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Helping the Fearful Dog

By David Dickey

Conrad had two owners by the time he was one year old. His second owner had kids who would smack him in the face, and it was very obvious through his behavior that the dog had been kicked, hit and had things thrown at him quite often.

One day, while the kids were smacking him, he apparently decided he’d had enough, and he put his teeth on one of the kids as a warning. He didn’t break the skin, but he certainly got his point across. Too well, as it turned out.

His owners were so upset, they decided to have him euthanized (polite vernacular for executed). A neighbor heard of the incident, notified The Bill Foundation, and that organization saved the dog and found a permanent home for him with Debbie Phillips in Manhattan Beach.

The result of the abuse Conrad received in his previous homes was manifested by the fact that he had become very fearful of men and other dogs. “He was scared of all men and would bark very aggressively,” said Debbie. “In fact, he had become scared of all noises and movements. He was also afraid to approach other dogs.”

Some of these behavioral problems are common and not necessarily a result of abuse, but in Conrad’s case, they were directly attributable to overt abuse. He was afraid of everything, because he didn’t know what were threats and what weren’t. His world was not predictable. “When I discovered how terrified he was of practically everything, I questioned my decision to adopt him,” Debbie explains. “I had another rescue dog that I never could socialize, but I also never had the tools to turn this around.”

The appropriate tool for this situation is called systematic desensitizing. You must slowly acclimate the dog to his fear factors in very small steps. In fact, proper systematic desensitization demands starting two steps below where your dog reacts. Obviously, this is not a speedy process—but neither was entrenching the fear response. Conrad had one year of building fearful behavior before Debbie adopted him.

The key to changing Conrad’s fearful behavior was “gently exposing him each day to what he was afraid of,” said Debbie. “Conrad gets walked for 45 minutes every day rain or shine. Within 6 to 8 weeks of working through systematic desensitization, he was a changed dog, and that’s nothing short of a miracle,” Debbie suggests.

Another important factor in desensitizing Conrad’s fear was changing Debbie’s behavior. “I had to make sure I was not accidentally encouraging his bad behavior by praising him at the wrong time,” Debbie admits. She simply tempered her reactions when a problem occurred.

Fear and intimidation seem like quick fixes for fear-based behavioral problems. The major drawback of this primitive method is that it never teaches the dog to trust or to refer to positive experiences around other dogs or people. I’m not suggesting that these methods won’t reduce the symptoms, only that rarely do I see them eliminate the underlying problem.

Debbie says, “What I notice every day on my walks and in watching other dog owners is that many people are like I used to be; they try to avoid all other dogs. They either have a dog they can’t control or are afraid of how the animal will react. It doesn’t occur to them that’s not the way it should be. I’ve never invested as much time in a dog in my life, but what a pay back. Now, I can take this little guy anywhere.” Debbie Phillip’s time and commitment to Conrad has allowed him to break out of his fear and enjoy life.

The key to change any dog’s fear-based behavior is gradual exposure mixed with consistent and reliable behavior from the owners. Conrad now loves dogs and people. “He plays with my next door neighbor’s three-year-old and licks the ice cream off his face,” Debbie laughs.

Conrad now feels able to trust the world, and the results are a happy and well-socialized dog.


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