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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 26 January 2002 Issue


When Miss Tish, an eleven-month-old Akita from excellent breeding lines, was quite small (ten weeks of age), her owner, Harold, took her to visit the Veterinarian. He sauntered happily into the veterinary clinic with Miss Tish tucked under his arm. Being quite a cultured and refined type of gentlemen, Harold was anxious for his pup to “behave” well during this experience. He hoisted the pup onto the examining table and waited for the Veterinarian. The examining table was cold, very shiny and slippery and had the scent of disinfectant. The air in the clinic was replete with hospital odors, including the rush of adrenaline present in the animals waiting their turn. The ten-week old pup, in this new, strange and frightening situation, was anxious. Harold attempted to soothe her as the Veterinarian (a woman who short brown hair) entered the room, clearly in a rush. She approached Miss Tish without stopping to greet her and quickly bent over the pup. In one second, the pup’s physiological rush of fear created the need for defense. She growled at the Veterinarian who then quickly backed away and began to berate poor Harold on the terrible temperament of his puppy. During this melee, Harold frantically tried to calm his terrified puppy (petting her, whispering in her ear). Miss Tish very clearly got the picture. Women with short, brown hair are dangerous. Growling keeps them away. Harold seems to approve of this also, for he is (after all) petting and whispering and clearly doesn’t like this woman himself! Miss Tish learned her lesson.

By the time I was called into the picture, Miss Tish had grown considerably larger than her ten-week-old self. She was basically a confident girl in an excellent home that she shared with an older male Akita. Her owners took both dogs everywhere with them but something was going terribly wrong. Harold and his wife were finding it increasingly difficult to control Miss Tish’s behavior on the street during their walks. Miss Tish, Harold confided to me, did not like women with short brown hair! This had become a serious problem in the household. Every time such a woman approached Harold and Miss Tish on the street, Harold immediately *anticipated* a problem and began to attempt to reel Miss Tish in, petting and whispering to her, but to no avail. Miss Tish’s hatred of women with short brown hair was getting worse.

I arranged to meet Harold and Miss Tish at the Walt Whitman Mall early on a Sunday morning, before anyone else has arrived. Miss Tish was a wonderful, alert, and responsive dog. I conditioned her to the clicker and instructed Harold on basic motivational training. Miss Tish received conventional training and knew the commands but I wanted her to choose to work (rather than fear the pop of the choker if she did not work). Within 45 minutes, Miss Tish began to respond, working at heel and sit/stay as foot traffic and automobiles slowly increased around us. Now we were ready to fix the problem.

A conditioned fear response is not a “thought process” or “choice” by the dog after the initial event that creates it. Any sight “reminding” the animal of that initial event automatically results in the physiological reaction of fight/flight. This is called “spontaneous recovery”. Miss Tish was not thinking, “Oh, God! There’s another of those terrible brunettes! Let’s kill her!” She was reacting automatically. This response can be extinguished, especially if the owner is contributing to it. That is the reason I chose to meet Harold and his dog in public. After teaching her that “working” with me was fun, and spending time listening to Harold share with me his enormous fear that Miss Tish might actually hurt a woman with short brown hair, I knew that his contribution to his dog’s response was escalating the problem. I intended to desensitize both her response and his contribution to it. This involved exposing the dog to the dreaded sight in very controlled circumstances, removing the owner at appropriate intervals, slowly desensitizing the dog to the stimulus, and then assisting the dog to reinterpret what is actually happening. While this approach is not always appropriate, I knew it would work in this instance.

When a dog is experiencing a fear response, its vision “locks on” the object of its fear. We then have a rather large dog that begins to strain at the lead and may exhibit other signs of fear (such as growling, barking excessively, snarling, lunging, etc.) Miss Tish had “learned” from Harold’s frantic efforts to control her at these times that he was of no use at all and in fact she probably interpreted his hysteria as being a direct result of the approaching brunette! This increased her anxiety and fervor. The trick involved here is to very closely observe the dog’s body signals and act before the dog goes into full fear response. As people began to arrive, I took the leash and continued working Miss Tish in obedience up and down the sidewalk. I instructed Harold to observe the dog closely -- watch her body language, not the scenery -- concentrate on the dog. Whenever Miss Tish began to show signs of reaction to an approaching person (always a female brunette with short hair), I immediately moved away from her (the dog) and toward the approaching woman (putting myself between them, obviously, just in case.) I told Harold to walk at least ten feet away from his dog (in the opposite direction) and keep his back to her during these episodes, leaving Miss Tish “out there” alone to deal with the situation.

