Some dogs take on the day like this jolly jumper:

Others’ approach is more like this:

This you already know. 

But you might not know a two-part fact about fear: 1) Fear can have devastating effects on a dog’s quality of life, and 2) Fear does not have to be permanent. That’s why the ASPCA opened the Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey as the first shelter facility dedicated to the rehabilitation of undersocialized, fearful dogs. The power of this initiative (and why I’m so excited) is that their work and findings can help not only the dogs from cruelty and neglect cases who enter the Center, but also dogs all over the world. On Saturday, April 16 at 9am Eastern/Pacific you can see their work in action in “Second Chance Dogs,” airing on Animal Planet.

Meet Fear

Maybe you call it by another name—shy, cautious, reluctant, suspicious, uneasy, worried, chickenhearted (clearly I went to the thesaurus on this one)—but however you swing it, “Fear is an emotional reaction, induced by the perception of stimuli associated with danger, which leads to protective defensive reactions” (Mills, 2010). While fear is part of an adaptive system that readies the body for action, it is not always useful, particularly if fear is directed toward normal, everyday things. Fear can impair a dog’s ability to cope, and it has even been associated with decreased lifespan. 

Behaviorally, fear can be subtle, or it can be in-your-face and over-the-top obvious. Pamela Reid, vice president of ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team and Kristen Collins, senior director of ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Rehabilitation describe fear as any of the following behaviors: “trembling, panting, freezing, withdrawing, hiding, attempting to escape, and defensive aggression.” They add that fear is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon and can arise in any number of the following contexts: “fear of being handled or restrained, fear of people, fear of other dogs, fear of being alone (isolation distress or separation anxiety), fear of certain environments, activities, or objects, fear of loud noises, and fear of anything unfamiliar (neophobia).”

Look again at that long list of potentially fear-inducing contexts and something should stand out—the list describes all the things a companion dog might stumble across any day of the week. Companion dogs regularly encounter things that are new: new people, new places, new sights and sounds. A dog in a city can’t avoid being bombarded with sounds coming and going, an ever changing array of people and other dogs, weird flooring to walk over (subway grates), and being left alone in an apartment. Suburban and rural dogs could face their own comparable contexts.

Why any particular dog exhibits fear is a huge can of worms for another day, but once fear is here, standing up and waving a big Fear Flag, we can help. There is the potential to decrease fear and help dogs develop a new outlook. That’s why the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center opened in 2013 to focus solely on dogs from cruelty and neglect cases showing intense fearful behavior. Could these dogs be helped to see another way? See for yourself. Meet Coconut:

I still can’t get through this video without tearing up. Coconut’s transformation is filled to the brim with love and patience, but it’s equally jam-packed with science-based behavior modification procedures. What you were seeing during Coconut’s transformation were operant conditioning and desensitization and counter-conditioning procedures. These techniques build and attach new, good associations to previously scary things. To counter her fear of people and touch, Coconut learned to place her body on hands to get a treat. It was her choice, and eventually she came to realize that touch feels great! Over time, these incremental associations become monumental, and Coconut turned into a dog who enjoys human touch. Pass me the tissues.

The treatment protocols at the Behavioral Rehabilitation Center focus on four categories: fear of people, fear of handling, fear of leash application/walking, and fear of novelty. The learning and training procedures within each category build slowly on one another to help dogs move away from fear and in the direction of that jolly jumper you saw at the start of this post—petting feels nice, people (both familiar and unfamiliar) are safe, novelty is not scary. 

Since opening their doors, the Behavioral Rehabilitation Center has collected data to see what works best. In addition to environmental enrichment and behavior modification procedures, they’re finding that fearful pups benefit greatly from being around “helper dogs,” or dogs who are more confident and social. Reid and Collins comment, “We have been struck by the dramatic differences in dogs’ behavior when we incorporate ‘helper dogs’ into behavior modification session. You can see a helper dog in action in “Second Chance Dogs,” and again, pass me the tissues; there’s nothing I love more than watching a dog come out of her shell.

“These animals can be helped.”

That's senior director Kristen Collins referring to the undersocialized and fearful dogs at the Center, but she could very well be talking about fearful dogs in general. Companion dogs living in homes are not immune to fear of people, fear of handling, fear of leash walking, and fear of novelty. The ASPCA’s work highlights the flexibility of fear. Nobody is talking about eradicating fear or bringing fear to zero, but results can be huge when dogs learn to form new associations and see the world as less scary. 

The Behavioral Rehabilitation team continues to document and collect data on their procedures, but given the success of the program—all 185 of its graduates have been adopted or placed with partners for adoption—the ASPCA will build a permanent facility in Weaverville, N.C., scheduled to open in 2017. The expanded program will focus on the development and expansion of behavioral rehabilitation in shelters and rescue groups across the country.

Tune into “Second Chance Dogs” this Saturday on Animal Planet at 9:00 am Eastern/Pacific. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

If you know a dog who exhibits fear at times, you are not alone. Here are a few expert tips on modifying fear in dogs: The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by Patricia McConnell, and How to Help Dogs with Anxiety Issues Overcome Fear by Kristen Collins. Also, here are ways to find professional behavioral help.

This is the second installment in the The Science of Animal Shelters series. Also check out Part 1, The Science of Animal Shelters: An Inspirational Series.

Fearful dog photo, "Second Chance Dog" photo gallery.


Dreschel, N. A. (2010). The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science 125, 157—162.

Mills, D. S. et al. (Eds.). (2010). The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behavior & Welfare. Cambridge, MA: CABI

Reid, P. J., & Collins, K. (2015). Training and Behavior Modification for the Shelter. In E. Weiss, H. Mohan-Gibbons, S. Zawistowski (Eds.), Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff. Iowa, Wiley Blackwell.