Victoria Wells on training abused dogs: Working podcast, S5:E3 transcript.

Can You Train an Abused Dog? An Animal Behavior Specialist Explains How.

Can You Train an Abused Dog? An Animal Behavior Specialist Explains How.

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Dec. 7 2015 12:44 PM

How Does an Animal Behavior Specialist Work?

Read what L.V. Anderson asked Victoria Wells about training abused animals and assigning them to better homes.

Victoria Wells.

Photo by Stacey Axelrod/ASPCA

We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 5, Episode 3.

In this episode of Working, Slate’s L.V. Anderson talks to Victoria Wells, an animal behavior specialist for the ASPCA in Manhattan. Wells explains the strategies she uses to help dogs overcome behavioral problems stemming from years of abuse and what happens when a dog is incapable of being trained. Also, she talks about the stigma surrounding pit bulls and how her job has changed the way she thinks about people.

In a Slate Plus extra, Wells talks about training different breeds and what she looks for when placing a dog in a home.

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Laura Anderson: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Laura Anderson, a writer and editor for Slate. On today’s episode, we talk with someone who literally spends all day with animals.

What’s your name and what do you do?

Victoria Wells: My name is Victoria Wells. I’m the senior manager of behavior and training at the ASPCA, and I work primarily with the abuse and neglect cases that are brought in by the NYPD.

Anderson: So, walk me through a typical day in your life. What’s the first thing that you do when you get to the office, which I guess is not really an office so much as it’s an animal rescue center. Talk me through that.

Wells: Right. The first thing I do in the morning is I go to my office. I have a staff of three here at the 92nd Street facility, and what we do is we go through an inventory of the animals that we care for here. We divide them up and say OK, this is who we have to work with today, and we start working with them immediately.

We have about 25 dogs in this particular building that we have to work with to modify their behavior. They’re victims of abuse and neglect, and we work with them on a daily basis to try to help them overcome any problems that they have acquired because of what they’ve gone through. The problems are so vast and so varied that it really depends upon what the dog needs.

But all day long, I am working with dogs, from the time I get in until the time I leave.

Anderson: Can you give me an example of the kind of behavioral problem that you will identify in a dog that’s been neglected or abused, and then, what your strategy is to try to help that dog overcome the behavior?

Wells: Sure. I would say the most prevalent behavior problem that we see because of abuse or neglect is a fear-based behavior issue.

Whether the behavior is a defensive behavior where the dogs are actually barking at you because they’re scared of you, or whether the dog is retreating, it’s mostly fear-based. I would say we have a lot of undersocialized dogs. We need to have them learn to trust people, because they have absolutely no trust in people.

It’s understandable. We have a lot of dogs come from very isolated situations where they’re kept in basements and backyards for the majority of their lives, from the time that they’re puppies to the time that they’re adults. So, our job is to gain their trust and it’s very slow going.

Anderson: So, they’ve had owners in the past who have either just completely left them alone or have maybe physically abused them. So, you’re basically dealing with animals that have never had a friendly relationship with a human being?

Wells: Exactly. So, we’re starting off at square one with these dogs. So, let’s say I’m working with a dog. The NYPD brings them in.

Anderson: Oh, sorry to interrupt, but just to ask, how does the NYPD identify these animals and then determine that they’ve been abused or neglected and that they need to be taken out of the control of their owner?

Wells: Well, somebody will call the complaint in. They’ll go and investigate it, and depending upon the evidence they find, they’ll seize the dog. So, it depends upon what they find as far as evidence that would prove that they needed to take the dog out of that situation. But once they come here, the dogs sometimes are in horrible condition, just horrible, and it really breaks your heart.

We start working with them immediately, even if they can barely walk. We have to get to them because it’s their first exposure to strangers that they’ve ever had and we want it to be a pleasant one. So, during the course of my day, I’ll approach a dog who’s terrified, and I’ll crack the door open of their kennel. I’ll try to coax them out with treats. A lot of times, it doesn’t work, you know, because scared dogs won’t take food from you.

So, I might have to bring another dog to their kennel, because if they’re not reinforced by the presence of people, sometimes they’ll be more interested in dogs. So, we use a lot of helper dogs in a treatment.

Anderson: So, these dogs—the helper dogs—are dogs that are normal, for lack of a better term, and are socialized. They’re well-socialized dogs.

Wells: Yeah, they’re usually very friendly towards dogs and people, because if a dog is petrified at the sight of a person, or the thought of coming near a person, the helper dog is a dog that is going to be a friendly towards a person. That terrified dog is going to say hey, that dog over there is approaching that person, maybe I should do it too.

So, we use a lot of neutral dogs in our treatments that will approach a person readily, and the terrified, neglected dog follows suit. That is something we use a lot and have great success with.

