Case Study: The Fearful
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.
Ike is a 5 1/2-year-old male Miniature
Ike exhibits an intense fear of
people. According to his owner, Lisa, “… at a trial
he may be running along great and suddenly he spots a ring steward,
and he freezes or freaks out.” This reaction may last from
several seconds to several days. In some instances Ike may recover
quickly and continue his run; in others he shows continued concern
and distraction over an entire show weekend. Ike does not display
any fears regarding agility equipment and he does not normally
have any difficulty with obstacle performance. Lisa also says,
“Even more odd, he is not afraid of crowds, so if there
are lots of people there, he is fine.” Ike’s problem
seems to be with random individuals only. Besides his fear reaction
to people, Ike often displays a strong aversion to being touched.
Lisa bought Ike from a well-known
Poodle breeder when he was eight weeks old. He comes from a line
of top performance dogs and breed champions. He was chosen as
an agility/obedience/flyball prospect and temperament tested by
both Lisa and the breeder. Lisa says that, as a young puppy, he
was fun and a little reserved.
Lisa noticed that when Ike was five to six months old he sometimes
stood slowly.He also hated being picked up and did not like being
touched. Ike’s vet diagnosed him with Legg-Perthes, a disease
in which the ball of the hip disintegrates. After surgery, Lisa
was instructed to keep Ike physically active to speed his recovery.
He went to a rehabilitation center for treatments including swimming,
treadmill work, chiropractic adjustments, and acupuncture.
Ike recovered physically, is active, and appears pain-free, but
the emotional and mental effects linger on. He has never attempted
a serious bite, but he has warned strangers not to touch him by
barking, grumbling in protest, and shying away.
Even with all his problems, Ike has earned a long list of titles
in flyball and agility, including UACH, FDCH, R1MCL, R2MCL, MX,
MXJ, PDII, OAC, OGC, OJC, TG-N, TN-O, RS-N, RG-N, and he has 14
Double-Qs toward his MACH title.
In agility and flyball trials Ike
may run well for months. Then, seemingly randomly, he spots a
person (such as a ring steward or judge) and either markedly slows
or freezes and shies away from the person as well, with a vocal
protest. After the incident, he may recover in a few seconds or
he may be unable to recover and continue working well. Lisa says
that in agility she encourages him to finish the course. He has
never run out of the ring but sometimes finishes the course slowly.
Also, attempts to teach Ike the stand for exam in obedience so
upset him that, according to Lisa, “To this day the word
Stand sends him running.” On occasion, he even cringes and
shies away when Lisa reaches down to pet him.
Lisa has tried several techniques
to help Ike overcome his fears including:
Rewarding him for looking at people
Flooding him with people that touch him
Mini-scolding “Come on, forget about
Keeping people away from him
Practicing with people standing around the
equipment in the ring
Taking time off from trialing
Letting him see the people around the course
before his run
Classical conditioning to petting and touching
Ignoring the problem
And she adds, “... 2,374 other things…
the problem remains … and will wax and wane.”
Ike seems to have made a connection between
individuals, being touched, and fear and pain. This connection
is a strong automatic response at an emotional level, learned
through the process of classical conditioning. Responses that
are the result of classical conditioning are extremely difficult,
but not impossible, to change. Ike may have been predisposed to
be shyer and more reserved than average. Combined with his unpleasant
early experiences due to his disease and its treatment, this predisposition
led Ike to associate people and being touched with pain. Moreover,
these unpleasant early experiences may have taken place during
one of Ike’s fear periods (a time of greater sensitivity
to unpleasant events).
Ike learned his fearful response through
a simple association of person = pain. Although this learning
was unintentional, it was repeated enough at an early age that
Ike learned a powerful and unpleasant lesson. Though this association
no longer exists in the real world, Ike automatically reacts as
if it does. Certain people in certain situations trigger that
response. He cannot control that response and is unable to change
it on his own.
Associations that are learned through classical conditioning are
most effectively treated with classical conditioning techniques.
Counterconditioning — changing an emotional association—can
help Ike change his emotional reaction to people. In this case,
we want to change Ike’s unpleasant association with people
to a pleasant one. Since Ike reacts poorly to random individuals,
then it would be best to enlist the help of random individuals
in his treatment.
First, Lisa should identify a highly desirable food treat for
Ike and reserve it just for this type of work. The treat needs
to be something that Ike adores, that's big enough for him to
see clearly, and that can be tossed or dropped. Lisa should arm
her dog-training friends with the treat, instruct them to approach
her and Ike, toss the treat to Ike, and walk away. They should
not make any eye contact or physical contact with Ike, talk to
him, or try to engage him in any way. They are simply random treat-dispensers.
Repeating this exercise in different settings over many sessions
should persuade Ike that random people are good. As a result,
Ike might start seeking out strangers and begging for treats.
In the beginning I wouldn’t necessarily discourage this
behavior. Lisa might even provide treats to the people Ike approaches,
so that they can reward him for being friendly and outgoing. Still,
she should instruct people not to interact with Ike but to simply
offer him a treat.
The next step in Ike’s treatment would be systematic desensitization,
in which. he would be exposed to more and more stress-provoking
situations involving individuals, but in a gradual and controlled
way. In people, this treatment begins with the construction of
a “fear hierarchy,” a list of events or situations,
ranked from least to most feared, that cause anxiety or avoidance.
