What are their options?

Scientists who have studied fear in animals have come up with four responses, one or more of which are common, in one form or another, to organisms ranging from bacteria to humans.

1. Withdrawal, avoidance, flee

2. Immobilization, freeze-up

3. Submission, appeasement

4. Aggression

When working with our fearful dogs it’s important to keep in mind that these responses do not necessarily indicate the ‘level’ of fear a dog is experiencing. It is not unusual to hear people say that their fearful dog ‘lets’ people pet him/her. ‘Letting’ something happen does not mean that the dog is not afraid, it is just that for that dog, in that situation the dog is reacting with option #2. They are still afraid, in fact they may be horrified, but because they have not reacted with options 1, 3 or 4 their owners assume that they are ‘ok’.

At a seminar I suggested that people reward their dog for avoiding what scares them. A participant asked, “But isn’t that feeding into the fleeing?” Let’s just think about it-

When working with a fearful dog we typically set our sights on getting the dog closer to the things that scare them. That is how we are gauging success, and it makes sense, but the devil is in the details. We know that aggression is one of the responses common to feeling threatened, and as handlers or owners of fearful dogs it’s the one response we want to avoid at all costs. A fearful dog who cowers in the corner is likely to be allowed to live in that corner longer than a dog who responds aggressively. Moving away from something scary keeps both the dog, and whoever or whatever the scary thing is, safe. You won’t get bit by a dog who runs away from you (though I still wouldn’t turn my back on them!).

Whether or not we give a dog who has moved away from a trigger (scary thing) a piece of cheese (or other high value food reward), the distance gained is rewarding to the dog. If the dog is able to eat the cheese we are not only addressing their behavior but how they ‘feel’. Eating cheese makes dogs feel good. And if they are a safe distance from the trigger the dog may start to have more positive feelings than they do negative ones. Call it the Ben & Jerry’s effect if you like. This is the first step in helping a dog learn to be anywhere near a trigger and feel better about it. It’s the dog who decides what the appropriate starting distance is.

Studies of brains have shown that aggression is ‘rewarding’, which is obvious when you consider that hockey and boxing probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t. Put a dog in the position to respond aggressively and you are flagging a neural network in their brain you do not want them to learn to like.

Check out this video of a chameleon responding to a perceived threat. I don’t know enough about the ethology of these creatures to know if any appeasement behaviors were offered, but you can see what happens when withdrawing, freezing and threatening gestures don’t work to keep the scary technology away. You might want to turn the sound down on your computer. The following video was obviously NOT produced for educational purposes.

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22 comments so far

  1. honeysjourney on

    “It’s the dog who decides what the appropriate starting distance is”. Debbie, a big loud YES, or click treat to this posting. And I might add, the dog must be allowed to decide if it wants to accommodate what we would like for him/her to be like.

    I made a promise, before I had an inkling, to get my girl to live inside and not outside during this upcoming winter. We made great progress over the last few months to gett’er done. She comes inside when called, spends the day inside and is a perfect inside dog, calm , inquisitive and best of all never messed in the house. However, at her bed time, she wants out and will pace around panting and staring at the door, obviously very nervous. So I let her to do what she NEEDS to do, open the door she then goes directly in her Igloo. I could make her submit to MY wishes by just not opening the door. But then what would the end result be? 1,2,or 4 are not an option I want to take a chance on. Note to Honey, sleep well girl, wherever you want.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I hear you on this one George. There are nights I know he would prefer to stay outside but he often ends up barking at creatures in the night, which creates a chain reaction culminating with my husband being woken up and not very happy about it.

      So often what ‘we’ want for the dog isn’t what they want and it may not matter one way or the other. If Sunny would stay outside and not bark, he’d be welcome to it. On nights that I have left him outside but had a door open I usually wake up to hear him coming up the stairs to sleep in the bedroom with us. That’s nice.

  2. jet on

    My greyhound always responds with #2 – but that happens less and less these days and her freezing is less complete than it used to be. She is no longer what I would call a ‘fearful dog’.

    My other dog responds with #1 or #4 depending on the percieved threat. He is becoming what a fearful dog as scary experiences add up. He unfortunately remembers every one of them for a very long time. We are working on it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      We can help dogs change their responses but the connections in their head which learned to be afraid of something do not go away. It’s why we can see the return of fearful or aggressive behavior even after long periods without it. We need to prevent giving dogs the opportunity to practice fearful responses, this usually means limiting their exposure to perceived threats until we have a plan in place. Otherwise we can see dogs becoming more and more sensitive and reactive to triggers.