Anderson: So then, after that, I’m assuming that the training doesn’t end there. You’re sort of trying to help the dog acclimate to human contact. So, what happens next?

Wells: Let’s say that this is a treatment we’re using. The dog won’t come out when you try to coax them out with treats or with anything else. We’ve gotten them out of the kennel by walking a dog up to their kennel. Now, they have begun to approach us. They’ve walked out of their kennel. We’ve been able to leash them up. We’ll take them to a training room, having followed this dog because it’s piqued their interest and they found something that they actually are reinforced by—the sight of another dog.

So, once we get them in a training room—we have a number of training rooms within this particular facility—that’s where we do the majority of our work. It’s a calm, quiet area, and if we have these nervous dogs, which I said the majority of our dogs are pretty nervous that come in through abuse and neglect cases, we bring them to quiet areas. So, we have them in the training room, and what we try to do is walk them around at their own pace, let them get used to a new environment, new sights, smells, and sounds.

You have to understand, they’ve never been out of a basement, backyard, or an abandoned lot. So, everything is new and terrifying to them. So, we get them used to things very gradually, and at this point, we see if they take treats. Know they’re a little bit more comfortable, there’s a—a dog around them, they’re walking around, and we see if maybe treats will be more reinforcing to them. We need currency when we’re working with this—with these dogs, something that we can use as reinforcement.

Anderson: What specifically are you training them to do? Is it the usual sit and stay?

Wells: No, none of that. My job is not as a trainer. My job is to change their emotional state. I don’t want them to do anything except be happy and well-adjusted.

Anderson: So, before they start the training or behavioral conditioning, is their response usually aggressive? Do they try to attack you, do they cower in the corner, or is there a huge variety?

Wells: All of the above.

Anderson: Yeah.

Wells: It really depends. Some dogs are very defensive when they come in, and they will try to bite me. It’s out fear. A lot of dogs have huge issues with walking outside, with walking on different surfaces other than that in which they’ve lived on all of their lives. Say a dog has lived out in the backyard and has only experienced living on dirt. If you try to take them on cement, they’ll jump out of their skin because it’s so different.

Whatever the dog’s problem is, we try to create a positive association with whatever scares them. So, let’s say men. They’ve never experienced a man in their life. What we do is we expose them to men—a man—for a very short period of time. But when that man is present, we give him the most reinforcing thing that is going to change their opinion about men.

So, a man comes out and we start feeding them the most valuable food that we can find. The man goes away and we stop feeding them. The man comes back, we start feeding him. The man goes away, the food goes away. So, that is one way we can change their emotional response.

Anderson: So, can you tell me more about how you determine when an animal is ready to be placed into a home and how you make that determination?

Wells: Well, when a dog is legally released, their case has been resolved and they’ve gone through the court system. We put them through an evaluation. Actually, during their time here, we put them through a number of evaluations. But they get their final assessment to determine have their problems resolved. If so, what would be the best home for them to be placed in. So, the assessments have a number of subtests. The tests determine how they feel about being handled, how they feel about casual touch and interaction, what their response is when a child approaches them.

We don’t have real children to work with here, but we do have toddler dolls that we use. The final test is how they feel about dogs—what is their response? If they have problems with dogs, and they’re a little defensive—that’s fine. But if they’re predatory, we really have to work on that issue. But all of these things together bring us to a general profile. They enable us to put together this snapshot, this picture of the dog, and therefore we’re able to match them up with the right home.

Anderson: Do you have to convince people that these dogs are safe to be adopted?

Are people afraid that a dog with a background of being neglected or abused is going to be inappropriate for their homes?

Wells: No, actually. We put out a survey recently when people have come in to adopt out animals. We wanted to see if it affected them in any way, whether it made their choice easier or more difficult. It didn’t affect them either way.

Anderson: So, people are more concerned about how the dog acts and how they feel about the dog when they’re actually interacting with the dog than they are about where the dog came from?

Wells: Yeah. They really want an affiliative dog, one that’s going to pay attention to them. That seems to be what makes them want to adopt a dog.

Anderson: What surprised you the most when you were just starting out in training and you were learning from these Ph.D.s and other behavioral animal specialists? What surprised you about animal behavior that you hadn’t realized before?

Wells: That it’s all common sense, and everything that we apply to human behavior can be applied to animal behavior. If you want your child to repeat a positive behavior, something that is beneficial for them that you’ll want to see happen again, you have to reinforce them favorably. It’s the same thing that applies.

Anderson: Why don’t you also train other types of animals here? Is it because other animals don’t have the same dangerous behavioral problems that dogs have, or is it because they require a separate, specialized kind of attention when they do have behavioral problems?

