Fear: When nothing else matters

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Fear is a powerful emotion in dogs, and is at the root of a variety of behavior problems.

I have a keen interest in fear and anxiety. Working in the mental health field prior to becoming a dog trainer, I saw and experienced firsthand how paralyzing the symptoms of these conditions can be. Most recently, I have adopted a senior dog from Muttville Senior Dog Rescue who suffers from separation anxiety, so I see how his intense fear of being left alone renders him unable to cope with even the shortest of absences.

When dealing with a dog that is afraid, it’s easy to feel lost as to how to help. After all, we can’t give psychotherapy to our dogs, and the behaviors dogs exhibit when they are afraid can make them behave differently than we are accustomed to seeing. Although medication can assist fear-based behaviors, it is unlikely to fix the problem if not accompanied by behavioral intervention.

A favorite quote of mine regarding fear and dog training is from animal behaviorist Jean Donaldson. In her curriculum for her dog training students, she emphasizes, “When a dog is afraid, nothing else matters.” A powerful and radical statement, to be sure. Often, dog training becomes so focused on obedience and statements that start with “He should do this” or “He should know better,” that a dog’s emotional state gets overlooked.

So what’s the “nothing else” Jean is talking about? Often, dogs who are experiencing fear don’t want food. They could care less about their owner telling them to sit, go down or stay. They may start to display aggressive behaviors that aren’t present at other times. They are unable to cope and paralyzed by one thing: fear. 

James O’Heare, in his tome “Aggressive Behavior in Dogs,” gives an excellent description of this paralysis, writing, “Inhibition, impulse control, and previously learned coping mechanisms may become inaccessible by the dog, setting the stage for fight-or-flight operants such as escape or avoidance behaviors.”

When discussing fear, I like to use a personal comparison to one of my intense fears: flying. When I’m in an airplane experiencing turbulence, do I care about whether I want a beverage from the flight attendant, the number of my connecting gate, or whether someone in the neighboring seat needs me to move so he can use the restroom? Of course not. I could care less, because I’m scared. Flat-out, no-holds-barred scared. Nothing else matters.

Fear can be incredibly frustrating for dog owners and trainers alike. Understanding the concept of “nothing else matters” is also why it is critically important to recognize when a dog is upset, because it affects the approach trainers need to take.

When a dog is afraid, we need to tap into something called counterconditioning (technical speak for changing a dog’s emotional response to a fear-causing stimulus.) O’Heare explains this beautifully, writing, “…if a person has come to fear snakes, but loves strawberry smoothies, counterconditioning might involve presenting the snake, followed immediately by a sip of smoothie, and repeating this process until the presentation of the snake elicits a pleasant reaction instead of a fearful reaction.”

Another technique, systematic desensitization, is often coupled with counterconditioning as a treatment plan for fear-based behavior problems. Originally used for humans with phobias, it involves introducing a dog to the fear-invoking stimulus in gradual increments that he can handle, never putting him over his fear “threshold” in the process.

This can all sound complicated and overwhelming, especially when dealing with the immediate behavior problems associated with fear and anxiety. Rest assured that there are things you can do, right away, that will put your dog on the path to recovery.

If you suspect your dog has a fear-related issue, I recommend hiring a professional positive reinforcement trainer to work with you on using these techniques. In the meantime, the following are ways you can help your dog and prepare for your first training consult.

First, try to identify whether your dog is, in fact, upset. Behaviors that indicate a dog is in distress include: Excessive panting, dilated pupils, yawning, higher than normal frequency of bladder functions, vomiting, shaking, self-mutilation or excessive grooming, compulsive behaviors (like tail chasing or barking), stiffness, and hyperactivity. Note that these behaviors may not occur all at once, and if they do occur, may be fleeting in duration. Other behaviors not listed may also occur.

Setting up a videocamera and reviewing your dog’s behaviors after the fact can be helpful, as well as documenting any behavior patterns you see over time. Also helpful is trying to identify what happens immediately before the fear-based behaviors begin. In training, we call this an antecedent, and it can be critical in determining the source of your dog’s fears.

If your dog is afraid, the second step is compassion. I cannot emphasize this enough. Dogs that are afraid, anxious and in distress need our love and patience. They are experiencing an incredibly strong emotion that has the power to overshadow previous training, common behavior patterns and coping abilities. They need you and your love more than ever.

Finally, get professional support. While there are techniques you can do to help your dog in the interim, consulting a trainer will help you fine-tune your treatment plan for your dog’s specific needs. Living with a fearful dog can also take a toll physically and emotionally, and being able to have a support system in place will increase you and your dog’s chances of success.

-Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town in San Francisco and a student of the Academy for Dog Trainers. To get in touch, go to muttabouttown.com

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Fear: When nothing else matters

3 thoughts on “Fear: When nothing else matters

  1. The failure to take a free offering of food is one of the “flags” that owners often miss and report as “he isn’t food motivated” – if he wasn’t, he’d be dead. In most cases, he’s just afraid to take the food at that moment. Food, after all, weighs you down, and is not helpful at moments when you might have to “fight or take flight.” Thanks for a great blog post about how important it is to be compassionate and take time to investigate before making assumptions about the dog that may harm and not help.

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