dog is an individual, so their treatment is individually tailored as well.
Around the country and the world, behavior rehabilitation for animals is a growing focus for pet enthusiasts. In 2013, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) opened their Behavioral Rehabilitation Center, the first facility dedicated to improving the lives of and providing therapy for currently unadoptable dogs (“Behavioral Rehabilitation”). Shelters such as OHS began to implement behavior programs to try to successfully adopt out more animals. And it’s about time—for years the benefits of animal therapy for humans have been extolled. Pets fill sixty-eight percent of American homes (“Facts + Statistics”). From Babe the pig to Lassie the collie to the rabbits of Watership Down, animals have long been the heroes of our stories. Now, it’s time to be theirs.
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Lana is one of the two hundred and fifty thousand animals that become victims of hoarding every year in the United States (“Animal Hoarding”). And hoarding is just one form of abuse that dogs suffer—other types include dogfighting, puppy mills, greyhound racing, neglect, and daily cruelty in homes. The list is extensive and the numbers even more so. In 2014, the estimated number of puppy mills—dog breeding operations that forgo quality of life to maximize profit—in the United States was ten thousand, breeding over two million puppies every year (“The Hallmarks”; “Puppy Mills”). These dogs live in deplorable conditions and often suffer from many diseases—genetic and situational—as well as behavioral issues (“How Cruel”; “The Hallmarks”). Dog fighting is another major type of animal cruelty; tens of thousands of Americans currently engage in this crime in the United States (“A Closer”). Driven by greed, dogfighters seek to profit from their animals, pitting them against one another in brutal fights. Many do not survive their injuries. Despite several publicized busts—the Missouri 500, Bad Newz Kennels—this underground activity survives unnoticed throughout the country, subjecting thousands of dogs to unimaginable pain. In contrast to dogfighting, the popularity of greyhound racing is declining, but it is still legal in five states (“Greyhound Racing”). Between 2008 and 2015, nearly twelve thousand greyhounds suffered injuries while racing and over nine hundred died, though the numbers are certainly higher since those killed when deemed unfit to race are often unreported by their owners (“Greyhound Racing”). Sixteen dogs showed evidence of cocaine injection (“Greyhound Racing”).
Dogs rescued from these cruel conditions often suffer from debilitating behavioral issues—fear, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, aggression—as a way of coping with their stress. For Lana, anxiety and fear of humans plague her as a result of inadequate or nonexistent socialization. According to Tanya Roberts, puppies have a period of time after birth (about four months) when socialization—including handling, a well-adjusted mother, and a normal environment—is crucial in developing proper behavior (Roberts). Experiencing improper socialization can lead to an inability to cope with new situations and experiences, creating a variety of behavioral problems (Roberts). Many people associate mental disorders only with humans. However, we are really not that different from our pets. Dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as severely as we do, and maybe with a more dismal prognosis since therapy is less available for them (Dodman). In recent years, though, organizations have sought to change that, from the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center to shelters across the country and specialized training clinics dedicated to controlling destructive behaviors. It is increasingly apparent that dogs once deemed impossible to fix, dogs destined for euthanasia without a second glance, in fact have the potential for astounding recoveries.
For instance, on April 25, 2007, state authorities discovered a dog-fighting operation on the property of NFL star Michael Vick. Called Bad Newz Kennels, this ring housed fifty-four dogs at the time of the investigation, the majority pit bulls and most of them brutally abused. Police discovered a “blood-stained fighting area,” a “rape stand” for female dogs, and drugs used to “keep injured dogs fighting longer” (“Case Study”). The case drew national attention, and with his eventual guilty plea, Vick was suspended from the NFL (“Case Study”). But what happened to the forty-nine dogs who were rescued from the operation? Although many people favored execution, as was common in dogfighting cases, ASPCA behaviorists evaluated their temperaments and ultimately euthanized only a single, extremely aggressive pit bull (“Case Study”). Fewer than twelve of the remaining forty-eight dogs showed any signs of aggression and their fighter reputations (Gorant). Many were so terrified of humans that they cowered on the ground in fear, a group dubbed the “pancake dogs” (Gorant). Others were friendly, albeit unsocialized (Gorant).
So, instead of being killed, the forty-eight dogs were relocated to eight rescue centers across the United States, for adoption, rehabilitation, or to live the rest of their lives in a sanctuary (“Case Study”). After years of therapy, many of those dogs now live ordinary lives in families that see past the scars on their bodies and their years of abuse. Several are even therapy dogs—Hector, Leo, Jonny Justice—agility champions—Audie—and internet celebrities—Handsome Dan (Grissom, 2013; “The Stars”; Gorant, 2010).