The steps should progress naturally and gradually. Lisa can construct
Ike’s fear hierarchy so that distance and interaction with
others are ordered in rank from least to most feared, as in this
· Step 1 (least feared): Stranger approaches Ike at a distance
· Step 2: Stranger approaches Ike at a distance of 10'.
· Step 7 Stranger might approaches Ike and holds out his
hand for him to sniff.
· Step 10 (most feared): Stranger walks up to Ike and pats
him on the head..
Once Lisa has developed Ike’s fear hierarchy, she can start
working with him on Step 1, exposing Ike to a person approaching
from 12' away. As soon as Ike notices the person, Lisa should
start continuously feeding him small soft treats until the person
leaves or until she moves Ike away. While feeding, Lisa can praise
Ike and tell him what a brave wonderful dog he is. Once the person
is out of sight, Lisa should stop feeding and ignore Ike for about
30 seconds, and then she can repeat the trial. In The Culture
Clash, Jean Donaldson clearly describes this technique, which
she calls “bar is open/bar is closed.” It is an excellent
way to change emotional responses. After a couple of repetitions,
Ike should spot a stranger approaching and look eagerly to Lisa
for his treats. Lisa can then move on to Step 2 in Ike’s
fear hierarchy, and repeat the process of feeding and praising.
As long as Ike is relaxed and taking treats, Lisa can continue
moving to the higher levels of the fear hierarchy. If at any time
Ike becomes tense and nervous, Lisa can simply move back to an
easier level for a few trials, then move up to the harder one
The key to success when using systematic desensitization is to
progress through the steps slowly and gradually. Exposing Ike
to too much, too soon will increase his fear and lead to failure.
If Ike cannot eat treats, he is too stressed and needs to move
back to an easier step. You can get a general feel for a dog’s
stress level by the way he takes treats. A tense dog tends to
grab at treats rather than taking them nicely. When a dog that
normally takes treats politely becomes “sharky,” then
that dog is feeling stressed and needs to move back a notch in
Although these recommendations have not directly dealt with the
problem that Ike is having in the agility ring, I would expect
that desensitization training would have a general beneficial
effect. Lisa can use “bar is open/bar is closed” at
run-throughs or show-n-gos that mimic a trial setting. Lisa might
even ask the judge or one of the stewards at a practice event
to purposely approach Ike at some point so that she can reward
and praise him lavishly.
Once Lisa has changed Ike’s emotional responses, then she
can use operant conditioning methods to more directly address
his behavioral problems. To help Ike act less fearful and bolder,
. In operant conditioning, Ike’s behavior controls the outcome
in any given situation. For instance, rather than tolerating people
approaching Ike, Lisa would highly reinforce Ike for taking the
initiative of approaching them. This will give Ike a feeling of
being in control of his interactions with others. She can teach
him a specific behavior, such as touching a hand with his nose.
At first, Lisa can reinforce Ike (with a click or verbal marker
and a treat) for touching her hand when she holds it out to him.
She can then click and treat whennever Ike nose-touches the hands
of other people that Ike knows (they not to initiate any other
contact with Ike). When Ike's hand-touching behavior becomes reliable,
Lisa can add a verbal cue, such as Go Touch, with this behavior.
Finally, Lisa can work with Ike in more crowded and distracting
settings, instructing others to approach Ike with an outstretched
palm, so that she can reinforce him for touching. Ike should start
to see approaching strangers as a signal that good things are
coming his way.
Ike’s case illustrates the results
of interactions between two critical components of behavior. The
first is temperament, or inborn behavioral tendencies. You cannot
change what nature (genetics) gives you. All creatures are born
with certain temperamental tendencies. Levels of shyness and physical
activity are two factors that are highly influenced by genes.
These are only tendencies, however, and they can be altered by
environment and experience. Among humans, for instance, a genetically
shy infant can end up as a socially normal adult given optimal
support and experiences. Without such intervention, however, the
child will tend to regress toward his initial tendencies. Left
to their own devices, then, shy infants will grow into shy adults.
The second behavioral component in Ike’s case is the occurrence
of fear periods. Fear periods, more accurately known as critical
periods in scientific literature, are times of greater sensitivity
to external events. The timing of these periods can vary greatly
in different dogs and in different breeds. Most dogs have a first
critical period somewhere between 7 and 12 weeks, often when they
are settling into their permanent homes. They may experience another
critical period somewhere between 7 and 12 months, as they are
approaching sexual maturity. Most knowledgeable owners try to
avoid any traumatic or unpleasant events during these stages,
but it is not always possible to control the timing of unpleasant
events. In Ike’s case, his painful disease and treatment
could not be avoided. Ike’s somewhat shy temperament, coupled
with his disease and its treatment during his second critical
period combined to intensify Ike’s cautious and fearful
responses to people.
Given Ike’s background and experiences, it is amazing that
he has accomplished as much as he has in performance events. In
her initial description to me, Lisa wrote “His name is Ike—like
the brave president/war hero!” That name is appropriate,
given the internal strength and effort it has taken for Ike to
work through his fears. Ike has overcome quite a bit so far, and
with more patient effort, he should be able to make even more
progress in the future.
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