  3. Lizzie on

    I don’t think that deliberately scaring a creature/dog is funny, which made me think; is that what I’m doing to Gracie every time I take her out?? She usually reacts with both 1 and 2 when she encounters any/all humans, and this response has not really altered in the past three years.

    In Gracie’s head people are still completely scary. However, my observation is that it’s a reactive thing, something she has learnt to do and repeated it so many times that it could be likened to an addiction. In all this time no one has ever touched her or even come anywhere near her, so nothing bad has happened to warrant the continued behaviour, it IS all in her head.

    But Gracie is very much an obsessional compulsive dog, so it’s extremely difficult to change her perception of things, something I’d love to be able to do.

    • fearfuldogs on

      My understanding of how brains work in regard to fear is that the fear of something is never completely forgotten. The best we can do is give the dog ways to respond which keep them and others safe and hopefully in the process decrease the intensity of the reaction.

  4. Lori Diamond on

    If my Lab, Lucy, can’t use #1, she’ll resort to #4 (#2 and #3 have never been options). Do you have any advice for how to handle such a dog at the vet? #1 isn’t an option there – there’s no way to avoid being handled and treated by the vet staff. Thanks!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s challenging for any dog to be handled at the vet. If it was appropriate for the visit (routine exam rather than seeking a diagnosis for example) I’d ask for some kind of med to take the edge off. I’d also work on wearing a muzzle comfortably in other situations so one could be used at the vet to keep everyone safe. Not only does a muzzle keep a dog from biting someone the behavior of people handling a muzzled dog is likely to be different as well. If I am afraid of being bitten my anxiety level is going to go up and my responses to a dog will reflect that.

      Few dogs ever learn to love being at the vet so trying to work through a protocol of DS/CC may not come to much, but it might. This would entail bringing the dog to the vet when nothing needs to be done, so that the experience might lose some of it’s emotional charge for the dog. It’s time consuming and the experience needs to be broken down so that the dog can become comfortable with it gradually. If the dog can enter the vet clinic and have their anxiety knocked down a few pegs, they may have more tolerance when it comes to actually being handled.

      Another thing I do is get my dogs used to being handled and restrained by me. I also bring treats and a clicker with me to the vet’s office and use the time I spend waiting in an exam room (I prefer to stay out of the waiting room with my dogs if at all possible, it’s just more time they spend feeling anxious) to practice tricks. My vet also uses high value food treats with the dogs as she exams them. Some can eat them, some can’t, but I appreciate the effort.

      Just some thoughts.

      • Lori Diamond on

        Thanks. As a matter of fact, my vet recommended a CC/DS plan that we’ve been following for the past couple of weeks. She now drags me into the clinic and exam room, but we’re at the stage where we’re going to start adding some touching into the picture, and I expect the process to slow to a crawl. Of course, she’s worth the time and effort and I hope we’re successful. I fear, however, that the first time she has to go in for an actual appointment will undo all our hard work.

        Separately, I’ve started to desensitize her to wearing a muzzle.

        I’ve discussed drugs with my vet. After reading your site, I told her Ace was NOT an option. She’s willing to try Xanax if Lucy’s wearing a muzzle. I can’t decide if it would be less stressful for Lucy to be under the effects of sedation for several hours (feeling confused and dopey) or to just cope with a few minutes of fear. Thoughts?

        Lucy allows me to restrain/handle her no problem at home.

        We never hang in the waiting room – we stay outside until they’re ready for us.

        She’ll happily do tricks for treats but the clicker doesn’t trump fear when the vet is present.

        Appreciate all your helpful advice! THANK YOU!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Has your vet recommended sedation as an option or are you assuming that Xanax is a sedative?

      One thing to gauge is not just how scared your dog is during procedures, most are to some degree, but also how quickly she recovers once they’re over. As soon as my dog is off the table I ask for a few behaviors, give him some treats and then he goes to the car before I pay the bill.

  5. Kim on

    What do you do when triggers are unavoidable?

    Our greyhound/Sheppard Mix is afraid of wind. She has a thundershirt, which seems to help with her sensitivity/over-stimulation. She has to go to the bathroom outside…but she’s essentially afraid of the outdoors when it’s windy (and this is her first Fall – she was in the shelter this time last year). She’ll be whimpering inside, dancing around like she needs to go out, but as soon as she gets outside, she can’t go to the bathroom. She’s stuck. Ultimately, she’ll have a moment of desperation/bravery and will go on the 3-5th try outside. But the first 1-4 times outside are frustrating and hard to watch.

