Training - Articles

Working With Fearful Pets

Author - Helen Hollander, CPDT

Whenever you are working with a fearful/reactive/phobic pet, the first thing you should do is contact your veterinarian. It is very important that medical reasons for the behavior are ruled out. Some medical issues that may cause behavior problems include, but are not limited to: Food allergies, orthopedic problems, high or low thyroid, deafness or vision deficits, or cognitive issues/senility in older animals. Always consult with your veterinarian first to rule out medical reasons for the pet's behavior problems.

Become an expert...on what events, individuals or situations are triggers for your pet's behavior. What, where, when does the behavior occur?

Use methods like Classical Conditioning/desensitization to help your pet form new associations in regards to what these triggers predict for your pet. In other words, you are trying to change the meaning of the "big scary thing" from something negative in to a predictor of something positive, fun and rewarding. When we use Classical Conditioning we always work sub-threshold and at the pet's pace. That means you should only expose your pet to things he can handle without eliciting the fearful/reactive/phobic response.

— A very small dose of the big scary thing and a huge dose of rewards (food, toys etc.) Very gradually we increase the exposure to what triggers a fearful response in your pet.

One must always avoid "Flooding". Flooding occurs when you expose your pet to more of the fear eliciting stimulus then he can handle. You worked too closely, or too quickly allowing your pet to be overwhelmed with fear. Flooding your pet will only make them MORE sensitive and not less. No animal can learn when he or she is in a state of stress/adrenaline overload.

Never rush when working with fearful animals, always work "sub threshold" and at your pet's pace. Keeping your pet successful and forming good associations will keep your pet on a positive learning curve.

Always end sessions while the dog is successful ...

as seductive as it can be to "try for a little bit more", often this approach will simply lead to overloading your pet. Remember stress "builds up" don't allow stress to build to levels where the pet becomes reactive or fearful.

When working with Operant Conditioning...

(learning, which involves rewarding "good behaviors" and not rewarding "bad behaviors") keep in mind...
Physical punishment or strong verbal scolding should NOT be used. One cannot "punish, hit or yell at the animal" and reduce their fears.
These techniques will only cause your pet to form more negative associations in these situations. "I was already scared and now my owner is shouting at me as well". Additionally if your dog/cat is hissing, growling or barking you might suppress the warning signals the animal is giving you but you still have a fearful animal. While we might not want our dog to growl, in a sense be grateful he is because it gives everyone a warning that if you continue as you are the animal will bite. We don't want to create pets that bite without warning...that is a very dangerous place to be. Warnings allow us to avoid, move, change our behavior to prevent being bitten.

Define what you would like your pet to do in every situation that causes a fearful or reactive response.

For example, if your dog growls and backs away from guests in your home, define exactly how you would like your pet to behave instead. For example, when we have guests in our home, lie down at my feet and stay, or go to your mat/bed etc. These "appropriate choices/behaviors" will be ones incompatible with the behaviors you wish to reduce/eliminate.

There are two approaches to creating these new responses/behaviors.

(DRO) Differential Reinforcement of "Other behavior"

In other words ANY behavior OTHER than the one we don't want will be rewarded. If you see the "big scary thing" lets use for example fear of other dogs... we will reward (with food, toys) any response OTHER than barking, lunging or growling.

(DRA) Differential Reinforcement of "Alternative" Behavior.

Using this method you will select a specific behavior you would like your pet to give you instead of the undesirable behavior. For example when someone knocks at the door do not charge it and bark... BUT do go to your crate, behind a baby gate or lie down in a specific spot and stay.

Behavior hates a "void"... by that I mean — the way to change any animal's behavior is not simply to teach "don't do", BUT rather to replace problematic habits with desirable ones. Teach the dog/cat what it is you want them to do.

Do always utilize good management techniques and tools.

Reactive dogs should never be off leash in public places, utilize muzzles, gentle leader headcollars. Don't leave them chained up and if they are in a fenced in yard lock your gates, put up signs, which read "dog in yard". Baby gates, crates, leashes and tethers inside if or when necessary. Never place your pet in a situation where your pet, yourself or the public is at risk. All animals have the potential to bite...all dogs can move 10 times faster then we can so no one has reflexes quick enough to move out of the way of a dog intent on biting us.

It is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to say to other individuals or pet owners. "No you cannot pet my dog; no your dog cannot come up and sniff mine" and so on. Consider your activities your opportunity to educate other pet owners that indeed not all dogs want strangers, children or other dogs to rush up to them.

There are many medications currently in use to help animals with behavior problems. —

While a "pill" will not fix the problem, medication used in conjunction with behavior modification and training is often extremely effective. These medications are sometimes used on a short-term basis and other times are prescribed for the lifetime of your pet. One must consult with their veterinarian for what medications might be useful and/or ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.

Seek help...

if you have a dog or cat that growls at or aggresses towards other dogs, cats or people. Don't live in denial or try to work on these issues without consulting or working with a veterinary behaviorist or trainer that has successfully worked with pet owners on these issues. Very often after a session or two with a trainer/behaviorist you will have effective strategies for working with your pet that you would not think or be aware of on your own.

Remember that reactive and fearful animals are not being defiant, stupid or stubborn. They are not being "bad" they have an illness - any animal that could move comfortably and confidently through their world would do so. Have compassion, patience and the perseverance to seek out the multitude of resources available to help you with your pet.