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Dogs Get A Second Chance In Weaverville

A one of a kind dog shelter has opened its doors in Buncombe County.  The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ASPCA – unveiled its new  Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Weaverville.  The Center is the first-ever permanent facility dedicated to the rehabilitation and study of fearful, anxious – often unadoptable dogs. Most are the victims of cruelty or neglect.   BPR’s Helen Chickering reports.  

On the site of what once was cement plant in Weaverville, sits a cluster of plain white, buildings, the only sounds are cars passing by...

Unremarkable and – a sharp contrast to what’s happening inside,

(Dogs barking)

The voice trying to talk over the barks belongs to Kristen Collins, Vice President of the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center  taking me on a tour of the ASPCA’s brand new center for shelter dogs

“We are helping dogs who are extremely fearful, learn how to become pets,” says Collins, “ Most of them are hoarding cases  and puppy mill cases, what we do here is bring them in, they are physically healthy when they get to us, but they need behavioral care, because many of them have never seen a pet home before, they have no idea what that’s like and if you put them into that environment, that’s terrifying,   that’s our goal here bring in those fearful under socialized dogs and prepare them for pet homes.

The center is the result of an ASPCA pilot program, started after the organization ended up an overwhelming number of rescued dogs who were severely traumatized – many had lived their entire life in a cage.

“And what we realized is we didn’t have anywhere to treat the dogs. That’s why we started this program.” says Collins, “we thought, we are treating their veterinary wounds, and we’re taking them out of this terrible environment,  but we can’t put them in homes.  And if they are not going to be able to go into homes, we need to take an extra step to rescue them, to make sure they are getting the best chance they can possibly have.”

During the four year pilot program at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare center in New Jersey, animal behavior specialists tested and fine-tuned a slow but steady 13 week recovery plan.  

“Some of the initial treatment sessions are just us sitting there in the dogs kennel or in another environment, and giving the dog cheese and that’s all we’re doing.  We work up from there to things like hand targeting, where we put our hands out and dogs then we’ll work on things like getting them used to a leash,  It is baby steps, very very small steps.

But  if you don’t, often you won’t make any progress at all, because the fear is too intense.  A  trainer friend, likened it to how exciting it is to watch paint dry (laughs), not the most exciting type of protocol, what is exciting – is watching them change over time.”

ASPCA President & CEO, Matt Bershadker, says they hoped the pilot would have a 50 percent success rate. 

“Roughly, 90 percent of the dogs that came through our pilot program were slated for euthanasia, or were euthanasia candidates, and we saved 87 percent -  and that’s when the rehab center was born.”

Bershadker says Weaverville was chosen in part because its close  proximity to ASPCA’s  Spay and Neuter Alliance , a clinic and teaching facility  in Asheville, and organization’s relationship with  Asheville Humane Society, which helped train  some of the center’s  30 plus staff members.

Pia Silvani is the director of behavioral rehab at the center is leading a tour of the kennels and introducing us to some of the dogs.     

“Pocus is right here, because she likes to watch us,” says Silvani, “She was dog number two that we brought in and she actually is a graduate right now, she’s come so far.”

HC: What was she like before?

“Oh, she’d be cowering in a corner, trembling, she wouldn’t walk on a leash, we had to pick her up, and now she’s a helper dog for other dogs now.”

The center has the capacity to rehabilitate up 65 dogs at a time, but rehab is just part of the picture. There is research underway - findings will be published and shared through a program called the Learning Lab, which helps train shelters around the country.

“Shelters around the country are dealing with these issues.” Says Berkshadker, some are dealing with it better than others, we want to make sure that everyone has the best tools to help these animals in their communities. You know, we see a lot of sad things in our communities, we have to remember that sad things can inspire beautiful things, and this facility is a reminder of that.”

Hear more of Helen Chickering's conversation with Kristen Collins, Vice President of the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Weaverville.

Hear more of Helen Chickering's conversation with ASPCA President & CEO , Matt Bershadker.

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Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.