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Abused dogs learn new tricks at 'charm school'

/ Source: The Associated Press

Lie down. Roll over. Sit up. Give me a paw.

The pet tricks are so simple they couldn’t even qualify as “stupid” on television, but for the pooches performing them at the ASPCA’s charm school, they could be a ticket to adoption.

That was, after all, the purpose and the hope for which trainers and handlers put Porky, Basil, Tuffy, Negrita, Newman, Spencer, Tiny Tim and Mister Pink through their paces. All are former problem dogs, retrained at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Manhattan shelter after being rescued or legally seized from abusive or neglectful owners.

One after another, the dogs bounded forth Wednesday, tails wagging, and obeyed the commands as if they had never been kicked, starved, isolated or, in the cases of Tuffy and Negrita, confined in a four-room Bronx apartment with 27 other dogs and forced to survive on a diet of popcorn.

The ASPCA called the charm school event a “showcase to display what our dogs have learned.”

“They are available for adoption, but they are much more adoptable if they have some tricks,” explained Victoria Wells, the ASPCA’s manager of shelter behavior and training, who served as emcee for the event.

Socialization is key

The ASPCA shelter has about 300 resident dogs and cats at a time, and most are adopted within two years, workers said. But socialization is the key, especially for dogs acquired from collectors or hoarders who often have more animals than they can care for, said ASPCA vice president Gail Buchwald.

Porky, who along with his sister Petunia had been tied up and nearly starved when rescued by law enforcers from an abandoned apartment, mugged happily for the cameras, as did Tuffy and Negrita, a matched set of endearingly homely terriers of uncertain ancestry.

Tiny Tim pranced in on three legs, having had a rear leg amputated at the shelter due to multiple pelvic fractures that could not be repaired. Mister Pink, a formerly malnourished American bulldog named for the rosy cast of his white fur, sat erectly at attention amid cheers for his performance. All were rewarded by their handlers with liver-based dog treats.

Except for two TV cameras and a few reporters, the appreciative audience consisted entirely of ASPCA employees and volunteers. Wells and Trish McMillan, who brought the charm school idea from her former job at the Richmond, Va., SPCA shelter, conceded it might be better to showcase the dogs in a more public setting.

No speeches were required as to why the dogs needed rescue from neglect and abuse in the first place.

“There are a lot of different reasons,” said Jennifer Lander, the shelter’s veterinarian. “Some of it really is malice. Sometimes it’s just ignorance, or people don’t have the resources available to them even though they know they should be doing something.”

What makes her job so rewarding, she said, is knowing that “these dogs have a great life here and it’s only going to get better when they’re adopted.”