Fixing generally phobic dogs (Proceedings)

May 01, 2011

Sophie is a four-year-old Labrador retriever. She was one of ten pups and lived exactly as they did. She wasn't roughly handled or neglected. She wasn't subjected to loud noises that weren't also heard by the whole litter. She is not sound phobic. She was cuddled, loved and handled as much and as little as the other pups. Her first owner was a man who wished Sophie to bond solely to him. He planned to make her a hunter. For the first months in his home, he was the only one who fed her. At about a year, she went to school to be a gun-dog, she handled everything just fine. She was trained with a remote collar and learned quickly. She wasn't traumatized by the E-Collar and will happily do everything a flushing retriever is supposed to do. She is steady to wing and shot, honors a point and won't flush until told to do it. She gets the bird (or finds it if necessary) and makes a solid retrieve. In other words, she's perfect in the field. That is obviously what she was bred to do. In virtually every way she's the perfect hunts. What she isn't, is a perfect pet.

The one thing I didn't tell you about Sophie is that she is generally fearful when she's not in the field. At home, if a guest enters the house, she stays in the master bedroom and will not come out. She will not accept food from strangers. If there is a guest in the house she won't eat at all. She lives with another dog, but never plays or solicits affection. She doesn't solicit affection from her current owner – the original owner's sister. He passed Sophie to his sister because the dog was so maddeningly fearful in the home. In her current home of three years, Sophie does enjoy the company of the owner's teenage niece who visits from time to time. She doesn't like men – even though a man fed her every meal for her first year. She doesn't like loud noises at home, but has no problem with shotguns, loud trucks or any other loud noise in the field. The other thing I haven't told you about Sophie is that she's perfectly normal.

Every population of dogs contains a broad spectrum of personalities. They get this from their ancestor, the wolf. Wolves are group living animals who hunt large prey on a regular basis. If all of them were equally courageous, they might not have survived. Some wolves are plainly scaredy-cats. They aren't the ones who dive into a battle with an Elk or Moose and go for the throat. The many different styles of attack and chase of any pack are impossible to stave off, forever. If a prey animal beats down several of the biggest, most ferocious wolves, the lighter, less committed wolves will chase and harass it until it stands its ground and the heavy hitters can have another shot at it. The species survives specifically because there is a wide diversity of personalities within the group.

If you've been in veterinary practice for awhile, you know this is still a factor in dog behavior. Many a Shi Tzu has the heart of a lion – and others have the heart of a hamster. Most poodles are considered dingbats and some of them retain the stalwart nature that made them great retrievers. Some dogs bravely defend their territory while others cower under the bed, just like Sophie. The point is that this wide difference between brave and cowardly isn't a sign of abuse or mental defect. Both types are well within the norm for dogs.

Effective treatment

The current vogue for treating phobic dogs is to be nice to them and give lots of treats while making sure they are never scared. This "nice" treatment is immediately problematic because one of the common effects of fear is a loss of appetite. If the animal is flight-oriented, restraint and hugging may actually escalate the animal's fearful response. To suggest using positive reinforcement to fix this problem requires specifically discovering what pleasant things can motivate a fearful animal. In almost all cases, that is a very short list, if it exists at

The real solution for generally phobic dogs starts with aversive control.

Sophie's choice – cure me with electric shock.

If Sophie could choose a life of fear or a normal existence free from almost all fear, what do you think she would choose? As I said, she's not a wimp in the field. She can take sand burs in her paws, nicks, cuts, scrapes and contusions without flinching. i.e. She's a tough cookie when hunting. Her initial training with a shock collar had no influence on her behavior at home. None. No craziness, no aggression, no nothing that wasn't already there. If you know that a tool is unlikely to cause trauma, why not use it after "gentler" methods have utterly failed?