What happened when Harold walked away and turned his back on his dog and I moved toward the brunette? Miss Tish initially showed some reaction to each dreaded woman (all of whom hurried away, which at first might seem counterproductive but actually meant nothing since they weren’t the problem to being with!) But her reaction never came close to its former intensity since all of this took place before she “locked on” to the brunette. Miss Tish realized Harold had left her and that I had actually moved toward the dreaded brunette! She was left not knowing what to do. She disengaged from the approaching horrible brunette(s) and looked at Harold, greatly confused. “What’s with this guy? What am I supposed to do?” She then looked toward me, then Harold, and back and forth we went! Finally, she totally disengaged and pretended to do something else (she looked up at the sky, sniffed the ground, and watched me standing there with no reaction.) I call this “going shopping” but its actual term is displacement.

Whenever a brunette fitting the description approached, we repeated this “treatment.” (Once the process has begun, the dog can never be allowed to experience to its full-blown reaction.) I instructed Harold to return to the dog’s side whenever Miss Tish “went shopping,” but not to do or say anything. Miss Tish began to learn that her response to the horrible brunettes of the world not only was of no concern to Harold but that Harold actually isolated himself from her at those times. When Miss Tish immediately “went shopping” at the approach of a brunette lady, Harold began to praise that behavior. Miss Tish had learned another lesson.

In every learning experience, there is usually a final exam. This case was no exception. I casually glanced down the sidewalk and saw, much to my amazement, that the local LensCrafters had disgorged a gaggle of white-coated, short-haired female brunettes on cigarette break! Oh, joy! This was our ultimate challenge. Could Miss Tish do it?

Presenting large numbers of a dreaded object to a dog that fears them is called “flooding” and is not always the smart approach, but in this case I knew Miss Tish was ready. I took the leash. Harold stood at the left of Miss Tish, and I at the right. We proceeded toward the gaggle of brunettes.

As we slowly walked toward the crowd of pseudo-Veterinarians, I watched Miss Tish very closely. Secretly, the most I hoped for was a reaction from the dog followed by a quick displacement behavior. But what happened really amazed me! Within a scant four feet of the gaggle, Miss Tish (showing no anxiety whatever) “went shopping.” “I DON’T SEE THESE WHITE COATED, SHORT HAIRED BRUNETTES,” she fairly screamed! As far as she was concerned, they simply weren’t there!

I instructed Harold to repeat these exercises many times, with his wife playing my role. We still had the issue of spontaneous recovery, even though it would slowly extinguish. Harold was now convinced that his dog was not the entire problem and understood how he had contributed to it. But the best was yet to come.

Several months later, I was attending a fun “dog show” (a match show), attempting to ready a client’s dog for the “real thing” (the AKC breed ring). I ran into Harold with Miss Tish on lead beside him. As Harold and I began an animated discussion regarding his continuing success with Miss Tish and brunettes, Donna (an acquaintance of mine) approached us. Donna has SHORT BROWN HAIR. Totally innocent of Miss Tish’s history with women of her own hair color and length, Donna reached out and touched Miss Tish! I restrained any facial reaction, not wanting to alarm Harold and start the whole thing over again, but in my head the small voice was screaming “OH NO!” But, guess what? Miss Tish did not react. She didn’t show any response other than a happy greeting. Case closed!

The moral of this story is that dog owners must be aware of what they, themselves are doing, thinking, and even feeling during their dog’s response to something or someone, whether the dog is indoors or outdoors. An owner’s inappropriate touch, word or action can aggravate the dog’s response to the point where it becomes an enormous problem for both of them. If you think your dog is overreacting to anything or anyone, find a credentialed Behaviorist to assess the problem. Putting a choker collar (or worse) on the dog to “correct” it will only worsen the situation and, the longer you allow the problem to progress, the harder it will be to “fix.”

Staff: Psych4Dogs

Return to Animals in Print 26 Jan 2003 Issue

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