It’s hard to think of better click-bait than puppies rescued from a meat farm.
So it was no surprise that, for about a week in January, the 23 nervous animals arriving at Dulles Airport on the last leg of a journey from South Korea became internet and TV news fodder. The dogs—saved from kitchens in Seoul by a Humane Society International mission to curb the Korean dog-meat trade—appeared on every local TV news affiliate. Stories about them on blogs like ARLnow got thousands of views.
The hype led to a flood of phone calls to the six Washington shelters that had taken them in—some from critics angry that rescuers were focusing on dogs from Asia when there are plenty of needy animals in the States.
For the Washington Animal Rescue League, the retort was obvious: “If I take in five dogs from Korea, there will be five people who come in and adopt other animals that are from DC,” says WARL’s chief operations officer, Mary Jarvis. “It draws attention to our shelter.” In other words, animals that double as click-bait are smart strategy.
Most of the calls, though, were from people offering support or eager to adopt one of the dogs. Ordinarily, too much interest is a problem shelters want to have. But meat farms aren’t a great place to socialize future American pets. The dogs had health and behavior problems, and some were aggressive. The shelters’ training staffs set to work convincing them to trust—or at least tolerate—people, using techniques like rewarding them with treats for coming closer. Six months later, 19 have progressed enough to go to homes.
A more interesting piece of the story, however, is that American dogs turned out to be as useful as the American trainers. In a couple of the more challenging cases—two-month-old puppies Cocoa and Bear—non-human teachers were the most effective.
Sam Matlick met Cocoa while volunteering at WARL. The reddish puppy, likely the Korean breed Jindo, spent much of his time cowering and threatening to bite. At the urging of shelter staff, Matlick brought her own dogs, Doshi and Tahiti, to help socialize the new arrivals.
Cocoa took a particular interest in Doshi, following him closely and appearing to forget some of his worries around him. Matlick took Cocoa home on a trial basis. There, the dogs slept together nightly. Within two weeks, Matlick decided to keep Cocoa. The dogs still sleep together, and Matlick walks them to places like the Takoma Metro, near her home, to help Cocoa adjust to strangers.
Behaviorists say it’s not unusual for feral or abused dogs to be most receptive to their peers. “We’re often communicating in a way that’s foreign to dogs,” says author and behavior consultant Pat Miller. “Simple things like making eye contact can be threatening. When they see other dogs being comfortable with the weird things humans do, it can help.”
The other puppy, Bear—who looks like Cocoa but with tan fur—came with the same socialization problem. WARL behavior-and-training director Alexandra Dilley had been working with Bear for eight weeks by the time he was deemed ready to meet adopters John and Melissa Riston. Though Bear still didn’t like to be touched by people, when the couple introduced him to their corgi, Oskar, the dogs were rolling around playfully within minutes. Now when Oskar greets strangers in their Greenbelt neighborhood, Bear follows suit.
Six months ago, he was click-bait for American internet users. An American dog, meanwhile, is helping turn him into an actual family pet.
Editorial fellow John Scarpinato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.