The ASPCA's Behavioral Rehabilitation Center works with severely fearful dogs rescued from puppy mills and hoarders. The shelter has an 87% success rate in rehabilitating undersocialized dogs.



In the Gold Brown Mountains around Weaverville, N.C., there is a dormitory filled with dogs who are a bit dysfunctional.


SHAPIRO: Sixty-five of them live in this long, low building - rescued from puppy mills or hoarding situations. But stray with us, this is a happy story. These dogs are part of a cutting-edge rehabilitation program designed by the ASPCA. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's nice to be someplace so positive right now.

Yes. Good boy.

This bouncy brown shepherd mix was rescued earlier this year from a derelict house in New Mexico, where he was penned up with 42 other dogs.

Ryan (ph), come here.

Ryan had never been outside or probably even been petted. In three months, he's gone from being a cowering mess to confidently helping another traumatized dog in this unique, experimental lab run by Kristen Collins of the ASPCA.

KRISTEN COLLINS: This is, as far as we know, the only facility in the entire United States, and perhaps in the world, exclusively dedicated to the rehabilitation of extremely fearful, under-socialized dogs.

ULABY: Nothing in these dogs' life experiences, says Collins, prepared them to be pets.

COLLINS: You put a leash on them, and they would panic and try to climb the wall and do what we call gator rolling. They thrash around on the leash. Or if you just tried to pet them, sometimes even if you tried to approach them, they'd lose control of their bladder or bowels or become catatonic. It was really heartbreaking to see.


ULABY: Collins started the behavioral rehabilitation center seven years ago with a few colleagues. Since then, its full-time staff of five has grown to 30 vets, research scientists and trainers like Kristine Young (ph). Young says they never dreamed its success rate would reach 87%.

KRISTINE YOUNG: We thought we could save maybe half of them.

ULABY: More than 400 formerly unadoptable dogs have found homes after months of gentle counter-conditioning. That's when scary things like shadows or strangers get associated with good things like cheese. This approach represents a real shift for animal shelters, says Dr. Kat Miller, who runs research here.

KATHERINE MILLER: We do an amazing job at healing animals physically in shelters, and we are getting better at healing them behaviorally and mentally in shelters now too.

ULABY: This center took a problem - how to place traumatized animals - and is solving it with science, which can look a lot like play.

COLLINS: Are you so silly?

That's the magic part.

ULABY: Director of operations, Kristen Collins.

COLLINS: There is nothing like watching for the first time a dog that's been terrified lean toward. I cannot talk about it without getting choked up because it is such an incredible thing to watch.

ULABY: Before COVID, the center had started to fly in staff from shelters all over the country to teach these therapy techniques and about doggy brain science. That's on hold for now, but more than 6,000 shelter workers have taken online courses to learn remotely how to give these future good boys and good girls a brand-new leash on life. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.