Of the more than 150 dogs rescued in October from a South Korean dog meat farm, most have already found loving homes—but a dozen or so require a bit of extra TLC first. Their surroundings at an HSUS-run temporary shelter are a far cry from the filthy, cramped cages where they awaited a gruesome fate. Now, every day runs on an innovative and carefully structured “enrichment schedule” to build their trust and help them recover from their traumatic former life.

“We rely on positive reinforcement,” says shelter director Gina Lantella, whose team is certified in a training method called Fear Free, which focuses on minimizing stress and anxiety. “And we always try to do the least intrusive thing possible. It should be an exciting experience for them.”

For dogs too scared to even let someone pet them, Lantella’s team begins with “Doggie Zen”: sitting calmly with a treat in hand, patiently waiting for the dogs to approach on their terms and without pressure. Eventually, they work up the courage to accept that treat.  

We rely on positive reinforcement. ... And we always try to do the least intrusive thing possible.

Gina Lantella, The HSUS

“From there, that’s the beginning of everything else we can do with them,” says Lantella. “Dogs learn from one another. Once they see someone else taking treats, they may be more likely to approach if it looks safe.”

The dogs next progress to leash training. Gahee, a skittish Jindo, now accepts treats by putting her head through a loop. Lantella’s team will gradually close that loop, barely an inch each day, until Gahee gets comfortable wearing a collar to go for a walk. 

Dog running with a toy in his mouth
Mir runs through a maze with a favorite toy.
Meredith Lee

The transition from farm to shelter to (eventually) loving home isn’t all work and no play—the dogs enjoy plenty of brightly colored Frisbees, puzzle feeders, busy boxes and other toys. “They didn’t know what toys were, and now they grab and shake them,” Lantella says. “We’ve also done some really unique stuff that we’ve never done before.” These innovative techniques include maze challenges and even arts and crafts: With a clever combo of zip-close bags and spreadable snacks such as peanut butter, the dogs create canvas paintings that staff and volunteers display like proud parents.

Soon the shelter will be empty, as these special pups are welcomed home by adopters who will give them the rich, full lives they deserve. 

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