Wells: Do you mean, like exotic animals?

Anderson: Or cats.

Wells: Oh, we do. There are as many abused and neglected cats as there are dogs. I used to be in charge of working with the neglect and abuse—the feline abuse cases as well—but I couldn’t handle it. There’s too many coming in.

There’s only so many animals I can work with in a day. So, we have people who work with the feline abuse and neglect cases as well as the dogs.

Anderson: Are cats the same way, where you introduce a helper animal and that helps them adjust?

Wells: Occasionally. They’ve had to have been around other cats a lot though. It really depends upon their situation. They do really well if they come from hoarding situations and they’ve always been around cats and they’re super undersocialized. You bring in a helper cat because they’re not familiar with people so much, but they are familiar with other cats.

Anderson: So, these helper animals, do they stay at the shelter for long periods of time? Or are they just dogs that happen to be here and happen to have the behavioral traits that you’re looking for, which you utilize in your training while they’re waiting to be adopted?

Wells: They just happen to be here at the time when we need them. We have so many dogs here that there’s bound to be a dog that possess all those characteristics that help us out. If we don’t have a dog that’s here at that point that has wonderful social skills with dogs and people, we use fake dogs.

Anderson: What is a fake dog?

Wells: We have dogs that are realistic looking stuffed dogs. They’re just as large as a large breed dog, and they look very realistic. We try to walk them sort of like a marionette, and believe it or not, dogs buy it. They think they’re real.

So, if we have a dog that’s really fearful, we can’t find a helper dog, but we need it to follow a dog maybe out the door, we get one of our helper fake dogs.

Anderson: Wow. Do you have them in different breeds?

Wells: Oh yeah. We’ve got every breed to suit your need. We’ve got a Labrador, a Rottweiler. We’ve got a beagle and a Chihuahua. We’ve got all sizes and shapes.

Anderson: Is it helpful for dogs when they’re just starting to be socialized to be exposed to a dog of the same breed, either a dog or a fake dog of the same breed, or does it not matter so much?

Wells: It helps if they have been exposed to only that breed. Say a dog comes in a from pit bull fighting ring, and they’re kenneled around dogs that look like them. They’ve probably never seen a dog other than another pit bull. We typically use a dog that is very similar in appearance to them.

Anderson: So, pit bull fighting rings, that sounds terrible. These are basically dogs that have been trained to fight other dogs.

Wells: Trained and not trained. Sometimes they’re just held in a environment in the hopes that they could fight with other dogs. It’s such a sad situation because when they bust these pit bull rings, so many innocent dogs are seized. These dogs are kept in horrible, horrible living situations. They’re kept in darkness in crates and basements for their entire lives. And they are so sweet. When they are seized and they’re liberated from these crates, you can tell they know you’ve saved them from this hellish situation.

Anderson: Have you seen people’s reaction to pit bulls being different from their reaction to other breeds, and do you think that there’s any reason for that?

Wells: Sometimes I have. I think anybody who forms an opinion prior to meeting a dog, or people, it’s just sort of discrimination. I know that there’s a new trend though, and people are actually adopting pit bulls because they want to break that stigma.

I live in an area where—hate to use this term because I don’t know—these hipsters, the hipsters—

Anderson: I think it’s OK to say.

Wells: Yeah, OK. I live in Bushwick, and everybody’s adopting pit bulls because they want to break the stigma, and they realize that these dogs are wonderful. They make wonderful pets.

So, it’s not true what they say, or what some people have said. I have worked here for over 15 years. I keep saying that. I primarily work with pit bulls. I’m sitting here to talk to you today. It’s not like anything’s never happened to me. They’re just lovely dogs.

Anderson: Have you ever encountered an animal that is impossible to train and just does not respond to the incentives that you’re giving and your attempts to create positive associations?

Wells: I sure have. It’s rare, because there’s something reinforcing out there if you’re just creative enough and you just investigate deeply enough to find out what’s reinforcing to the dog. But there are dogs that have been so badly abused and neglected that nothing is reinforcing to them. If a dog has been in a neglectful situation from the time they were a puppy until the time they are 6 years old, they don’t know anything but being treated poorly, and that’s it.

They missed out on that socialization period in their lives when they need to experience people, different things, different environments, and that window of opportunity closes where they’re not receptive to it anymore. There’s nothing that you can do. It’s really unfortunate, but it happens.

Anderson: How long do you keep trying before you decide that this dog is just not receptive to training?

Wells: Months and months, you know. Months and months. It really depends upon the severity of the abuse and the neglect that determines the severity of the problem and how long it’s going to take to fix it. No behavior problem goes away overnight, and if people think that that’s the case, they’re being misled. It’s like human behavior issues. If you experience something during your childhood, it’s not going to go away overnight. You can’t see a therapist once and have it go away.

