‘From broken situations to confident dogs’: How to deal with canine trauma

TVO.org speaks with expert Heather Watling about rescue operations, patience, and nursing dogs back to physical and mental health
By Justin Chandler - Published on Oct 20, 2021
Heather Watling runs 4Champ Animal Rescue, located in Sudbury. (Courtesy of Heather Watling)



When Heather Watling saw a fellow animal rescuer’s online post about a large pet rescue taking place near Brantford in early October, she offered to help. Watling drove five hours from Sudbury, where her organization, 4Champ Animal Rescue, is based, to a house in Burford. One owner had died, and the 52 dogs, four cats, and a turtle who’d been living there needed care and shelter. 

The rescue — initiated by Cassia Bryden who works part-time at Hillside Kennels, which received a tip from police and contacted several organizations, including Watling’s — involved luring the dogs out over the course of a week. According to Bryden, some came when called; others had to be taken out using slip leads and a catch pole or coyote traps — they were "fighting for their lives" not to leave the house, she says.

Some had wounds, overgrown nails, and missing fur. “I’ve travelled all over northern Ontario and northern Manitoba … and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Watling, who took in three of the animals. “Anybody can just about imagine what 52 dogs would look like in a small house.”

small dog looking up
One of the dogs rescued from a home near Brantford in early October. (Courtesy of Heather Watling)

The homeowner surrendered the animals to Bryden and her rescue organization, Sato Saved End of the Line Dog Rescue, located in Innerkip. Hillside Kennels took in the dogs until fosters and other rescues could. 

While many of the dogs will require care for their physical injuries before finding a new permanent home, Watling says she’s most worried about their mental health; her 4Champ Animal Rescue, founded in 2015, specializes in dogs with severe behavioural issues who need training before they can safely be adopted. 

"More people need to realize that those dogs deserve a chance, too, because they're still great dogs," Bryden says. "They just haven't reached their potential yet."

But dogs with behavioural issues are often the last remaining on adoption lists — or put up for adoption repeatedly, Watling says. TVO.org asked her how her team cares for rescue dogs who’ve experienced trauma and what potential adopters need to know. 

TVO.org: What are your concerns about animal welfare when you see something like the situation in Burford?

Heather Watling: Of course, there are the physical ailments, but we have amazing vets that can fix those. It’s the aftermath. It’s the mental trauma that these dogs have gone through and are going to continue to go through because now they’ve gone from the only life they’ve known inside that house to just being outdoors, and outdoors alone is having some of them panic. Mental illness in dogs is just as prevalent as in humans. It just goes unnoticed.

TVO.org: What happens to dogs once they’re pulled out of a hoarding situation?

Watling: Each dog is different. Some will have anxiety disorders. Some will completely shut down. Others will redirect their anxiety or depression toward people or other dogs. Some dogs won’t display anything until later. After a couple of months — once they become comfortable in their new situation — issues can start to arise.

TVO.org: If you’re rescuing a dog that you suspect may have experienced some sort of mental trauma, what do you do?

Watling: The first thing we will tackle is their physical condition, because we believe that we can’t mentally get them healthy until they’re physically healthy. We’ll observe the dog at the beginning. We don’t do a whole lot with them. We don’t give a whole lot of attention. It’s more just about observing them and then trying to figure out what they’re feeling and what they’re going through. 

a black and white cat in a cage on grass
Four cats were also rescued in early October from a home in Burford. (gofundme.com)

In cases like this, we won’t push these dogs. We allow them to choose to work with us. We give them the foundation needed: routine, structure. And we allow them to choose to work with us. As an example, one of our dogs right now still is quite scared and spends most of his time hiding behind the chair in his room. So the foster and a volunteer of ours will just sit in the room, offer him treats, and allow him to choose to approach.

TVO.org: So being patient in the same way that you might be with a person.

Watling: Exactly. We take it the same way. We just communicate on a different level.

TVO.org: Generally, how long does it take for a dog to recover from a negative situation like this?

Watling: It really can vary. We’ve had dogs in the past that have recovered fairly quickly. We had one that came from a Korean meat market whom we had for 80 days before she was even ready to walk on a leash outside. It really depends on each dog, their age, and the trauma they went through. We often don’t know what that trauma is.

Lucy, a dog from the Burford rescue, with her foster. (Facebook/Cassia Bryden)

TVO.org: How does your team determine when a dog would be ready for adoption?

Watling: When the dog can start running a normal lifestyle in the foster home, that’s when we start to discuss whether they’re ready for home. Then we will generally push it a little, maybe a couple of weeks further, to make sure that they really are displaying normal dog behaviours and emotions.

TVO.org: What are some of those normal behaviours and emotions that you’re looking for?

Watling: For these dogs, I want them to be able to walk in and out of the house without panicking over the doorway. The doorway is a major thing with these dogs, because they hadn’t been outside. So going through the door into a whole new environment is terrifying to a lot of these guys. We want them walking happily in and out through the door. We want them to happily go into their crates, eat regular meals, and show happiness and enjoyment when their foster either walks into the room or gets home. And, of course, we always make sure our vet is on board as well to say, “Yes, this dog is ready.”

TVO.org: How do you let people know what a dog’s needs are without scaring them off?

a brown dog with ears lowered
One of the three dogs taken in by 4Champ Animal Rescue after the Burford rescue. (Courtesy of Heather Watling)

 Watling: This is a discussion we’ve had many times in the team. The reality is we’re brutally honest for the safety of our dogs, as well as of the public and the family. We’ll let people know straight up, right on their posts, if they have a bite history. If they’re afraid of new strangers, we’ll make that clear. It does take longer for those dogs to get adopted. But there are families out there that want to take in dogs like that. Everybody sees these medical cases, the broken legs, the wounds, and everybody wants them, but then they don’t see the dogs that are broken emotionally or mentally with the same value.

TVO.org: If people are interested in a dog with mental-health needs, what should they ask themselves when considering adoption?

Watling: They need to absolutely be sure that this is something they want to do. I wouldn’t suggest bringing a dog that has a bite history or, say, severe generalized anxiety into a home with young children, because it’s just a bad combination. You need to know this dog is going to take time. You have to have the determination, the time, and — to be honest — the funds.

TVO.org: When you say funds, is that to make sure you can pay for any sort of accommodations or training?

Watling: Yeah, from medication to training to training supplies, crates — anything needed to get that dog forward.

TVO.org: If somebody thinks their pet might need help with their mental health, what would you recommend as the next step?

Watling: The first thing would be to contact their vet to make sure that there is no underlying chemical imbalance or an underlying pain that’s causing that behaviour — and then contacting a behaviourist or a trainer that’s certified to work with dogs that are having either anxiety or redirected aggression.

dog and woman in foreground with cars in the background
Heather Watling's 4Champ Animal Rescue specializes in dogs with severe behavioural issues. (Courtesy of Heather Watling)

TVO.org: What are some of the positive things that people can hope to gain from their relationship with a dog who’s got special requirements?

Watling: Honestly, what we see a lot of is loyalty. These dogs are so loyal to what we call handlers — whether that be the adopter or the person in the home that does the majority of the training. It’s loyalty. We see a lot of that, because these dogs are taken from broken situations to confident dogs, and they’re loyal to the person that brought them there.

TVO.org: Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you wanted to add?

Watling: We really want the public to know that mental health is just as important as physical health. They go hand in hand. Your dog can be as physically fit as possible but still be displaying signs of what you would think is illness when, in reality, it’s symptoms of mental illness. It’s so crucial.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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