The growth of these pit bulls from damaged survivors of unimaginable abuse to sociable dogs reflects the transformative power of rehabilitation, of countless hours spent speaking softly, coaxing scared bodies from behind couches, healing with each gentle word and tender touch. Several of the so-called Vicktory dogs still live in special sanctuaries, so severely scarred from the dogfighting ring that they could not be adopted, yet have rich lives with their dedicated caretakers (“The Stars”). Others live comfortable lives with normal families. They may still flinch at loud noises or shy away from reaching hands, but they have come so far from the trembling ghosts of dogs they once were, now identifiable only by scars on their muzzles or missing teeth. Previously deemed unrescuable in countless other cases, these successfully-rehabilitated pit bulls represent a step in the right direction.
There is still a long way to go in regards to the prosecution of perpetrators of dog fighting and general abuse. On July 27th, 2009, nineteen months after his federal sentence, Michael Vick was reinstated to the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles with a salary of $1.6 million (“Case Study”). Although Nike initially terminated their deal with Vick following his incarceration, the sports company restored his endorsement only two years later (The Champions). Now, despite his federal conviction and involvement in an illegal activity, Vick is worth over $100 million dollars (The Champions). In 2010 he said he would enjoy having a dog as a pet (“Case Study”). Despite the work that still needs to be done in regards to the legal side of animal abuse investigations, the Michael Vick case still represents success in terms of the dogs’ rehabilitation, success driven by the people and organizations that stepped up to help against the odds.
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Around the country shelters have developed specialized rehabilitation programs, striving to make initially unadoptable dogs from cases like the Bad Newz Kennels fighting ring adoptable. In Oregon, the major organization is OHS, where the behavior department works tirelessly to attend to every dog’s needs and make them comfortable enough to find a home. It is a team consisting of staff and volunteers who dedicate endless hours to demanding but ultimately rewarding work.
“When I work directly with the animals, that’s when I get energized,” says Tanya Roberts, the manager of the behavior and training department at OHS. She’s tall but not imposing, dressed casually in dark jeans, a jacket, and an OHS shirt. Quick to smile and with a lilting British accent, Roberts immediately makes me feel comfortable in her well-lit, open office space.
With over twenty years of experience at OHS, Roberts is one of the best resources on animal behavior and training available in the Pacific Northwest. She created the behavior department at the shelter to help unadoptable special-needs animals from investigations cases and witnessed quick success. Dogs that would have been euthanized for seemingly-incurable fear and anxiety in fact improved. “As we worked more with the animals and learned more we started to see that we could actually find them good homes if we worked with them for a while,” says Roberts. “We realized that these things can be done” (Roberts).
That observation led to a vast increase in adoptions and improved quality of life for the pets at OHS. The success rate, Roberts estimates, is in the “ninety percent plus range. It’s been a very successful program” (Roberts). Indeed, in 2018 OHS adopted out ninety-eight percent of dogs that arrived at the shelter (“Life-Saving Statistics”). The next step for the behavior department involves the “new road ahead” initiative—the construction of an entire building for the behavior department (as well as a new hospital and general shelter area) where traumatized animals are sequestered away from the noises of neighbor dogs and other fear-inducing distractions (Roberts).
The road to rehabilitation is long and sometimes arduous. “We are always learning,” Roberts says, chuckling slightly (Roberts). Every dog is an individual; whereas one improves in leaps and bounds, another from the same situation may progress much more slowly. The process is tailored to each dog: “It’s really about being flexible and not having any direct rules. They have individual needs and we try and identify those and work with them as best as we’re able,” Roberts says (Roberts). For Roberts and the other staff, success, when it happens, is sweet, as “slowly you start to see them blossom” (Roberts).
The process of reducing fear begins when the dogs arrive at the shelter. There’s no strict evaluation procedure; instead, they are left alone to settle in. They’re given food and water and bedding—the necessities. “And then we watch,” says Roberts (Roberts). Volunteers and staff monitor which activities the dogs know how to engage in since many have never consumed food or water from a dish. “We slowly start to see a little bit of their personalities,” explains Roberts, “and look at them on a scale of sociability, really—who is coming forwards to solicit attention, for example” (Roberts). A large part of the rehabilitation process involves using other dogs; severely fearful animals benefit from having socialized dogs around them (Roberts). Eventually, the shelter begins to look for homes.
