Fears and Phobias


Rick and Perrin Riggs

Fears and phobias can make a dog miserable. Think of the poor dog who shivers and quakes at the first roll of thunder, working himself into a full-fledged panic attack when the storm hits. Or imagine a dog so terrified of men his owner doesn't take him on walks and never has men friends to her house. Such a condition limits the life and activities of both the dog and the owner.

Genetics and the Environment

Fearfulness can stem from many factors. One is the dog's temperament, much of which is genetically determined. The puppy in the litter who seems shy, who runs and hides from strangers or other novel stimuli, probably will be challenged his whole life.

Environment--especially early in life--also plays a big role in determining whether a dog will be fearful. Chances are, things the dog doesn't have positive experiences with at a young age will be scary to him as an adult. The process of systematically giving your dog pleasant experiences with lots of new people, dogs, and situations is called socialization.

Preventing Fearfulness

Early socialization is extremely important with puppies; the first few weeks and months are critical. You need to expose your puppy to a wide variety of novel stimuli, making the associations fun and positive for him. (You'll need to be mindful of when your pup's vaccinations are in effect. Check with your veterinarian.)

If your pup seems shy or fearful in a new situation, what you don't want to do is to try to soothe, calm, or comfort him. This is hard not to do, but by stroking and talking sweetly to the fearful animal you can unintentionally reinforce that fearful behavior. Say your dog is spooked by the sight of a hot-air balloon and starts to act fearful. If you stroke him and say That's all right, you're OK, what your dog could be hearing is, Good dog... That's the way I want you to act.

But sometimes, in spite of your best efforts (or if you adopt a dog that already is scared of things), you may need to help your pet deal with his fears.

Treating the Fearful Dog

The principal treatments for dealing with fear are desensitizing and counterconditioning.

Desensitizing involves repeatedly presenting the scary stimulus at a level below the dog's fear threshold, and gradually making that stimulus stronger. Let's use thunderstorm phobia as an example. To desensitize your dog to the sound of thunder you could purchase a tape or CD of thunderstorm noises and introduce the sound at a level low enough not to evoke the fear response. Over a period of weeks, you would play the tape at gradually louder volume, until the dog showed no fear even at sound levels approximating a real thunderstorm. (Of course, your dog may be sensitive to storm components other than thunder, such as lightning, wind, or air ionization. You may have to desensitize him to these stimuli as well.)

Counterconditioning involves pairing the stimulus--which at full intensity would cause fear--with something the animal finds highly desirable. In our thunderstorm example, you might give the dog tasty treats as you play the thunder tape. Each clap of thunder on the tape produces a treat. With the twin strategies of desensitization and counterconditioning, you can change the dog's expectations about what scary things mean: from I'm gonna die to I'm gonna get treats!

It's important, while you're desensitizing your dog, that he not experience the fear-evoking stimulus at full strength. In our thunder example, if you crank up the tape volume too much too soon, or if he's exposed to a real thunderstorm during the desensitization process, much of your work will be undone and you'll have to start over. (That's why it's a good idea to do thunderstorm desensitization during the winter months when real thunderstorms are rare.) When desensitizing, slower is better.

Making the stimulus less intense is pretty straightforward with something like the sound of thunder--just turn down the volume on the tape player. Ways to attenuate other scary things aren't so obvious. What about the dog who's afraid of men, for example? If the dog is less afraid of women, one way to break the stimulus down into gradients is as follows:

 familiar  unfamiliar  familiar  unfamiliar  familiar  unfamiliar  familiar  unfamiliar
  women      women       boys       boys       men        men       men w/     men w/
                                                                     hats,      hats,
                                                                   umbrellas, umbrella, 
                                                                      etc.       etc.   
    least scary <<-------------------------------------------------->> most scary 

Now that we've broken the scary man stimulus down into less scary versions, we can begin the desensitization process. Start with a familiar woman far away. Take a few steps toward the woman, feeding your dog wonderful treats as you approach. Well before you're close enough for the dog to start being afraid, turn and walk away, stopping the treats. Repeat several times. You want the dog to think, Approaching this person is a good thing! When we approach, I get treats...when we move away, the treats stop.

As in the thunderstorm example, we are presenting the scary stimulus at a level below the animal's fear threshold and gradually desensitizing and counterconditioning. Watch for signs of stress: if your dog won't take favorite treats, or starts to pant or back away, you're going too fast. When you can closely approach the person without triggering the fear response, move to the next most scary type of person and begin the process over again. Remember, this takes time, patience, and many trials! If you go too quickly you'll sabotage your progress.

Proofing also is an important part of your desensitization program. Back to our thunderstorm example: if you only desensitize the dog to the sound of thunder in your house, he may learn that thunder is okay at home, but it's still scary anywhere else. It's important that you gradually vary the environment (i.e., play the tape indoors and outdoors, at friends' houses, etc.). When you go to a new environment, you may have to lower the intensity of the stimulus. Remember to countercondition by pairing the stimulus with something the dog really likes.

We'll say it again: this is not a speedy process. It's an investment of time and patience on your part. For desensitization and counterconditioning to work, you need to do it a lot, but you need to increase the strength of the stimulus very slowly. If after several weeks things don't seem any better, consult a competent trainer or behaviorist. Also, in some cases medication may be an appropriate adjunct to behavior therapy. Consult your veterinarian.

Summary of Behavior Modification For the Fearful Animal


Recommended Reading:

The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Dr. Nicholas Dodman