Emotion vs. Intellect in the Fearful Dog

March 13, 2013
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This weekend I ran my first ½ marathon trail run. It was 14.25 miles, to be exact. My husband had coached me and I was confident about my ability to finish. I was prepared and didn’t at all feel nervous, but my body disagreed. My stomach was all a-flutter and, well, let’s just say that I now know the bathrooms around the park very well.

I am familiar with this phenomenon, as it would also occur when I used to trial my dogs in obedience years ago. Even though I didn't feel nervous mentally, my body would always react in the same way that it did the day of my race. I finished my race and met my two goals of neither walking nor face planting as I came down a hill or jumped a root. As I drove home, I couldn’t help but think of the dogs. I thought of all of the dogs who are reactive, fearful, or aggressive. I would imagine, based on what I see in the clinic, that they feel about the same way I did during my race.

I understand how reactive and fearful dogs can be intelligent and obedient, and yet feel out of control physically when they are afraid. I understand how they may be able to think through that man in a hat isn’t going to kill me today, but their body doesn’t agree. Their body has a memory of a previous event in which a man with a hat was present. Their body remembers that stress response, and that response is summoned up instantly — without rational thought  — when the stimulus presents itself. They react with aggression or barking without even thinking through it.

The interesting thing about a stimuli being paired with a physiologic stress response is that the stimulus does not even have to be the cause of the fear to be paired with the fear response. For example, if a man with a hat is present during a time when the dog is scared, such as when outdoors at a fireworks display, that man with that hat, or sometimes any man with any hat, can elicit that same physiologic fear response that the sound of the fireworks would elicit.

Owners frequently say that their reactive or fearful dog is highly intelligent — maybe the most intelligent dog that they have ever had. Yet the dog is in my office because of a serious behavior problem. As I generally explain to the owners, intellect or obedience is separate from emotion. Haven’t you ever had a really intelligent friend who is emotional or high strung?

Intellect is your intelligence level or your level of skill. Emotion is how you feel and the physiology of your behavior. They can be, and often are, exclusive of each other. This is hard for people to wrap their heads around. They want their dog to just understand that the man in the hat isn’t scary. They want their dog to rationally think through what is going on. Life doesn’t work that way.

Once there is a physiologic response to a stimulus, the dog will need more than obedience to overcome the fear or reaction. Instead, he will need targeted treatment that includes desensitization and counterconditioning, and possibly medications to change his emotional state.

Desensitization is exposure to a fear producing stimulus at levels at which the dog does not react or barely reacts at all. Meanwhile, a technique called counterconditioning is often employed in conjunction with desensitization. In this technique, something good is paired with that scary stimulus (i.e., the man with the hat).

Sometimes, owners can implement these techniques themselves. Often, they need the help of a qualified professional. The challenge is that it is very easy to go too fast. If you push the dog past the point where it can tolerate the stimulus without any reaction, you risk sensitization. Sensitization is when the physiological response is actually paired with the stimulus, making the dog believe that they should be paired, inducing more fear and thus making the dog worse.

It is important to define what the threshold is for each dog before attempting to move forward with these techniques. The threshold is the point where the dog reacts. That seems simple right? Think again!! You have to be able to read your dog’s body language very well to know your dog’s threshold. You can find body language information here: Canine Body Language

For example, let’s revisit the dog who is afraid of the man with the hat. The owner sets her dog up about 100 feet from a male friend who is wearing a hat. The dog puts his ears back and licks his lips. The owner is at his threshold. That is right. Those are both distance increasing signals in dog language. In other words, the owner cannot go closer to the stimulus (the man with the hat) at this point because the dog is already as close as he can go comfortably.

When the dog is comfortable at this distance, whether in a day or a month or a year, the owner can move closer to the man. Desensitization and counterconditioning should be like watching a turtle go up a hill — slow, steady, and sleep inducing.

If you have a dog who is scared or reactive, remember the emotional response of the animal and how it takes slow and steady work to overcome that fear. Now, get to work!!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: A.B.G. / via Shutterstock