The first time nicole and Brian Baummer took their newly adopted black Lab, Finn, to the vet, the clinic staff’s reaction surprised them. Finn is particularly social and well behaved, yet the receptionist looked stricken as she pulled out a folder bearing a bright-red “caution” sticker.
“We caused quite a stir,” says Nicole. “They immediately remembered Finn from a visit to their office with his previous owners—and not in a good way. Apparently, he had been very aggressive and interacted negatively with everyone. They even had to muzzle him.”
It’s true that Finn had been well on the road to juvenile delinquency when his first owners decided to give him up. At five months, rambunctious, unruly and overstimulated, he had acted aggressively toward one of the three small children with whom he shared a chaotic household.
Shelters everywhere are full of dogs like Finn, and their prospects are particularly grim. But thanks to a new model for animal rehabilitation and adoption being launched in Connecticut, Finn didn’t become a euthanasia statistic— he became a success story.
Such successes are mounting at Our Companions Sanctuary in Ashford, Conn., a key initiative for the nonprofit Our Companions Animal Rescue. Modeled after Utah’s world-renowned Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the Ashford facility is on track to become New England’s first large-scale rehabilitation and adoption center for homeless companion animals with nowhere else to turn.
Situated on over 43 acres in rural Connecticut, the sanctuary will one day comprise 16 animal-rehabilitation cottages, a dog park, walking trails, a nature preserve and a center for humane education. The first cottage opened its doors in October 2012, and two more were completed a year later. The cottages are designed to offer animals an enriching, homelike environment where they can physically and emotionally recover from past traumas and become great candidates for adoption.
“Homelike” isn’t hyperbole here. The cottage where Finn spent 27 days has a refrigerator stocked with treats, a flatscreen TV tuned to Animal Planet, and cozy nooks for napping and lounging. During most waking hours, volunteers are on hand to administer belly rubs, offer words of comfort and tuck the guests in for the night. Each dog has his or her own room and crate, gets plenty of exercise in the play areas and outside trails. Upon arrival, each dog is evaluated by director of canine operations, Marie Joyner, who creates an individual behavoiral training program and then works with the staff and volunteers on its proper implementation. The environment is peaceful and supportive, with enough people coming and going to help even the shyest dog develop solid social skills. One cottage house cats and two of them are homes to dogs.
“Our goal is to provide an environment where homeless animals won’t feel homeless and where we can address needs that are not being met in the traditional shelter system,” says Susan Linker, CEO of Our Companions Animal Rescue. “Animals that linger in shelters often exhibit frustration and stress, which can lead to fear, which can turn them into ticking time bombs. We want to defuse that.”
After visiting Best Friends to participate in a workshop on sanctuary building, Linker was inspired to focus on rehabilitation as a solution to euthanasia. However, rehabilitation isn’t possible if an animal is feeling anxious. Linker knew that housing animals in rooms, as opposed to cages, would largely eliminate stress, but she also suspected that a shelter-type facility with rooms instead of cages would not be enough to address the rehabilitation component. For that, she wanted an actual house—a place where animals could be themselves, warts and all. The behaviors that emerged would likely be the same ones to pop up in a home placement, and the same ones that could torpedo that placement. A dog could learn not to fear the sound of a dishwasher, for instance, or be weaned away from barking at the television.
The dog’s behavior in the simulated home would also provide staff with important information on the best fit for a permanent placement, which, in turn, would reduce returns. “Every time a dog is returned, a little piece is gone,” she said. “We want to do everything possible to keep them whole.”
The organization pulls most of its dogs from municipal shelters, but also accepts owner surrenders of dogs who may be difficult to place. In addition to animals with behavioral issues, the sanctuary welcomes seniors, those with medical problems and those who, for whatever reason, are perennially overlooked in traditional shelters.
Recent sanctuary guests included Lucas, a Cocker Spaniel with a penchant for guarding his many treasures; Tinka, an elderly Chihuahua whose original owners were unable to deal with her Cushing’s disease; and Suzie, a Pit Bull whose hyperanxiety, which stemmed from having been caged for 15 months, caused her to aggressively protect her meager turf. Especially touching was Lucy, an abused Pit who was terrified of people. At the shelter, she cowered in the back of her kennel and emitted a continuous low growl. Her breakthrough came after nine days in Ashford, when she melted her 50-pound body onto the lap of a caring volunteer. The sanctuary refers to such milestone moments as the “personality blossom.”
Though Best Friends Sanctuary does not operate the same type of homebased facility, it does offer something related: a sleepover program in which prospective adopters can spend quality time with the pooch of their choice at one of the local pet-friendly hotels. Faith Maloney, Best Friends co-founder, characterizes it as one of their most helpful programs, not just from the dog’s point of view, but from the potential adopter’s as well. That’s because the experience of walking past row after row of kennels and being buffeted by a constant din of barking can make even the most committed adopters feel as though they are adrift in a giant sea of dogs in which no one animal is distinguishable. Removing a dog from that environment immediately changes the perspective.
“If you look at a dog racing around in a kennel, you can’t picture them in your home,” says Maloney, adding that there is an 80 percent adoption rate for sleepovers. “So even in a hotel room, you get to see the dog’s individual preferences— does she like the bed or the couch? Does she snore? Does she look out the window? Suddenly, the dog looks like she belongs in a home—and maybe that home is yours.”
The Baummers couldn’t agree more. The calm environment of the sanctuary gave them a chance to see the real Finn, the one who immediately hopped onto a couch and asked for a belly rub. Also helpful, since they have an elderly cat, was the fact that Finn could be tested in a home setting with some of the feline guests in the neighboring cottage.
Of course, facilities like this aren’t cheap. Our Companions has embarked on a $5 million capital campaign to complete the sanctuary village, which is expected to eventually accommodate about 40 dogs and 160 cats. That population level is projected to result in the rescue, rehabilitation and adoption of 160 dogs and 1,200 cats annually.
Aside from fundraising, Linker’s biggest challenge now is adjusting to the program’s success. “We thought it would take several months for the dogs to rehabilitate from past physical and emotional trauma, but it’s actually happening very quickly, and people are incredibly eager to adopt them,” she says, adding that the dogs spend, on average, just 40 days at the sanctuary.
The unexpectedly speedy turnaround caught the design team off guard. The first cottage had given significant space to common areas, in the hope that long-term canine guests would benefit from the ongoing camaraderie. But, the typical shorter stays didn’t give dogs enough time to gel as a cozy pack; instead they were forced to make constant social adjustments as dogs were adopted out and new ones arrived. To better manage this dynamic, the second and third cottages were built with more individual living quarters for dogs who need additional stability away from the pack disruptions.
The need for a redesign doesn’t much bother Linker. “Actually,” she says, “this is a nice problem to have.”