Monday, December 31, 2012

Phobias in dogs

Feisty, my Pyrenean Shepherd, developed an unexplained fear of camera clicks about two and a half years ago.  I first realized it about a two years ago.  When I realized what was causing her to completely freeze and tremble I did some brainstorming.  Something I just now learned Patricia McConnell recommends.  I wrote down everything I could think of that might have contributed to the fear.  I worked it back to the litter of puppies I had raised six months earlier and the flash photos I took of them when they were really little and their eyes were not open.  I then speculated that the flash of the camera looked like lightning and Feisty's fear of lightning that was tied to thunder, now had been classically conditioned to camera clicks.  Since I didn't realize it was happening at the time and it was about six months later before I put it all together I was not able to do an immediate intervention.

I've begun to ponder this again and look up my old resources from my days of studying psychology because today I discovered that the phobia has spread to include the sound of the "i-click" clicker - the softer clicker noise.  I have at times noticed that some people's mouth clicks stress her slightly.  I had hoped it would not spread to the clicker which is used a lot at our training school and where she spends most of her days with me.

I think back to a seminar with Suzanne Clothier many years ago where she talks about phobias in dogs and how difficult these pathological fears can be to overcome.  In re-reading psychological literature written for humans it becomes clear why it is so hard.  In humans classical conditioning is often used to desensitize humans to a fear of something.  Humans can visualize what they are afraid of - they can start mentally at a very low level of fear/arousal.  It is much harder with dogs to get to that low level.  I have tried using a CD that has camera clicks on it and turning the volume down as low as it goes.  The problem is that in her mind it goes from 0 to 100 in intensity no matter how gradually I try to increase the volume.  There is almost no in between state in terms of volume.  She can hear a camera click at 100 plus feet - the length of an agility ring with background noise around her.  

I have a phobia too, I have a fear of heights.  I can recreate some level of fear just by visualizing being at the edge of cliff, or watching a movie at the edge of a cliff or even looking at a picture from the edge of a cliff.  Pictures from hang gliding are the worst for me.  Yet I can sit in an airplane and look out the window and I just love that.  But when I'm even in a low level of fear no amount of my favorite food paired with that image will change my association.  No amount of verbal rationalization can change my perception.  So I can understand why this approach does not work well with Feisty either.

It would not be such a problem except that there are now photographers around every agility ring at every trial, especially national events.  Only if the background noise is really loud and intense or it is really windy can she function.  I often will yell cues loudly and talk loudly to her when we go past a photographer when we are running.  I often try to ask them to not take pictures of her but I can't always arrange that.  If she freezes I just pick her up and carry her.  If she keeps running past them and doing agility I don't fix anything and just let her keep running.

Now that her fear has spread to the sound of a soft clicker it can make things even more complicated.  It is hard for others who do not have a dog like this to appreciate how debilitating these fears can be.  Unless you have lived with a dog like this and tried to work through it you really have no idea how difficult it is.  I have tried essential oils and rescue remedy and herbal calming tablets.    My next recourse would be to give her anti-anxiety medications however those produce drowsiness and can interfere with safe functioning while running agility courses.  If it were a fear of thunder and we are at home trying to sleep through a late night storm then drugs would be perfect.  But in the case of this kind of phobia it comes up at agility trials and training.  I could switch activities but there are photographers present at almost every sport including more and more at obedience which is her other favorite activity.  I could opt to not trial her and that is always an option.  However when she is not afraid she runs like the wind and she truly looks like she loves it.

On the positive side, she is not as bothered by the flash from the camera on my phone which I can totally silence.  I don't take it for granted and we have a huge happy party anytime it is on and I take a picture with her around.  Usually I try to put her away so she doesn't have to deal with it.  So I am now contemplating what is next for her.  I have downloaded the music from Through a Dog's Ear that I learned about from Patricia McConnell and may try that with her for some calming background music.

It is never a dull moment when you own a Pyr shep!


  1. I feel your pain. I don't know Feisty all that well but I can imagine the frustration and the despair you must be feeling as you watch your dog be in so much fear.

    The decision to put Vito on anti anxiety medications was not an easy one and the decision of whether to trial has been an ongoing one. But for Vito, medication was definitely the right choice as new anxieties kept popping up. It has been an experiment to find the right drugs as many decreased his drives, although some less than others. But personally I have never worried about his safety in running agility. The wrong drugs produced a dog who ran with less enthusiasm but was still capable of thinking and in control of his body.

    I hope you find an answer for helping Feisty.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts - gives me more to think about.

  2. Annelise, I feel your pain. Working with Layla and Dobby, it's such a balancing act to keep your dog happy when they truly enjoy the work but find other aspects of trialing stressful.

    Have you talked to a veterinary behaviorist about meds? Ten years ago, it was true that the meds used for anxiety were very sedating. However many of the newer classes of drugs are anxiolytic without sedating, and I work with many dogs on these meds who very safely do many activities, including agility, disc work, and even police work. While any veterinarian should be able to prescribe meds, a board-certified vet behaviorist will have the knowledge to choose the best option for each individual dog. The 0 to 100 intensity you're describing with Feisty is very much in line with most of the dogs I'm working with who have been diagnosed with true anxiety disorders, which are a physical (chemical) rather than behavioral problem and tend to respond very well to medical intervention. Of course it's also quite typical of her breed, and you know her best!

    I wrote about my experiences with Layla here: Layla still takes a daily anxiety med (we've since switched to sertraline, which along with sensory therapy has greatly helped with her sensory processing abnormalities) but she no longer needs her PRN med for noise issues at all. I really credit the alprazolam with helping her get to a point where behavior mod could work, and don't think we would have ever reached this point with the "natural" therapies I was trying alone.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. The other complication with Feisty is that she has food and drug sensitivities. So it makes me even more ambivalent about getting into the trying different meds. I also want something that I can give situationally because I am pretty aware of the triggers and it is not a fear of the unknown or unknown fears. It is a pretty specific trigger still at this point even though the range of it is spreading, if that makes sense.