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.”