Bad’s already happened

black & white cartoon of man wearing a straw hat wavingA common misunderstanding about ways to work with dogs who are fearful is that we can show them that they don’t have any reason to be afraid of something. We think of it like this (you can replace anything that might scare a dog for the ‘man with hat’).

Dog sees ‘man with hat’-feels fear-nothing bad happens.

If the dog sees ‘man with hat’ frequently enough surely they will be able to put 2 and 2 together and come to realize that ‘nothing bad happens’. When the scary thing isn’t all that scary, producing more of a ‘oh dear you startled me’ kind of response, the dog may do the math. But when the fear response equals one in which deals are being made with god, it’s less likely they’ll be able to do so. One has to be able to think and reason in order to bother with math.

What if we are able to insinuate something between the ‘sees man with hat’ and the ‘feels fear’ sequence? Something like a chunk of cheese perhaps. It’s a good idea, and again can work so long as the intensity of the fear is low enough. But what we are learning about how brains ‘process’ scary events shows us why it doesn’t work as often as we need it to.

With the invention of awesome medical devices like the fMRI researchers are able to watch brains in action. Even before we had the capability of doing this, how brains experience fear has been debated. The ‘sees man with hat-feels fear’ sequence was under question. What researchers have found is that the sequence looks more like this-

Dog feels fear-sees ‘man with hat’-nothing bad happens.

It’s happens to you too. There’s that creepy feeling that someone is looking at you and you glance around the subway car and catch someone quickly averting their eyes. There’s the person at the office who you don’t like, for no discernible reason, and cringe whenever you see them coming toward you. How about those situations in which you always knew something wasn’t right but didn’t do anything until it went wrong.

It turns out that before the part of our brain which defines what it is we are seeing is able to do so, in effect before we even see it, our amygdala has already sent our bodies the signal to ‘feel’ something. Our heart rate increases, our skin crawls, our stomachs clench. When our brains finally see what our amygdala already knew about, our body is giving the order about how to ‘think’ about it. And when we’re talking about fear inducing triggers, it’s bad! And again, depending on the intensity of the response, we may or may not be able to talk ourselves out of the bad feeling. The problem with our dogs is that they can’t talk themselves out of it, and we can’t either.

When we repeatedly expose our dogs to things that scare them we are often only reaffirming for them, it’s bad, because that is what their body is telling them. When we attempt to use desensitization and counter conditioning to change how our dogs feel we do not want the positive thing we are using to change their mind to predict the scary thing. If you’ve ever used a chunk of meat to lure a dog into the bathtub you know how this ends. The next time you want to give your dog a bath and pull out the meat the dog heads the other direction. And for this reason DS/CC often don’t work with seriously scared dogs because by the time we offer the dog the good thing, the bad thing- fear– has already happened.

Trainers and anyone who calls themselves a ‘rehabber’ of dogs with fear based behavior challenges must understand the implications of this and how it will effect the way they work with a dog. If all it took was to repeatedly expose a dog to a trigger to fix them I doubt there would be as many dogs as there are being relinquished to shelters and rescues because of behavioral issues, which is a leading cause of abandonment. It’s the method of choice of many inexperienced, arrogant or flat out mean, trainers and owners. It would have worked already. It hasn’t. Move on.


16 comments so far

  1. Sillyshishi on

    I’m not sure how to read this one. It almost feels like you are saying that there is no hope for fearful dogs. Sort of, “They’re scared now, nothing we can do about it. Oh well…” Perhaps I am just misunderstanding the reason behind this one.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I hope you will visit and perhaps dig further into this blog. There are things we can do about. It’s about all I’ve written & talked about for the past 5 years 😉 There are ways that are more effective to help them. But this is a keystone concept in understanding what those ways are. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. JJ on

    Out of curiosity, where can I find the original sources for this article?

    • Debbie on

      The easiest read is probably The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux.

      Debbie Jacobs

  3. Jen on

    Interesting. I’ve heard that counterconditioning can in face be very successful for fearful dogs, with the key element being that the dog is kept under threshold during each step, i.e. frequently it’s a man in a hat, yes, but if he’s down the block, he isn’t scary enough to make the dog go nutso.

    Not having a fearful dog myself, I don’t have the chops you do, so I’m definitely looking forward to future entries!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Jen. I’m always learning and every dog is different. Being flexible and adaptable is beneficial for both handler and dog!

  4. Camille on

    I’m a newbie to your blog and I’m interested in the ways you suggest to help other than DS/CC. In my experience with my dog the fear/reaction happens so fast and he gets so amped up, no intervention helps because he becomes deaf and dumb to my presence. Keeping him under the threshold works only if he doesn’t see a trigger…..

  5. rangerskat on

    Recently, I watched this YouTube video by Suzanne Clothier that I think does a brilliant job of describing what you’re getting at. At a low level of fear where the dog says “I’m uncomfortable with this” the dog can in fact habituate to whatever makes her uncomfortable. At a medium level “that’s scary” CCC can work pretty well. At a high level of fear “I’m so terrified I can’t even think” the equation changes. If the dog feels terrified nothing is going to change.

