What happens to fear if left untreated?

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Posted originally on August 5, 2013Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. for http://blog.smartanimaltraining.com

Barking, lunging, bolting, running away, tucking their tail, avoiding, etc. Dogs have many ways to express their fear. How we react in return will often determine whether they get over it or whether it gets worse. Some fears can be hard to explain, like my own dog who runs away as soon as I cut my own nails, but is perfectly relaxed if I cut hers… Others are quite obvious, like the reaction to fireworks or thunderstorms. Many owners tend to allow the dog to simply avoid the fearful situation, but what happens to the fear? Does it subside on its own? Does the dog ‘grow out of it’? Or can it get worse?

Wes Anderson & TD

Wes Anderson and TD


One story, that I heard from Wes Anderson, founder of Smart Animal Training Systems but also, volunteer service dog trainer, struck me as a perfect example of what can happen to fear when left untreated. Walking through the long hallways of the company he works for, he noticed that Willow, a Golden Retriever, was gradually developing resistance to going under the arched doorways. She was slowing down, hesitating and gradually needed more and more encouragement to go through. She never reacted that way before and to his knowledge, nothing unpleasant had ever happened to her under one of those doorways. He was using high value treats to help her associate them with good things coming her way and gain confidence, but saw no improvement. One day, as he was bending over to drink from one of the water fountains, he glanced at the dog. Because he would always turn his back to her, he had never noticed that Willow was scared every time he turned the water on. This water fountain made a particular sound that seemed to affect her. Over time, she had developed a strong reaction to it. As he looked around, Wes suddenly understood where her fear of the arched doorways came from. To get to this particular water fountain, they had to go through an arched doorway! Willow had then generalized to all similar doorways of the building. Working on the doorways alone wasn’t getting better because the source of the fear was not the doorway, but the water fountain. The water fountain was still acting as an aversive to that particular kind of doorway. Once Wes was able to desensitize her to the sound of the water fountain, the doorways ceased to be an issue.


When an animal is afraid, they’ll want to avoid what they consider as dangerous. Whether real danger or just perception really doesn’t make a difference, fear is fear and keeping distance from what’s scary is always the safest option. If the animal doesn’t have the opportunity to learn that the scary situation is actually safe, over time, they will develop strategies to avoid it altogether. Any cue leading to the situation will start triggering the emotional reaction. For Willow, any arched doorway, no matter where they were located became triggers for the reaction; like an ‘oh-oh!’ moment that sets the dog on the lookout for the potential scary water fountain. This is when the fear to a specific trigger can generalize and occur in seemingly unrelated situations. When that happens, going back to the origin of the fear can sometimes be difficult. It’s always much easier to treat the fear as soon as we first notice it.


Stray dog in Maras


There are of course some fears that the dog may naturally grow out of without human intervention, but most of the time, untreated fears don’t just go away and may increase into actual phobias. Fears also have the potential to develop into problematic behaviors such as: reactivity to other dogs or people, vocalization or destructive behaviors when left alone, panic at the sound of thunder or fireworks, biting the vet’s hand when manipulated, running away at the first sign that it’s time to take a bath, barking when hearing the doorbell or random noises in the neighborhood, etc… Helping the dog overcome his fears will not only prevent many of these behaviors to develop, but will also help him gain more confidence in general. A confident dog that walks around the world without being on the lookout for potential scary things is happier and easier to manage.


Our natural instinct generally leads us to try to reassure the dog and remove him from any scary situation altogether. But once we’ve noticed that the dog has anxieties or fears of a particular situation, person, animal or object, it pays in the long run to work on them and help him/her get over them.


One popular way to deal with fear is through a process called flooding. When dogs are repeatedly exposed to uncomfortable (but safe) situations, they may gradually develop a sense of trust and confidence. A dog that comes out of the pound and introduced into a new family will typically adjust over time. Over the course of a few weeks, the dog is usually able to get familiar with the people and surroundings that are now part of his/her life. Through a process called ‘habituation’, the dogs can get used to the presence of something that used to scare them. However, forcing a dog to ‘face his fears’ by keeping him in a situation where the scary thing is always present, also has the potential to backfire.


Flooding was invented in the late 60s to treat human patients from their phobias. It has proven to be an effective, quick, yet traumatic way to deal with the issue. With humans, the therapist can help the patient with relaxation techniques while exposing him/her to virtual or imagined forms of the stimulus. With dogs, most flooding techniques have generally involved repeatedly or continuously exposing them to what scares them. A typical example is to treat a dog’s reactivity to other dogs by throwing him/her in an enclosure with lots of dogs. When faced with such a high level of exposure to what scares them, the dog may appear calm but is likely to be overwhelmed and shut down. Once out of the stressful situation, his reaction to the stimulus is likely to be the same as before or worse. The repeat exposure has the potential to sensitize the dog to the stimulus, increasing his/her chances to react faster, sooner and stronger, but also to generalize the fear to other similar situations. With a high chance of failure of this technique and the potential to make things worse, I certainly would not recommend it’s use when dealing with fear.


Comforting the Watchdog


A far safer and effective approach consists of desensitizing the dog to the scary stimulus. In the example above, the dog’s emotions are generally so high that it’s hardly possible to engage him into any kind of thinking. Exposure should always be kept sub-threshold, in other words at a level where the dog is not reacting emotionally. Whatever it is, there is a threshold to everything, distance, sound level, pressure level, height, intensity, time, etc. Through classical conditioning, as soon as the dog notices the stimulus, we can pair it with something that the dog likes. Food of course is the easiest to use in those situations, but depending on the dog, there is always room for creativity.


When the scary trigger is visual, I love the ‘Look at that’ (LAT) game from Leslie McDevitt where we click and treat the dog every time he/she looks at the scary dog, object or person. As long as we stay sub-threshold, where the dog is still calm and relaxed, the game quickly goes from LAT to ‘look at me’ where the dog can be rewarded for looking back at us. Whatever the stimulus, as we pair it with all good things happening to the dog, we can gradually increase the level or intensity of the exposure, until the dog is completely comfortable with it.


Helping the dog work through his fears has true benefits. The dog gradually develops better coping skills and overall confidence. It also limits the chances for future problematic behaviors. Working on fears takes time and commitment but it always pays off in the long run.




Jennifer Cattet, Ph.D.