There are no guarantees, especially since the problems the dogs face are so varied. There are times when therapy is unsuccessful and the most humane option is euthanasia. However, this decision is never taken lightly and it is made only after serious rehabilitative efforts. “There are criteria that we look at if a dog is really really so stressed that living in whatever environment we have provided or can provide is torture,” says Roberts seriously. “It’s a matter of the humane life of the dog” (Roberts).
Successful adoption can be harder for specific breeds of dogs. Pit bulls, a general term encompassing American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and other similar breeds, currently have a poor reputation, seen as aggressive and unpredictable. Their status as the top pick for illegal dog fighting operations such as Vick’s only adds to that characterization (“A Closer”). In Portland, a 2015 article reported that pit bull-type dogs account for the highest number of dog bites in the greater metro area since 2010 (Zarkin). However, breed reports are occasionally incorrect and an unknown breed may be reported as a pit bull due to their reputation (Zarkin). In many cases, breed type isn’t even recorded; in 250 fatal dog attacks in the United States from 2000-2009, only 17% had the breed determined (The Champions). However, statistics like Portland’s in cities across the United States are used by communities to enact bans against pit bull-type dogs, inciting even more controversy. Supporters of these bans argue that these breeds are genetically aggressive, whereas pit bull advocates assert that every dog is an individual and fault the owners for their dog’s behavioral issues. And the pit bull reputation has consequences beyond bans—pit bull breeds account for 19% of shelter intakes and 40% of euthanasias (“Rising from”).
Walking through the kennels at OHS, it is clear that pit bulls are a common breed here, too. When questioned about this topic, Roberts urges me to include this point of view: “If you take the terrier group—including pit bull terriers, Jack Russell terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers—it’s a much fairer assessment because within that group you have dogs that are loyal, and some that are energetic, and some that are enthusiastic about everything but that have surges of energy. It’s important to help and educate people on ‘don’t get stuck on one breed’ because within every breed there’s a huge amount of variance,” she says. “You’ve really got to look at individual dogs and individual circumstances” (Roberts). It all comes down to the unique personality of each dog, both in rehabilitation and in adoption, and OHS does its best to avoid discrimination.
Despite the occasional heartbreaking decisions and the challenge of breed reputations, Roberts loves her job. “I really find all of this rewarding,” she smiles, and her enthusiasm for her career is so contagious that I begin to imagine life as an animal behaviorist (Roberts). It is a professional path I have considered, and it now draws me in even closer. The lure of helping animals is strong, with a lifestyle that Roberts and the other staff and volunteers at OHS deeply embrace. The hundreds of dogs they rehabilitated from unimaginable abuse and neglect who find forever homes surely thank them deeply—with many licks and cuddles.
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In addition to helping the animals become comfortable around humans, rehabilitation for many dogs requires an introduction to objects and experiences that are routine for us but foreign to them. Coming from hoarding cases, puppy mills, or living outside their entire lives, these dogs often never learned simple things like walking through doorways, going up stairs, or drinking from bowls (Second Chance; Roberts; Honse). The process of rehabilitation for these dogs involves slow acclimation to “unfamiliar objects, sounds, living areas, and real-life situations that can induce trauma and severe stress” (“ASPCA Behavioral”). The ASPCA, as seen in the documentary Second Chance Dogs about the first group of canines that passed through their behavior rehabilitation program, has embraced these methods of therapy (Second Chance). Using generous of food rewards, the trainers coaxed a frightened Alaskan Malamute up three-step carpeted stairs and down the other side. Success was achieved only after multiple sessions; although simply walking up stairs might seem like a small advance, it was a notable improvement that required considerable work (Second Chance). Tactics like these—slow and carefully managed introductions to situations that would be found in a home—are used at OHS to help frightened dogs adjust to an unfamiliar world, as I am about to witness.
To observe for myself the rehabilitative exercises that trainers at OHS lead, I travel to the shelter one rainy March morning. I am greeted in the Animal Medical and Learning Center lobby at OHS by behaviorist and trainer Lori Kirby, who ushers me into Vollum Manner’s Hall with an easy smile and nod of her head, her short blond hair swinging. The hall is a large open room, lit naturally from large windows along one wall. The floor throughout the room is covered with a wide variety of objects: a child’s bathtub full of colorful balls, hula hoops, tall traffic cones, a yoga ball, socks, a life-sized plush dog, a laundry basket balanced on a cone, and more. Kirby shows me how she scatters treats throughout the area, in plain sight and hidden in or under objects, to entice food-motivated dogs to reach and engage. The room is designed to introduce the dogs to objects that they might not have previously seen or interacted with. For most of the dogs, this session will be their first time in this room—a completely new experience—and for some, it will test the limits of their bravery.