    I’ve been struggling with ways to make my fearful Finna feel safe when my husband is moving around. It’s no longer just him in general that is frightening for her it’s him moving when she doesn’t know where he’s going or why. In the mornings when he has a very predictable routine she doesn’t react fearfully. In the evenings when he tends to wander from project to project depending on his mood or what he considers most important she is terrified. We’re managing it by taking her out to play ball while he gets on with whatever he’s decided needs doing. It doesn’t actually address the problem but it does allow us all to live together.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a very challenging situation when a dog is scared by a particular member of the household. One way we have worked around this problem is to have a safe space for Sunny, so when John is around Sunny can go there and know that he’ll be left alone.

      It’s helpful if the person who the dog is afraid of is able/willing to give the dog a heads-up that they are about to move. Sometimes it’s as simple as telling the dog to ‘go’ or move. But it also requires that they are paying attention and noticing the dog, something which some people are better at doing than others.

      I actually think that taking her out to play ball when he’s moving around IS addressing the problem. Until she can stop being spooked by him, it’s better she’s not there to let it happen. The first step is often management.

      For some of us, our dog will require this kind of management throughout their life. We get better at it, and it gets easier all around for everyone involved.

      • rangerskat on

        I’d initially written a longer reply detailing the things we’ve tried but then I realized it was a blog post all on it’s own so I copied it and posted it to my blog

        It’s very frustrating because in so many circumstances she’s fine including part of the time when he’s moving around just not all the time. I’m sure there’s a reason for her but I’m still struggling to figure out why five minutes after he starts loading the dishwasher it sometimes (but not always) becomes a problem for her or why him going to bed at night is almost, but not quite, always an issue. It’s so much easier when the trigger is clear and obvious. Thanks for the reassurance that management is a good first step. So often it feels like I’m just floundering around in the dark so any glimmers of light and support are greatly appreciated.

      • Debbie on

        It’s helpful if you can come up with a few routine responses to a reaction to a trigger. Sometimes I just laugh and tell him he’s a silly dog. That works with objects better than people. My voice and body language make him happy.

        If he’s reacting to a person I send him away from them. If I suspect he might react I send him away ahead of time.

        It’s not easy living with dogs like this. We have to pay more attention and be more involved with them compared to dogs who take things in stride.

        I never would have believed that 6 years down the road Sunny would still be as concerned about things as he is. But it’s the hand he was dealt. We’re doing the best we can with it. You are too.

        Looking forward to reading your post.

        Debbie Jacobs

  6. Catherine McBrien on

    I’ve had huge success with ds/cc with many shy fosters and my own dogs. One of my dogs was terrified of children and would run in a blind panic just when hearing their voices in the distance. I of course kept her at far distances originally and gradually decreased the distance as she grew more comfortable. She can now stay off-leash with me with a group of toddlers in galoshes straight towards her. Her overall confidence has improved immeasurably and she looks to me whenever something worries her. She can even take treats from older children (no risk of fear biting whatsoever) and her quality of life is so much better now.

    Completely avoiding the trigger would have meant that I couldn’t go to a fabulous off-leash are right by my house which she absolutely loved going to as do my other dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The goals we have for our dogs will vary, and what each is able to accomplish will vary as well. Avoiding triggers is just the start. Once we give the dog some skills they are more likely to be able to work out simple equations when in the presence of a trigger. Heck some can even move on to calculus!

  7. kdkh on

    Thank you for rationally discussing the problems with bombardment “desensitization training.” To me it just appears to be bullying. I try gradual and supportive confrontation of fears, which I think supports the dog emotionally, but still teaches them they can be secure. My fearful dog that hates the car gets very short trips with a (dog) friend, until they don’t scare her any more, for example. Thanks for addressing this.

  8. Heather on

    This post helps me remember that working with a fearful dog, like my foster “Mo”, is a step by step life style. Not just practicing a new trick, but a life style. And, not all our steps are forward ones. If I can find a threshold for him, we can do some of that work that moment. It’s not always about a trigger…he has too many. Much like Sunny, Mo was a shut down boy. He’s done better–been a while since he’s completely shut down. He starts to head there sometimes, and is able to come back, if i can release the pressure and let him be secure. As a human, not always easy to let go of my agenda.

    Before I met Mo, I wouldn’t have imagined a dog so frozen, that he couldn’t eat truly good cheese right in front of him. I know my expectation is too high when he won’t eat the cheese.

    It also helps remind me not to take things so personally. I met Mo when he was guessed to be about 6 years old. I can’t expect that change will happen readily or with just a couple techniques, no matter how phenomenal the advice I get or “tools” I use, it just isn’t realistic to expect there won’t be some setbacks. We allow our dogs that space to explore and try things, we should do the same for ourselves. We could have many good moments with DS/CC, and then one bad one, resets our training. I don’t think all is lost as the relationship builds and Mo gives me a second chance a little bit sooner.

    My resident dog had guy issues and sometimes leash reactivity. She wasn’t overall fearful, so DS/CC did help make some in roads. It helped her stop and wonder, but finding threshold and getting her attention/providing the support before her fear behavior started was key.

    Dogs are adaptable for sure.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your stories Heather. It is true that we often run into our own limitations along with our dog’s.

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