    We try to positively reinforce being outside in the wind, using high value treats, which she inconsistently responds to.

    Beyond going potty, when we try to take her to the park in windy weather, she’s totally fine if another friendly dog is there. But if it’s her and one of us, she flees…runs straight home. We’ve held off on going to the park if the conditions seem scary (based on her passed triggers), but the triggers change on a dime, so it’s tough to predict.

    Any ideas?

  6. Anca Salajanu on

    What do you do when you don’t know what triggered a shut down?
    I have a rescue apbt from a fighting ring, Jax is almost 4. He unfortunately wasn’t helped (no training, rehabilitation) when he was rescued because he shows no aggression they didn’t see the need. I’ve worked slowly and patiently with Jax since I’ve brought him home in March this year.
    He slowly began to trust me and responded well. He walks well, knows to heel, goes in the car without problem, and began to explore when we are somewhere new.
    His first shutdown was when my dad came to visit and stayed for 7 days. Jax stopped eating and drinking, complete shutdown, for 5 days. I took him in for fluids and slowly exposed him to my dad, i.e. didn’t force him to be/stay around him. I let him stay in his safe place and come out for walks, did not force any other interaction with him.
    By the day my dad left, Jax wasn’t friendly but he went and sniffed him and was “curious”.
    Now, for the past 3 days, Jax had shut down again. I have no idea what happened. He and I are alone, no one visiting… He didn’t have a “bad” episode with a stranger, meet another dog too quickly etc.
    He is back in his hiding place, cowers when out, licks his lips constantly, won’t look at me, etc. When we walk now, he doesn’t heel, is constantly looking behind us, jumps at every noise… He’s terrified of something and I do not know how to help him. For some reason, I (?) seem to have triggered this. If I’ve lost his trust, how do I begin again?

    • fearfuldogs on

      First of all I’d be talking with a vet about behavioral medications to help lower the stress and anxiety the dog is feeling. The damage that has been done to the brains and nervous systems of these dogs is not easy to repair and we have to start by lowering their anxiety levels, however we can. If we cannot manage them in a way that does this, then we don’t have many other options. There are supplements and other calming remedies you can try, but for a dog who is suffering as much as it sounds like this dog is, I’d be calling in the big guns, i.e., anti-anxiety and/or anti-depressants. There’s only so much we can do until the dog can focus on us and think.

      Do you understand how counter conditioning and desensitization work?

      • Anca Salajanu on

        Thanks for the answer! Yes, when I first got Jax I had him evaluated by a behaviorist. He was so sick with worms and weak that we both agreed that 1st issue was to get him healthy and concentrate on that then we would meet again. He was so panicked in the first month but it was agreed that a dog that is that sick and in a new environment can’t be assessed properly. Jax did not shut down during that time but even walking him or putting him in the car was a cause for major panic. We agreed that if he was still that panicked when he was healthy, medication was needed. Desensitization and counter conditioning was agreed was the only way for Jax to ever get better.

        It took a good two months before Jax was healthy. During that time I only walked him in the same areas, our long walks were at nighttime where there were no people to make him scared. I stopped whenever he began to panic and and rewarded with hugs and “good boy” when he stopped lunging/bolting away. He gained courage and began to make huge strides. When he felt comfortable enough, he was very clear when not, the same. I took all my cues from him and it worked.
        The second evaluation happened about 9 weeks later and there was so much improvement it was agreed that medication was not needed
        Jax walked into the office with no hesitation. He did not try to bolt, he looked at me as if unsure, I immediately praise and rub his chest and he was ok. With the car he would go into a panic when the door was opened and lunge to run away as fast as possible. Any movement towards the car or no sign of panic was immediately rewarded and we stopped. The next day or so I’d try again and he learned to be fine with the car. I open the door and he jumps right in, puts his head out the window and relaxes enough to go to sleep inside.
        After about a month of only walking in the same direction (a new one meant panic) and the long walks at night I slowly edged him toward the beginning of my townhouses entrance. Any new direction he was ok with, a longer walk was met again with praise and “good boy!” which he loves to hear. Jax didn’t take food as a reward, while he always took food out of my hand, outside it doesn’t work. His “best reward” is hearing “good boy!” and a chest rub outside, while inside is “lets go!” meaning walk time! The same with a “kiss” and he turns his nose up for a kiss on the nose. His tail wags like crazy and his biggest smile comes out.

