As many of my friends know, I am terrified of spiders. If I come into close contact with one that’s larger than a 5 pence piece, my heart rate accelerates, I normally scream and try to put as much distance between myself and the spider as possible. When I’m far enough away, the logical part of my brain starts to kick in, I chide myself for my phobia and if it’s in my home I try to work out a way to get it out of my house and away from me without having to come into direct contact with it. I know that spiders in the UK aren’t poisonous, but the moment I see one, I can’t help it, I have the same reaction every time.
A quick google defines phobia as “A persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous.” I’m sure anyone with a phobia will agree with this definition, we know it isn’t rational, we tell ourselves this every time we start to panic over it, but we cannot help our reactions when faced with that object or situation.
Phobias and fears are not solely human emotions. Fear is a very natural and beneficial emotion to all of the animal kingdom. Think about it, fear will stimulate a cat to run away from a car, a mouse to run away from a fox or a bird to fly away from a dog. To animals, all of these situations are life or death. To not react would endanger the wellbeing and possibly life of the animal, fear drives the ‘fight or flight’ instinct that potentially keeps it safe. But what generates this fear?
Animals go through a socialisation period when they are young, where they learn what is normal and safe and what is abnormal and dangerous. For dogs, socialisation starts from when they can start to experience their environment (ears and eyes opening) to 12 weeks of age - some people feel that this period is up to 16 weeks, but studies have shown that the period before 12 weeks is most critical. During this period they see, hear, smell, taste and touch things that they are exposed to and they build up positive or negative associations of these things. Anything that they have not experienced once this socialisation period has ended, or anything that has been part of a negative experience, will likely invoke a fearful reaction in a puppy.
Why do some dogs chose to fight and some dogs chose to flee?
Much like my fear of spiders, fear for dogs is not a ‘rational’ process, it is purely emotional. How this emotion manifests largely comes down to your dog and its experiences during its life so far. Fight or flight ultimately achieves the same goal, distance between the dog and its fear, either by the dog running away, or the dog displaying aggressive behaviour to ‘scare off’ or eradicate the fear. It is tempting to think of ‘flight’ as good and ‘fight’ as bad, but ultimately, these are just different reactions to the same fear.
It is also tempting to think that your dog will always behave the same way to something they are scared of, but this is not the case. For example an off lead dog, that is scared of other dogs, may opt to flee in the other direction to obtain the distance it needs. On lead however, it is prevented from fleeing, so instead, it may begin to display aggressive behaviour, barking and lunging. This likely works, the other dog may run off, or the person holding the lead changes direction to avoid confrontation. Now, next time there is a reasonable chance that the dog resorts to this behaviour instead of running. This isn’t a choice, he has simply learned it works and relies on this when he has lost control of his actions due to his fear.
My dog is fearful of something, what can I do to cure it?
There are many schools of thought on this, I am sure many people can come up with ways that my fear of spiders can be cured too! Some popular methods of dealing with fear and phobias have been:
- To force the dog to ‘confront’ its fear and to punish it with a kick, jerk on the lead or shock from a collar if it displays aggressive or flight behaviours. If someone tried to do this to me with my fear of spiders, I would develop a fear of people being near me when I saw a spider. I may dial down on my reaction to the spider eventually as a way to bypass the punishment, but my underlying fear would still be there and I may eventually be tempted, if put under further pressure, to lash out at the person punishing me or to increase my reaction to the spider. The same would happen with a dog, the reaction may be diminished, but the underlying fear would still be there. This could be very dangerous as the ‘warning signals’ disappear and suddenly Fido just attacks another dog ‘out of the blue’. Personally I’d rather have the warning signals to give me an opportunity to manage the situation and monitor the dog. Also, now your dog is terrified of being with you when it sees the object as it knows it will get punished, that makes one very scared and confused dog.
- To flood the fear, exposing the dog to multiple fearful stimulae in one go. If someone locked me in a room filled with spiders, I would be terrified, it would be one of the worst experiences I could possibly imagine. I may eventually stop reacting as nothing bad happens and I may indeed get over my phobia, but I would never again like or trust the person that had abused my trust and forced me into that situation. Anyone who floods their dog with their fear risks irreparable damage to their bond with their dog and worst, as it is reputedly a difficult method to execute correctly, it could backfire terribly, only heightening the fear and overall stress and anxiety of the dog.
So, if these methods are unlikely to work with me, a human capable of rational thought and able to have a conversation with someone about the best way to work through my phobia, how much less likely are they to work with a dog, who cannot communicate with us and understand that we are trying to help them?
Recently, kinder and more effective methods have become more popular. Many people who feel that the above methods are still valid, may feel that these methods are too ‘wishy washy’ or ‘touchy feely’ to be effective, but these methods are scientifically proven to be effective when applied properly and will strengthen the bond between you and your dog, rather than weakening it. These methods include:
- Counter Conditioning. Conditioning a dog involves creating an (instinctive) emotional reaction to an external environmental stimulae. A well known example of conditioning is Pavlov’s dog, if you are not familiar with this experiment, google it, it is interesting trust me! Counter conditioning my spider phobia may involve giving me £100 whenever I come into 10 foot of a spider and setting me up to only ever come as close as 10 foot away – there is nothing magical about 10 foot, it is just the distance I need to be for my rational mind to kick in. Then reducing that to 9.5 foot, 9 foot etc. Eventually as soon as I see a spider, I’d be looking around for my £100 (this is my dream therapy scenario!). This is win-win, I love you, my £100 giver and I have been conditioned to see spiders as precursors to good things. For a dog this is just as win win, now, instead of being fearful, they realise that the appearance of the stimulus means something good happens and they learn that the stimulus is good.
- Behavioural Adjustment Therapy (BAT). This method involves creating a new behaviour for the dog to do when it sees the object that makes it fearful. So for my spider phobia, I would be brought to within 10 foot of a spider. My ‘therapist’ would wait for me to do something else, like looking away from the spider, or checking my phone messages, then reward me with allowing me to walk away and maybe give me a treat, like a glass of wine (whoop!). Gradually we would decrease the distance, and I would learn that the best way get away from the spider and enjoy a therapeutic glass of wine, would be to ignore the spider and check my phone. This in turn lowers my anxiety when I see the spider, I know that if I stay calm and do this behaviour, I will get the distance I want from my lovely therapist. This may not entirely cure my fear of spiders, but it gives me a way to cope with my fear. This method when used on dogs (of course substituting the alternative behaviours you are looking for and reward!) has proven very effective. Their main reward is that they get the distance they need, just by offering an alternative, more acceptable behaviour. You calm your dogs ‘fight or flight’ reaction to something more acceptable and the bond between you and your dog is not only preserved, but strengthened.
Both of the above techniques take a lot of time, patience and skill. In order for them to be effective, you must work ‘below threshold’, that is, you must not allow your dog to get too close to their fear that they lose control of their own reactions and stop ‘thinking’, this means it is a gradual process, not a quick win. However, hopefully as you’ve seen from the ‘old school’ methods I outlined before, there are no quick wins in this scenario. If you have a dog who has a fear of something, you can help him overcome this, talk to a professional, your vet may be able to recommend a local trainer or behaviourist who can help and you may even be able to claim for this on your pet insurance.
This blog also illustrates just how important early socialisation is. If you have a puppy get them out and about and shower them with treats, love and praise as they experience the environments they will be in. The more they see and have good experiences the better, you will nurture a confident and resilient dog.
If you would like to discuss your puppy’s socialisation needs, or if you have a dog that has a fear or phobia that you would like to help with, then please do contact me, either via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 07500119232.