Easing dog's phobias takes time, patience

October 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

In this month of scary costumes, jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating, the time seems ripe to talk about those things that spook our canine companions. While we may relish in all things frightening, our dogs find no merriment in the things that go bump in the night.

A dog's fear can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. Dogs who are startled may immediately bark, growl, yelp, jump back, or lunge forward. Dogs in an ongoing state of anxiety or fear may pace, pant, drool, tremble, or whimper. Some may hide, while others may cling to their owners, following them closely and leaning into owners' legs or laps. The dog's hair may stand up along his back, his tail may tuck low between his legs, and his ears may drop down and out to the side or may be pinned back against his head. In extreme cases, fear can provoke elimination of the bladder and bowels, and can trigger aggression in the form of snapping and biting. 

Some triggers for fear are idiosyncratic, based on a dog's individual life experiences. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of water bottles, chipmunks, flies, toasters, cell phone ring tones, and even folded laundry! In these cases, the dog typically has had a negative experience associated with these stimuli. For example, a dog who has burned her nose trying to steal toast may easily develop a fear of toasters. In other cases, these fears have generalized from another, original stimulus. For example, a dog who has been stung by a bee may develop a fear of all flying insects, or a dog who has been improperly trained on a shock collar with a beeping warning stimulus may develop a fear of all things that make similar beeping noises, such as cell phones.

Other triggers are more common causes of fear across a large number of dogs. These include men in baseball caps, wheelchairs, running children, loud vehicles, thunder, vacuums, plastic bags, fireworks, and car rides. In general, sudden movements and noises are easily frightening to many dogs. Through basic learning processes, those stimuli that are associated with these movements or noises soon become fear-provoking themselves. 

To address their dog's fears, owners must begin a careful process of counterconditioning and systematic desensitization. This process involves first creating a hierarchy of stimuli that trigger fear. Beginning with the least-frightening stimulus, the owner must expose her dog to each step of this hierarchy while keeping the dog relaxed and providing nearly continuous access to positive reinforcement in the form of treats, petting, or toy play. It is essential that the dog is fully relaxed at each stage before the owner moves onto the next by increasing the intensity of the fear-provoking stimulus. (One clear and reliable sign of anxiety for many dogs is food refusal, so if the owner offers her usually poultry-loving dog a piece of chicken, and her dog refuses it, she should move no further until her dog happily and repeatedly devours the meaty treat.)

For example, a dog who is frightened of the vacuum should first receive treats or belly rubs while the vacuum sits silently in the room. When the dog reliably and happily runs in for more, the owner should then provide these reinforcers closer to the quiet vacuum. When the dog happily eats treats right off the vacuum itself, the owner might turn on the vacuum in another room, behind a closed door, and provide treats while the dog simply hears the motor of her nemesis in the other room. From there, the owner could sit the running vacuum in the same room, and eventually run the vacuum across the carpet, while the dog sits with another family member getting treats and kisses. 

If only we could explain to our dogs that these things are nothing to be afraid of, like we could with a child. Unfortunately, our sentences are meaningless to our nonverbal family members, so bring out those treats and belly rubs instead, and get working on Fido's fears and phobias!