Anderson: If you can’t make a dent in their behavior issue, what happens to those dogs?

Wells: We try to find alternative placement.

Anderson: What kind of alternative placement?

Wells: If the dog’s a specific breed, a lot of times there’s breed rescues. So, if our environment here is not conducive to improving their behavioral health, sometimes we’ll send the dogs to behavior fosters to sort of track their progress. As nice as this place is, we provide them with everything enriching that we can possibly give them. It’s still a shelter.

If all else fails and the dog is so aggressive that it’s not safe to place this dog, the end result will be that they bite somebody’s child or attack somebody’s child. You have to think, is this going to result in another cycle of abuse? If you let that dog out there, if they attack somebody, what’s that person going to do to the dog? You have to be aware of that. The end result is that we can’t adopt them out. That’s rare, but it happens.

Anderson: In a case like that, do you keep them or do you euthanize them?

Wells: We have to euthanize them. But as I said, it’s rare, but it does happen.

Anderson: Has training animals and working so closely to change the behavior of animals changed the way you think about people at all?

Wells: Oh yeah. That’s interesting that you say that. Working here and working with this specific population of dogs absolutely has changed the way I approach people and think about people and think about myself. These dogs have been through so much, and if they can be resilient and bounce back from a horrible situation and a hellish existence, then I’m not going to complain or sweat the little stuff. I’m not going to complain about things that I can change myself. I’m less tolerant when people complain about things that they can change themselves.

For these dogs, they can’t change their situation. It’s up to us to change it for them.

Anderson: Do you think people have misconceptions about what it is that you do or what it is that ASPCA does that you think should be corrected?

Wells: I think so. I just don’t think they know that we do as much as we do. We put a lot into these dogs. We all work here because we care deeply for them.

We provide everything we possibly can because we know what they’ve been through, and we know that they can’t speak for themselves. We just want them to know that there is a group of people that want to speak for them and want to speak out for them.

Anderson: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at and you can listen to our first four seasons at This episode was produced by Jason De Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo, and our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Laura Anderson. See you next time on Working.

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This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Anderson: Are there differences among different breeds in terms of how easy they are to train, what their personality traits are like, or how they affect different aspects of your job? Have you noticed differences in other breeds?

Wells: Oh, definitely, because they were bred to do different things. Like Jack Russells, they are busy, busy, busy dogs with a lot of energy. I know people adopt them thinking, Oh, they’re so cute, and they are so cute, but you better have a job for them because they need something to do or they’re going to find something to do.

It’s funny. We were just talking about this, but mastiffs, take for instance these giant dogs. People say, Oh my gosh, I can’t adopt that dog. It’s humongous. What’s it going to do in my apartment, you know? I have a tiny apartment. I’ll tell you what it’s going to do. It’s going to sleep in your apartment. Nothing but sleep. You take it for a walk, it’ll come home and nap all day.

You know, it’s interesting the perception people have. But you’ve got Rottweilers who might have a tendency to bark when somebody knocks on the door, but that’s what they were bred to do. Herding breeds, they’re beautiful, but you have to give them, once again, a job. They were bred to herd sheep. They’re going to herd your children if you have them. If you don’t, maybe take them to agility classes or take them to training. Get them well exercised.

They develop these interesting behaviors because you don’t allow them to do what they’re bred to do.

Anderson: What sorts of different types of homes are you thinking about when you’re thinking about where a dog should eventually be placed?

Wells: Well, if the dog has any guarding issues, like people around their food, we’ll probably put them—or suggest them—to be placed in a home with older children, teens and up, something like that. You just don’t want toddlers wandering up to the food bowl while the dog’s eating.

If the dog has arousal issues, maybe they’re super playful to the point where there’s lots of jumping up on people, we might suggest older children. If there is any reactivity towards dogs or people, we would probably suggest they be placed in an experienced home, somebody who’s had dogs before.

Anderson: We’re in New York right now. Most people live in apartments. Do you think about the size of a home or whether they have regular access to a backyard or anything like that, or are you thinking more about the people and the family that’s going to make the adoption?

Wells: Backyards? I wish everybody had a backyard. Those are pretty much impossible to come by around here.

Anderson: Yep.

Wells: What we sometimes do is that if we feel that a dog is just too reactive to other dogs, too shut down in a city environment, we’ll suggest a more suburban placement, or we’ll go out and actively find a suburban placement.

Sometimes we can limit or recommend the dog not live in a walk-up, for some reason. Maybe the space is too tight and they’re more reactive in small areas or scared in small areas, such as all those stairs, climbing the stairs. But we’re pretty detailed in defining what the best environment for the home would be.

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