I sit with several OHS volunteers behind a three-foot-high screen separating us from the room; Kirby is the only person who interacts with the animals during these training sessions. The first dog is TJ, a small brown Chihuahua mix. As Kirby brings him in, she recounts that he was rescued from a hoarding case along with a group of other dogs at OHS with whom he is more comfortable than by himself. For now, he’s alone. As soon as his leash is removed, TJ runs to the door, panting, yawning, whining—classic signs of anxiety in dogs (Todd). Normally quite food-oriented, he doesn’t even notice the treats; his anxiety overrides his ability to focus. Kirby mostly watches quietly, leaving TJ to his own business, though once or twice she steps into the center of the room and tries to coax him forwards to no avail. After about ten minutes, Kirby exchanges TJ for another dog, Minnie, also from the same hoarding case. As soon as she enters, I notice a striking difference between the two dogs: Minnie’s ears are up and pointed forward, attentive, and she immediately notices the treats. She walks willingly under a table and between obstacles for food, covering more floor in a few minutes than TJ did in his entire session. She is by no means comfortable, but she is less anxious than TJ, highlighting the individuality of dogs rescued from the same situation.
As Roberts mentioned, interactions between dogs are essential in rehabilitation efforts. When TJ and Minnie are in the room together, the difference is palpable. TJ promptly greets Minnie, moving farther into the room than before. He sniffs around the objects instead of flat-out ignoring them and even lies down. Kirby offers praise, telling him he’s a good boy. Lying down, for even a couple of seconds, indicates some slight comfort in this new situation. Because dogs like Minnie and TJ benefit profoundly from interactions with fellow canines, OHS guarantees that they will be adopted into a home with another dog.
A variety of dogs are ushered into Vollum Manners Hall throughout the two-hour training session. Each one reacts differently to the room and its array of stimuli, but the unmistakable behavioral changes when another dog joins the first are striking. Millie, an Australian cattle dog, paces along the wall. She cautiously takes a few steps into the room, sniffs a pair of socks, and then retreats. Lacey, another cattle dog from the same investigation, runs immediately to the doors, paces, and then sits down. She doesn’t budge from that corner for the entire ten minutes. After Kirby brings Millie back in, both dogs become more confident. Lacey ventures farther from the corner; Mille moves away from the wall. Another cattle dog, Nash, joins them, and apparently, three dogs are even better than two. Nash is the bravest of the trio, daring to approach the stuffed dog, and Millie’s tail is up and wagging now as she barks at the model Labrador. Kirby sits on the floor and the dogs approach her every once in a while, offering her a nudge with their noses as a quick check-in; Millie sits down partially in her lap. Kirby accepts the attention with an easy smile, happy that the dogs are accepting of a human in this unfamiliar space. When the other volunteers and I leave the room and watch from the window, Lacey even eats a treat.
The dogs are still uncomfortable despite their interactions and increased activity. Nash is shaking violently and the whites of his eyes (and those of Millie and Lacey) are red, a sure sign of stress (Nank). There is some progress, though. The dogs have come far from their initial states when they arrived at the shelter. Kirby is especially surprised by Nash, who is usually the most fearful out of the three. It may reflect a change in his anxiety medications, but for whatever reason, he is gradually improving. Rehabilitation can be an exceedingly slow process, but the rewards are priceless.
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Julie Honse is another Portland-area dog aficionado involved with rehabilitative efforts. Previously affiliated with Born Again Pit Bull Rescue, another local organization focused on re-homing pit bull-type dogs, she has also worked in the behavior department at OHS for more than twenty-one years teaching dog handling and body language to volunteers (Honse). During her time there Honse has personally witnessed the debilitating effects of abuse and neglect on dogs (Honse). One such experience occurred in 2009 in Burns, Oregon, when OHS sent a team to one of the largest dog-hoarding cases in Oregon history (Russell). In collaboration with other animal organizations, they rescued the majority of the 200-plus dogs and brought them back to Portland (Russell). The dogs were in miserable condition—living outside for their entire lives in the cold, fighting over food, and suffering from parasites, skin diseases, and malnutrition (Honse; Von Lunen). Meanwhile, the owner, Ted Tellefson, advertised puppies from Blue Sky Kennels in fancy dog magazines, masking the cruel reality of his business (Honse).