        When my father came it was so shocking because he never shut down before. I was so torn between making my dad leave (he lives in Europe) just to make Jax ok immediately and trying to help him adjust to him there. I immediately called a trainer the vet and behaviorist recommended and while we’d worked together before (he had play dates with his pit and Jax) his remedy was to force Jax into being around my dad. Never had he spoken of the pack mentality but it came out then. His opinion was he has to know its ok and it will “snap” him out of it. He was to be forced into being around him, not allow him to go into his safe zone, not allow him to sleep with me until he “realized” himself that fighting it was not worth it and then he would begin to eat and so forth. He also said my comforting Jax was making it worse. That was NOT going to happen and that was the last I worked with him.
        I know my dad is a trigger, albeit not sure if it’s him (maybe he reminded him of someone from the fighting ring…) or just any male would have triggered that shutdown. There were women who came over and stayed for 2-3 weeks and there was no bad response. Now being that he is so far away I don’t have a chance to desensitize Jax to him.

        Every single person, from the vet’s office to people in the neighborhood have noticed how different Jax is. This dog is so brilliant to be around! With just simple patience and respect for his limits, he has blossomed. He was just learning how to be a dog, which he never was given the chance before and it was amazing to watch!!

        That’s why this is so alarming, his new shutdown. I have always taken my cues from Jax. I don’t know what has triggered this and have wracked my brain since it began trying to see what I did, what I missed. I am at a total loss. When I noticed the first sign of his distress with me, I gave him space. But even a “let’s go”, or his normal comforts are not working being that I am the cause of his distress it seems.
        He’s never acted this way with me. He’s always come for reassurance, a look to get a “it’s ok” kiss, rub .. It is just a complete 180 for Jax. He has blossomed into a dog that albeit is still wary of new people, things, that was eager, happy, curious to now, worse than he was in the beginning month.
        I’ve left him alone seeing his reaction but I can’t just let him stay this way and pushing is going to destroy whatever trust there is left..

  7. fearfuldogs on

    Sudden changes in any dog’s behavior is an indication that an exam by a vet is warranted. Thyroid levels could be checked, along with the presence of any tick borne diseases, physical injuries or infections.

    One of the things to keep in mind is that because dogs are limited in their ability to ‘tell’ us they may not be feeling great, either physically or emotionally, it is easy for us to assume that they are ok, when they may not be. I mention this because there are times when a dog may be experiencing constant stress, even at a low level, which pushes them closer to their tolerance breaking point. So long as nothing major happens they can keep it together, but should something really scare them they respond in a way which seems to us to be more exaggerated than the situation may have dictated.

    Dogs never completely forget what they have learned to fear. They can learn different responses and the intensity of their responses can diminish, but that learning is never gone. This also means that skills he has learned to be ok around his triggers isn’t gone either. For whatever reason something has changed for him, and I have no way to know what that is. I go back to what worked in the past with a dog. Even if it feels like we’re back to square one.

    • Anca Salajanu on

      You’re right and that is what worries me about this, the fact that his internal fear will always be there and one thing can tip the scales so dramatically. I do not mind the ups and downs, the setbacks per se in his rehabilitation I’ve become used to that being with Jax. It breaks my heart to see him suffer so badly and not be able to help him. And I’m also sure he can feel my anxiety with compounds him..
      I took him in to the vet right when he began to shut down to make sure nothing is wrong physically. All his tests came back ok, so I know this is stress related not because he is sick. I took him back this morning and decided to put Jax on medication.
      I cannot help him lessen his fear this time and as you said, it’s time to pull “out the big guns”.
      Hopefully this will work to lower his stress and we can start over.

      • fearfuldogs on

        It sounds like you are thinking this through very clearly and making good choices to help your dog. When I say these dogs require patience, I am not kidding ;-)

        Set backs are often part of the game for every animal. We get our hopes up for our fearful dogs and those set backs can be devastating to us. But every challenge with our dogs teaches us something.

  8. Anca Salajanu on

    Yes they do! And our reward, in my opinion, is the greatest! Jax’s spirit, his courage has taught me the biggest lesson on the power of patience, trust and love..
    Thank you so much for all your help!!

    Anca & Jax :)

  9. Sarah on

    It is very easy to see my fearful dog’s behavior because he is reactive but I see so many dogs so scared and people don’t even realize it. To me it is truly amazing how people can live with a dog every day and not even realize that s/he is fearful. The more we educate the better life we can provide for more dogs. Once again a great post!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Sarah. Knowledge is a good thing for sure.

  10. Nevermind on

    Thought you should know that the video you embedded doesn’t work, as it has been removed from Youtube. Great post, though!


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