With his tattoos and brawny build, Marvin Cruz doesn’t look like he’s afraid of much of anything. But on Friday, the Romeoville man will be featured on a new Animal Planet series as he opens up about the fear that has controlled him for nearly his entire life.
Cruz’ story will be part of the premiere episode of “My Extreme Animal Phobia,” a show detailing cast members’ fears of creatures from spiders to snakes and, in Cruz’ case, even puppies.
On the show, cast members work with psychologist Dr. Robin Zasio, an expert in behavioral therapy. Zasio specializes in helping patients overcome extreme, irrational fears.
For Cruz, that fear was triggered by pitbulls, from full-grown pooches to the tiniest puppy. His terror was sparked by witnessing a brutal dog attack on his childhood best friend.
Hoping to overcome the fear that has kept him from parks, beaches and even birthday parties, Cruz contacted Animal Planet after seeing a segment about the show.
“This is going back to [when I was] 6, 7 years old,” said Cruz, who lives in Romeoville with his wife and two daughters, ages 12 and 13. “Seeing [my] best friend get ripped apart, get mauled by a pitbull … it really destroyed me all these years.”
Cruz’ fear of the breed was so paralyzing he even refused to visit his sister-in-law’s home because she owned two pitbulls. It also kept him from enjoying time with his family.
“Nowadays, dogs can go anywhere,” he said. “Anywhere that’s dog friendly, I would not socialize. … I probably went to the park with them three or four times in 13 years.”
Even when leaving his own home, Cruz said he would be gripped by fear, scanning the area for pitbulls.
“That’s why I needed help,” he said.
Past stints in therapy didn’t bring Cruz any closer to conquering his fear. This summer, he traveled to California to try again with the help of Zasio.
Zasio said Cruz and his fellow cast members spent several days undergoing therapy to help cure them of their fears.
“It’s almost like a boot camp,” she said. “It’s basically what we call systematic desensitization.”
Cast members were exposed to the object of their phobia little by little, from photos to videos and, finally, one on one interaction with what they feared most. Typically, the therapy is completed over a prolonged period of time, but participants on the show did it in five days.
“The people we’re working with have what we call irrational fear,” Zasio said, “where the perceived fear is much greater than the actual threat.”
The therapy culminated with a session in which Cruz faced his ultimate fear, coming face to face with a pitbull puppy.
The Romeoville dad was happy to report that the treatment did the trick. Now that he’s overcome his fear, Cruz said he is trying to make up for lost time with his family.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. “I love myself more. I felt like I wasn’t a man before because I was not there for my family.
“Our life has changed 180 degrees.”
Cruz said he will see his episode of “My Extreme Animal Phobia” for the first time when it premieres on Friday. But he’s already hearing from family and friends who spotted him on a promo for the show.
“My customers are calling me, [asking], ‘Were you on Animal Planet?,’” he said. “My kids recorded it, they put it on Facebook.”
He acknowledges that believing he’d be scared of a dog, especially a puppy, is a tough sell.
“I’m this hulk-looking guy, tattoos everywhere,” Cruz said, laughing. “For me to be scared of dogs, [people] don’t buy it.”
Cruz will be featured in the first episode of “My Extreme Animal Phobia,” airing at 10 p.m. Central time on Animal Planet on Friday, Oct. 21.