Working at OHS, Honse was front and center when the dogs arrived in Portland. She was drawn to one dog in particular from the Burns rescue and worked with her every day, trying to help her overcome her crippling fear of people. After a month of attempted rehabilitation at OHS with no visible success, Honse decided to bring her home as a foster dog. Now called Bea, the dog was set up in a pen in the middle of the living room, surrounded by Honse’s other dogs, because “dogs learn the quickest and the most easily from other dogs” (Honse). From them, Bea observed normal dog activities, including eating out of bowls and going outside to relieve themselves. But whenever Honse or her family entered the room, Bea pressed herself against the wall of the living room, looked down, and “trembl[ed] like there was an earthquake happening” (Honse). Occasionally she would even defecate on the spot, so terrified of people (Honse).
With a dog like this, rehabilitation requires a push. “You can’t just let them come on their own pace,” Honse explains, “because they’ll never do anything different” (Honse). So every month, Honse took an object that Bea would hide under from the room, allowing her time to readjust in between. First, her crate was removed, next her pen, and then the table she hid under. Eventually, Bea spent her time hiding behind the couch. One day, after nine or ten months of this gentle but persistent pushing, Bea emerged from behind the couch of her own volition and sat down in front. “We were pinching each other but not saying anything because we were trying to act natural and not freak her out,” Honse says, “but we wanted to start jumping for joy. We were so excited about the smallest little thing” (Honse). Today, nine years later, Bea is “almost normal” (Honse). She still achieves small breakthroughs but finally lives mostly like a regular dog, having recovered from the serious emotional neglect she experienced in the Burns hoarding case.
Honse credits her other pets for Bea’s successful rehabilitation: “If we didn’t have all of the other dogs that we had that were super well adjusted without emotional issues, just like a happy family, I’m sure she wouldn’t have become who she is now. They did that. We did some of it, but it would have taken us much longer if we didn’t have them” (Honse). Indeed, using other already well-acclimated dogs in rehabilitative efforts is a common practice; dogs are pack animals and are likely to follow the actions of a fellow canine in unfamiliar or stressful situations (Second Chance; Traster). To coax a frightened dog through a doorway, the ASPCA brought in the volunteers’ pets, who demonstrated the action easily and received a food reward at the end. Simply watching this action once or twice gave the dog in training enough confidence to step cautiously through the doorway without freezing and sinking to the ground—a vast improvement (Second Chance Dogs). Whoever the catalyst was in Bea’s recovery—Honse’s dogs, her own work, a combination—Bea’s successful rehabilitation demonstrates that even seemingly untreatable dogs can achieve better lives, thanks to the remarkable dedication of those who think to try.
Dogs have long been our companions, best friends, family members. They’re with us through celebrations, graduations, births, deaths, and are always by our sides. We mourn them as we do the loss of a parent or sibling. They accomplish amazing feats—guiding the blind, locating cancers, sniffing bombs. They have no words but somehow understand us better than we know ourselves. For a long time, we knew little about helping animals mentally. Now, though, we have come to understand that as much as they help us, some dogs need that same support in return. We now know that they suffer just as deeply from traumatic experiences—experiences often imposed by us. OHS and behavior rehabilitation programs across the country seek to help these once-irredeemable dogs, dedicating countless hours for a few steps forward. For OHS, the next step involves expanding their behavior department to a new facility; for the country, it involves the continued creation of therapy departments in local shelters and the elimination of high-kill programs. Widespread success is on the horizon.
The day of my interview with Roberts, a potential adopter visited Lana. They sat together, along with trainer Lori Kirby, in the “real-life room” on plush couches amid warm lamplight. Lana had the couch to herself; the adopter sat on a chair next to her, tossing bits of cheese towards Lana’s feet that she tentatively consumed. I observed the interaction for ten minutes through a one-way window. Lori and the visitor chatted quietly; Lana sat eating pieces of cheese. It appeared quite uneventful; from what I saw, the man and Lana never even interacted besides the cheese. However, this was one of multiple visits by this potential adopter. He was interested, despite the challenges, in adopting a severely traumatized dog still on the road to recovery. I do not know if he eventually took Lana home, but I did learn she has recently found a family with two other pet dogs. Presumably, she improved enough during her time at OHS that, though still with considerable work by her adoptive family, she will feel comfortable in a home. After weeks of slow progress, steps forwards and back, Lana emerged with a new future. Thanks to the rehabilitative efforts of OHS, she went from unknown horrors—cramped cages, dark rooms, rancid water—to finding a home, love, and a new life, her broken pieces finally beginning to heal.
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The Champions. Directed by Darcy Dennett, FIREFLYFILMWORKS, 2015.
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Zarkin, Fedor. “Pit Bulls Are No. 1 in Portland-area Bite Investigations, Data Show.” OregonLive, Oregonian, 16 Mar. 2015, http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/2015/03/pit_bulls_bite.html. Accessed 1 Mar. 2019.