WEAVERVILLE, N.C. — For the gathered furry friends, it looks like an ordinary afternoon playdate. However, this is no ordinary place.
Tucked into a spot near North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains sits the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center. Dogs that experience extreme cases of cruelty and neglect are brought there to get better.
“These cases are, quite dramatically, the worst of the worst,” said Kristen Collins, vice president of rehabilitation services. “It’s not possible for them to go home and have time and love and just get better on their own. That’s why we are here, so we can provide the treatment that they need.”
Over an average of 13 weeks, the dogs are slowly socialized with people and other dogs and taught basic skills, in preparation for their eventual adoption. So far, 500 dogs have graduated from the program.
Just walking a dog on a leash here is considered a win. Some of the dogs who arrive at the center have no experience even being outside, let alone going on a walk.
It can be slow going, as has been the case with a small dog named Velma.
“She loves getting little scratches on her chest and on her little back end,” said behavior specialist Jenny White. “She can be tucked under your arm and carried around and she loves going for walks and playing with other dogs.”
It wasn’t always that way. Velma experienced terrible neglect in Puerto Rico, before getting taken to New Jersey and eventually brought to the center for additional help.
“When they get here, they’re not used to being around people, and not only can they not have relationships with people because most of them never had, they’re also not even comfortable being close to people or being touched by people,” Collins said.
It’s a growing problem. Collins said shelters around the country report seeing more and more animals with behavior problems.
“Spay neuter has certainly made a dent, so the days of animal welfare organizations welcoming high volumes of adoptable puppies are really going away,” she said. “Most of our partners tell us that they see more and more animals entering with behavioral problems, probably because we are reducing the populations and the ones that end up with us are the ones who need treatment of some kind.”
Because of that, the center is also training shelter personnel from around the country and teaching them how to do this work.
Since 2018, animal shelter staff from Washington, Colorado, Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, New York, and Washington, D.C. have all traveled to the center for training, taking what they learn there back to their communities. During the pandemic, 10,000 people from 600 animal welfare organizations underwent virtual training.
“Having that connection with so many organizations across the country is a very valuable thing,” Collins said. “That is one of the most important missions we have is to share what we know about these animals.”
The ASPCA is currently building two more centers similar to the one in North Carolina. They will be located in Pawling, New York, north of New York City, and in Columbus, Ohio.