“From Broken Situations to Confident Dogs”: How to Cope with Canine Trauma
When Heather Watling saw a fellow animal rescuer’s post online about a large pet rescue taking place near Brantford in early October, she offered to help. Watling drove five hours from Sudbury, where his organization, 4Champ Animal Rescue, is based, to a house in Burford. An owner had died and the 52 dogs, four cats and a turtle who lived there needed care and shelter.
The rescue – initiated by Cassia Bryden who works part-time at Hillside Kennels, who received a tip from the police and contacted several organizations, including Watling’s – involved luring the dogs for a week. According to Bryden, some came when called; others had to be removed using leashes and a catch pole or coyote traps – they were “fighting for their lives” not to leave the house, she says.
Some had wounds, overgrown fingernails and missing fur. “I’ve traveled all over northern Ontario and northern Manitoba… and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Watling, who has taken in three of the animals. “Anyone can pretty much imagine what 52 dogs would look like in a small house. “
The owner handed the animals over to Bryden and his rescue organization, Sato Saved End of the Line Dog Rescue, located in Innerkip. Hillside Kennels has welcomed the dogs until foster families and other rescues can.
While many dogs will need care for their physical injuries before they find a new permanent home, Watling says she is more worried about their mental health; its 4Champ Animal Rescue, founded in 2015, specializes in dogs with serious behavior problems that need to be trained before they can be safely adopted.
“More people need to realize that these dogs also deserve a chance because they are always great dogs,” said Bryden. “They just haven’t reached their potential yet.”
But dogs with behavioral issues are often the last on adoption lists – or offered for adoption multiple times, Watling says. TVO.org asked him how his team deals with rescue dogs who have suffered trauma and what potential adopters need to know.
TVO.org: What are your animal welfare concerns when you see something like the situation in Burford?
Heather Watling: Of course there are the physical ailments, but we have amazing vets who can fix them. This is the sequel. It’s the mental trauma that these dogs went through and will continue to go through because they’ve now gone from the only life they’ve known inside this house to just being outside, and the exterior alone freaked out some of them. Mental illness in dogs is just as common as it is in humans. It just goes unnoticed.
TVO.org: What happens to dogs once they are out of a hoarding situation?
Watling: Every dog is different. Some will have anxiety disorders. Some will be completely closed. Others will redirect their anxiety or depression to people or other dogs. Some dogs will not display anything until later. After a few months, once they feel comfortable in their new situation, problems may start to arise.
TVO.org: If you save a dog that you think has suffered some sort of mental trauma, what do you do?
Watling: The first thing we will discuss is their physical condition, because we believe that we cannot keep them mentally healthy until they are physically healthy. We will observe the dog at the start. We don’t do much with them. We don’t pay a lot of attention. It’s more simply a matter of observing them, then trying to understand what they are feeling and what they are going through.
In cases like this, we will not be pushing these dogs. We allow them to choose to work with us. We give them the necessary basics: routine, structure. And we allow them to choose to work with us. For example, one of our dogs at the moment is still very scared and spends most of his time hiding behind the chair in his room. Thus, the sponsor and one of our volunteers will simply sit down in the room, offer him treats and allow him to choose to approach.
TVO.org: So be patient the same way you could be with a person.
Watling: Exactly. We take it the same way. We’re just communicating on a different level.
TVO.org: In general, how long does it take for a dog to recover from a negative situation like this?
Watling: It can really vary. We have had dogs in the past that have recovered quite quickly. We had one that came from a Korean meat market that we had for 80 days before it was even ready to walk on a leash outside. It really depends on each dog, their age and the trauma they have suffered. Often we don’t know what this trauma is.
TVO.org: How does your team determine when a dog is ready for adoption?
Watling: When the dog can begin to lead a normal life in the foster home, that’s when we start discussing whether he’s ready to come home. Then we’re usually going to push it a bit further, maybe a few weeks down the road, to make sure they’re really displaying normal doggy behaviors and emotions.
TVO.org: What are some of these normal behaviors and emotions that you are looking for?
Watling: For these dogs, I want them to be able to get in and out of the house without panicking outside the door. The door is an important thing with these dogs, because they had not been outside. So stepping through the door into a whole new environment is terrifying for a lot of these guys. We want them to come in and out happily through the door. We want them to happily fit into their cages, eat regular meals, and show happiness and joy when their host family walks into the room or comes home. And, of course, we always make sure our vet is also on board to say, “Yes, this dog is ready. “
TVO.org: How do you let people know what a dog’s needs are without scaring them?
Watling: This is a discussion that we have had several times in the team. The reality is, we are brutally honest about the safety of our dogs, as well as the public and the family. We will let people know directly, directly on their posts, if they have a bite history. If they’re afraid of new strangers, we’ll make that clear. It takes longer for these dogs to be adopted. But there are families who want to welcome dogs like that. Everyone sees these medical cases, broken legs, injuries, and everyone wants them, but then they don’t see dogs that are emotionally or mentally broken with the same value.
TVO.org: If people are interested in a dog with mental health needs, what should they ask themselves when considering adoption?
Watling: They absolutely have to be sure it’s something they want to do. I wouldn’t suggest bringing a dog that has a history of biting or, say, severe generalized anxiety into a home with young children, as it’s just a bad combination. You should know that this dog is going to take time. You have to have the determination, the time and, to be honest, the funds.
TVO.org: When you talk about funds, is that to make sure you can pay for any type of accommodation or training?
Watling: Yes, from meds to training to training supplies to crates – whatever it takes to get this dog going.
TVO.org: If someone thinks their pet might need some help with their mental health, what would you recommend as a next step?
Watling: The first thing would be to contact their veterinarian to make sure there is no underlying chemical imbalance or underlying pain causing this behavior, then contact a certified behaviorist or trainer to working with anxious or aggressive dogs. .
TVO.org: What are some positive things people can hope to get out of their relationship with a dog who has special requirements?
Watling: Honestly what we see a lot is loyalty. These dogs are so loyal to what we call owners, whether it is the adopter or the person at home who does the majority of the training. It is loyalty. We see a lot of them, because these dogs are brought from broken situations to confident dogs, and they are loyal to the person who brought them there.
TVO.org: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you wanted to add?
Watling: We really want the public to know that mental health is just as important as physical health. They go hand in hand. Your dog can be as physically fit as possible while showing signs of what you might think is an illness when, in reality, they are symptoms of mental illness. It is so crucial.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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