Case Study: The Fearful Mini-Poodle
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.


Ike is a 5 1/2-year-old male Miniature Poodle.

Presenting Problem

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.

Previous Episodes

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.

Previous Treatments

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 it”
  • 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 hypothetical example:

    · Step 1 (least feared): Stranger approaches Ike at a distance of 12'.
    · 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 again.

    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 desensitization training.

    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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