take a treat from either trainer. Mabel
looks fine from a distance, but a closer
look reveals signs of fear: her face is
tense, her mouth clamped shut and her
ears back. Neither dog wags its tail.
While Jazzy has greatly improved,
she still has much to learn. “We’re trying
to teach her to want to be near people,”
says Zverina. “When Jazzy first arrived,
she was highly anxious. She looked
desperate to escape, jumping up on the
walls, looking for a way out. She was very
nervous about petting. When we gently
stroked her, she’d stiffen, eyes huge and
After a few minutes, the dogs start to
relax. They each take some treats from the
trainers and run around the pen. They let
the trainers stroke them; they even seem
to like it. Jazzy is less anxious and acts
playful, frolicking with Mabel. Surpris-
ingly, Mabel gives Zverina a kiss, and then
another. The trainers laugh at this sign of
improvement. Mabel happily rolls around
in the grass, excited by a strange smell. The
treatment, it appears, is working.
“I love watching them have happiness
for the first time,” says Collins. “It’s an
The rehabilitation program uses behav-
ior-modification techniques such as de-
sensitization and counter-conditioning to
help the dogs shed their fears. The aim is
to expose the animals to the things they’re
afraid of at tolerable levels and create new,
positive associations, says Collins.
Many of the dogs are afraid of
people approaching, so the trainers
break it down into baby steps, giving a
dog a little food at a time while getting
physically closer. The program teaches
the dogs to enjoy gentle petting and to
walk on a leash, among other things.
The center has training rooms that are
made to look like bedrooms and living
rooms that the dogs would encounter
in a home, with beds, couches, TVs and
vacuum cleaners. These help the dogs
adjust to living with families once they
The program has been so successful that the ASPCA staff is conducting
a formal research study based on the
techniques they are using with the dogs.
(The ASPCA website— aspca.org—has information for dog owners on dealing with
common canine behavior issues.)
Back at the center in Madison, the staff
is enthused to see dogs go home with new
families. In fact, Mabel, who is four and
has been renamed Belle, has graduated
from the program and been adopted. The
trainers provide advice to the adoptive
families when the dogs come home and
keep in touch about the dogs’ progress.
Many of the families send pictures and
videos to the former trainers.
“It’s rewarding for these adopters to
rescue a dog coming from an abusive place,”
says Collins. “It’s special to have a dog like
that trust you. It can be very powerful.” ■
Jacqueline Mroz lives in Montclair with
her husband and three children. They are
getting closer to adopting a rescue dog.
Collins and Renee
Dunaway of the
Right and below:
Collins works with
Jazzy and Mabel.