December 28, 2018

Second Chances for Severely Fearful Shelter Dogs


Pia Silvani (seen above) works year-round to help fearful, undersocialized dogs overcome their pasts and learn the skills they need to become beloved pets.

By Pia Silvani, Director of Behavior, ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center

People who see fearful dogs often think that if they just give those animals love, they will come around. While this may be true for some, it wasn’t the case for two dogs, Nanook and Dexter, who were rescued by the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response team as part of a cruelty case last March. Nanook and Dexter were among more than 50 animals living in deplorable conditions, isolated and left to fend for themselves.

Having had no opportunities to socialize with people, both dogs were extremely fearful of all who tried to comfort them. How could we help them become comfortable around people and learn to feel love?  

We are challenged by this dilemma every day at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC), the first and only facility dedicated to the study and rehabilitation of undersocialized, homeless dogs suffering from severe fear, often caused by cruelty and neglect. Based in Weaverville, North Carolina, the BRC has the capacity to treat 65 dogs at any given time and provides research-based training for select animal welfare groups from all over the U.S. While the success of rehabilitation depends on each individual dog and the severity of their behavior issues, all dogs who come to our facility show fearful behavior severe enough to compromise their quality of life and make adoption impossible.  

When Nanook and Dexter arrived at our Rehab Center, they hid at the back of their runs, trembling at the sight of us and showing no interest in other dogs, toys or even food. They refused to eat during the day in sight of our staff and kept a nocturnal schedule, daring to eat only at night. They had never been walked on a leash and were terrified of it. They didn’t make eye contact with us, never wagged their tails, had no interest in exploring or playing, and spent most of the day hiding. We could only wait patiently to see if our interventions could change all that.   

Early on in their treatment program, we had doubts about whether Nanook and Dexter could overcome their anxiety and enjoy activities and people like “normal,” well-adjusted pets do. We were these dogs’ last resort, and after a lifetime of mistreatment, they deserved second chances.

We took baby-steps at first, teaching the two dogs to eat their meals in the presence of people. Later we worked on helping them get used to walking on a leash, playing with other dogs, enjoying petting and riding in a car. Seems simple? Not for these dogs! What’s simple for other dogs was a tremendous challenge for these two.

Dexter’s main challenges were his fear of people, especially when people made eye contact with him, as well as trying to flee when walked on leash. After we made creative adjustments to our protocols and used a harness in place of a standard collar and leash, Dexter was able to make a positive connection with people and began enjoying life. Nanook’s behavior issues were more severe, as she had extreme difficulty even eating in the presence of people and panicked every time we tried walking her on a leash. Our Behavior experts worked with her over the course of several months to help her gradually tolerate being handled and touched, which included using a harness so she could enjoy daily walks outside. While she still struggled to eat in our presence, she eventually developed a trust in people—something necessary for success in a home, as her new family continues to help her build confidence.

After several months of intensive rehabilitation, Nanook and Dexter made significant improvements. They met our graduation guidelines, which help us determine when a dog is ready to leave our facility and go to a shelter or rescue group to be made available for adoption. Nanook was placed with Asheville Humane Society in North Carolina, and Dexter was placed with Monmouth County SPCA in New Jersey. Shortly after being placed with these shelters, we were thrilled to hear that Nanook and Dexter were adopted into safe and loving homes.

It’s so rewarding to witness severely fearful, undersocialized dogs make such amazing transformations after spending time at the BRC. After five years of working with these behaviorally compromised dogs, they never cease to amaze me. Helping them conquer their fears is one of the greatest gifts that we, as a team, can give them. In turn, it keeps us motivated to continue to bring more and more dogs into the program and changing—and saving—more vulnerable lives.

Nanook and Dexter had to learn what love is and how to truly enjoy life in a new home. Now they’re enjoying treats, belly rubs and long walks with people who care for and love them as much as we did.

Originally published on The Dogist