Behavioral Rehabilitation of Extremely Fearful Dogs
Some dogs entering shelters exhibit moderate to extreme fearfulness, often after experiencing cruelty, including neglect. Dogs displaying extreme fearfulness are difficult to assess and treat using the tools and protocols available in most shelters. Without effective treatment, these dogs have an unacceptably poor quality of life and are unlikely to be successfully adopted.
The ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC) developed protocols using behavior modification techniques such as desensitization, counterconditioning, and operant conditioning to reduce the fear of stimuli that pet dogs typically experience in adoptive homes.
This study examined the effectiveness of those protocols.
The dogs in the study were from ASPCA cruelty and neglect cases, partner animal shelters, and foster-based rescue groups. All of the dogs’ fearful behavior was severe enough to prevent placement in an adoptive home and impair the dog’s ability to function comfortably as a companion animal.
BRC staff randomly assigned 441 dogs to one of two treatment groups: immediate treatment onset or delayed onset.
After arrival, all dogs were given 3 full days with minimal exposure to people or other stimuli to acclimate to their new housing environment. On day 4, and approximately every 21 days after that, staff performed standardized behavior evaluations using a graded system.
On day 5, dogs in the immediate treatment onset group began treatment protocols, which fell into 3 main behavior modification categories: socialization with people, leash application and walking, and handling. Exposure to novelty (e.g., unfamiliar people, new places) was incorporated into the final stages of all treatment categories. Dogs also received training to prepare them for crate confinement and riding in a vehicle while in a crate or wearing a seatbelt.
Dogs in the delayed treatment onset group began their rehabilitation after their second behavior evaluation.
Here are some of the findings:
86% of the dogs graduated from the program and were made available for adoption.
Adopter surveys indicated overall satisfaction with adopted dogs.
Age, sex, breed, and history did not predict behavior grade. improvement, graduation, or adoption.
Successful treatment required an average of 78 behavior modification sessions over 96 days.
Non-graduating dogs tended to have more severe fear on intake and less improvement as measured by behavior assessments.
Findings suggest the following:
Behavior modification protocols have the potential to rehabilitate moderately to severely fearful dogs, preventing euthanasia.
The treatment protocols drove behavioral improvement, as dogs in the delayed onset group did not show improvement until they started behavior modification sessions.
Well-resourced shelters may find this protocol beneficial for treating and adopting out moderately to extremely fearful dogs.