Understanding and treating the fearful pet (Proceedings)


Understanding and treating the fearful pet (Proceedings)

Nov 01, 2009

Fears and phobias may be due to a pet's genetics, learned from an unpleasant experience or result from inadequate socialization. Dogs and cats that have not been sufficiently socialized to other species and environments during the critical period of socialization may develop fears that are particularly difficult to correct at a later age. When fear-related behavior is successful and removes the pet from the stimulus (e.g. escape, aggression), the behavior may be reinforced. The prognosis for effective correction varies greatly with the cause. Behaviors due to a strong genetic component or social deprivation can be the most difficult to change. Acquired fear disorders generally have a better prognosis.

Fear-related behaviors can be reinforced by the owner's response to the behavior. Owners who try to calm their fearful pets when showing avoidance or aggressive behavior with affection, attention or food may actually reward the response. It is essential, therefore, to consider the owner's response to the fearful pet in order to identify and eliminate any potentiating factors. Punishment can increase the pet's fear and anxiety and is typically contraindicated.

A number of behavior modification techniques including flooding, habituation, systematic desensitization, counterconditioning and positive reinforcement can be used alone or in combination to correct fearful behaviors. The first step is to identify and control every stimulus that might evoke fear until the program is successfully completed. Unfortunately, this may not always be possible (e.g. thunderstorms, traffic, visitors coming to the home). Should a fear-evoking situation arise during the retraining program, it is critical that the pet is well controlled so that injuries do not occur and the problem is not further aggravated. For example, if the pet is in a crate, on a leash or wearing a muzzle or head halter, injuries and escape behavior can usually be prevented. Often, the best owner response is to have the pet perform an acceptable behavior, such as sit-stay. When the pet calms down and exhibits no fear, it can then be rewarded. In some situations, quickly removing the pet from the situation may be the most prudent decision.

Behavior modification

The primary strategy is to associate something the pet really likes with the stimulus that triggers a fear response. The positive stimulus should be highly motivating to the pet (e.g. meat treats, favorite toy), and should be withheld except for training sessions. For desensitization and counterconditioning, the pet is initially exposed to levels of stimulus that are below the level that will evoke a fear response. Distance, size, volume and human behavior are the variables that are typically controlled during exposure exercises. Rewards are given only if the pet shows no far when exposed to the minimized fear-eliciting stimulus. The pet is then gradually exposed to increasing intensities of the stimulus.1,2 In time, the pet should perform the desired behavior in the presence of the full strength of the stimulus. If the fear threshold is surpassed at any point in the desensitization program, the owner must back up the training to a previous level and proceed in smaller increments.

For owners with good control and a pet with mild problems, flooding techniques (exposure to stimuli above the threshold that elicits fear) may be faster and equally as effective as desensitization at reducing or eliminating fear. For controlled flooding techniques, the stimulus should be presented at a reduced level, sufficient to cause minimal fear or anxiety. A leash and head-halter control can also be used to ensure compliance. The pet should be exposed to the stimulus until it shows nor sign of fear. Once the pet responds shows no fear, rewards should be given and the training session can end. The stimulus can then be gradually increased for each subsequent training session until the pet will accept exposure to the stimulus at full intensity without exhibiting any fear. Flooding may not be the best choice in many cases because it is usually not as practical as using desensitization/counterconditioning and can make the problem worse if not applied correctly.

Since the ultimate goal is to teach the pet to be relaxed in the presence of the fear-eliciting stimulus, techniques that cause pain or discomfort should be avoided. This includes using a pinch collar or using a choke chain to apply a correction. Harsh, uncomfortable corrections are especially problematic for fear-related aggression problems, since they can increase aggressive arousal while at the same time removing warning signals.

Behavior modification
1) Identify fear-eliciting stimuli
2) Identify thresholds
3) Arrange gradient of stimuli
4) Desensitization and counterconditioning