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Freeing Dogs from Fear

An Essay by Kristen Collins

The dog isn’t sure about this. She hasn’t been sure about anything in this strange place since she arrived a few weeks ago. She doesn’t trust the weird, insistent bipeds, often too close and staring, sometimes reaching toward her with their terrifying fleshy paws. Then there’s the ceiling always above, boxing her in so she’s trapped. She’d never seen one of those before, having lived her whole life in the small, dirty pen. She’d never seen the rope thing the bipeds try to put around her neck either. When she felt it the first time, she knew she should run because they must be trying to kill her — but she couldn’t breathe and couldn’t get away, even though she thrashed and tried so hard to escape. Worst of all, everything is new and different now. Before, in the pen, life was bad. She was alone, feasted on by fleas and ticks, day after day marked by hunger, thirst and silence. When the bipeds came and took her away, it should have been a relief, but change was everywhere, all the time. Life became a barrage of sights and sounds and smells — nothing safe, everything coming at her with such overwhelming intensity that she could barely cope at all.

I imagine this must be what life is like for fearful, under-socialized dogs when they arrive at our Behavioral Rehabilitation Center. Many have been rescued from horrible situations, where they suffered abuse and neglect — but that doesn’t mean they get to live happily ever after. Without the right kind of help, they simply can’t.

Coming to us from hoarding situations, puppy mills and other cruelty cases, our dogs show extreme responses to seemingly innocuous things. Mere proximity to people, gentle petting, the feel of a leash and exposure to novelty of any kind can make them tremble, cower, cringe, shut down, panic and flee, cram themselves into corners and hide under furniture. Sometimes they lose control of their bladders or bowels. Other times they retreat into themselves to the point of catatonia.

Love and time alone can’t fix their problems. Dogs who’ve lived for weeks or years in isolation have never learned to socialize with people, enjoy petting, go for a walk or live in a house. To them, these activities are terrifying, not comforting.

When the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team started to assist with animal cruelty cases in the field, we found playing a role in rescue incredibly fulfilling — but in case after case, we saw dogs who couldn’t take the next steps on the road to adoption. Their pathway to safe and loving homes was blocked by trauma and unrelenting fear. In most cases, their inability to function as companion animals destined them to long-term shelter life or euthanasia.

The Rehab Center program was born because we felt that these dogs deserved a chance to heal, under the care of behavior experts who could guide them toward recovery. Armed with determination and a plan, we embarked on our pilot project, not knowing how many dogs we could save. The devastating behavioral consequences of severe under-socialization were clear, and, to our knowledge, no one had ever launched a program focused solely on the treatment and study of extremely fearful dogs before.

Given the severity of behavioral damage we aimed to undo, we guessed that perhaps we could maybe help as many as 50% of the dogs accepted into the program. But not long after we opened our doors in early 2013, we were proven wrong. Even dogs given very poor prognoses made incredible progress, and unlikely recoveries continue. To date, we’ve accepted over 200 dogs into the Rehab Center program. Almost 90% have successfully “graduated,” ready to enjoy life and find loving homes.

The work isn’t easy, though. Our dogs — each one a unique individual — continue to pose new challenges as we work to change their behavior, and we continue to learn from them. The work also proves challenging on an emotional level. It’s easy to become attached to the animals in our care and hard to watch them suffer from anxiety as they struggle to overcome it.

Sometimes visitors to the Center ask how we can stay upbeat, coming to work every day to face a kennel full of dogs who need our help so desperately. I tell them we remind ourselves that change is always possible.

That’s the most important lesson we’ve learned. Sometimes progress is slow and steady. Sometimes it’s inexplicably speedy. Not infrequently, the dogs we think we’re failing to help will suddenly have a breakthrough in treatment. No matter what shape recovery takes, it can happen, even when it seems impossible.

Most graduates of our program don’t leave completely free of fear, not as bold and carefree as dogs fortunate enough to benefit from proper socialization and care. We can only introduce them to so much of the world during their time with us. We can, though, give them behavioral tools they need to take next steps that were impossible before. We can teach them how to enjoy the company of people, we can teach them that petting feels good, and we can teach them how to shake it off and move on when they encounter things that startle or worry them.

We’re eager share with other animal welfare organizations how we do that.. For me, the potential widespread impact of our work is the most exciting part of this project. Many of our rescue group and shelter partners have expressed a desire to learn how to help dogs whose behavioral challenges prevent adoption.

Because our work at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey has been so successful, we’re expanding our program and building a brand new facility in Weaverville, North Carolina, which will open in 2017. There, we will focus on developing effective behavior programs that we can share with colleagues across the nation. Together, we can do groundbreaking work that saves lives and has the potential to take the use of behavior modification techniques in shelters to a new level.

The dog isn’t sure about this…but today, for the first time, that’s okay. Her tensed muscles, ready for escape for so long, unclench. The world is still new, but now it isn’t coming at her too loud and bright and fast. The grass beneath her paws is full of fascinating smells. The bipeds, she thinks, might not be so bad after all. They do bring cheese and hot dogs and all kinds of other delicious and fun stuff. One reaches out and scratches a spot on the dog’s neck she had no idea needed scratching. Such a strange sensation… but so unexpectedly nice. Without deciding to do it, she wags, throwing her body into a play bow. She grabs a toy and races around her new friends.

Experiencing her first taste of joy, she can finally let go and just be a dog. That might not seem like a big deal to some, but for her, it’s the beginning of a whole new life, and, finally, freedom.

Kristen Collins oversees the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Madison, New Jersey.