As a veterinarian, one of the most common topics I am asked about during a standard consultation is behaviour. Sitting somewhere at the top of the list of commonly asked questions is this one: Why does my dog do so well at obedience training, but still wreak havoc at home?
‘Fluffy is the most well-trained dog I’ve ever had but she still goes ballistic during a storm. She won’t listen to anything I tell her to do. Do you know any trainers that can teach her how to behave?’
My response is always the same: ‘Mrs Smith, little Fluffy is not actually suffering from a lack of training. I can see that she is a very obedient little girl. What you’re actually describing there is a panic attack.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Dr Jo!’ Mrs Smith invariably says. ‘Fluffy is the most well looked-after pet you’ll ever meet. She’s never had a bad experience during a storm. And she’s certainly never been abused. She has no reason to panic; there must be some other explanation!’
Well let’s put ourselves in Fluffy’s shoes for a few moments by considering a similar human analogy.
SPIDERS. Those not-so-cute, eight-legged furry beings capable of reducing a fully-grown woman like me, hundreds of times larger, heavier, and (I would argue) smarter, to an utterly irrational ball of panic.
This word runs through my head over and over again after one such terrifying episode. Let me set the scene.
Hubby and I, sans-toddler, return to our car after a relaxing night out to dinner. For the first time in weeks we’ve been able to have an uninterrupted conversation that doesn’t involve talk about nappies, dummies, vomit or baby poo.
We approach the car and I walk over to the passenger side. As I look at my car door I notice that something just doesn’t look quite right. Something is there that doesn’t belong. For a microsecond, I can’t quite put my finger on it.
While I ponder this mystery, my primitive, ‘emotional brain’ responds to an image that my two eyes have already seen but my ‘thinking brain’ hasn’t yet processed. It sets into motion a series of changes in my body within the space of milliseconds; my heart rate goes through the roof, my blood pressure skyrockets, my pupils dilate, my breath becomes shallow. Blood rushes to my vital organs and the not-so-large muscles of my arms and legs. My nervous system has kicked into survival mode- all the better to escape danger with.
My body unconsciously sends me leaping two metres backward with superhuman agility. I let out a slight yelp, capturing the attention of my hubby, looking puzzled as ever. Then the kung-fu ninja-dance starts.
You all know what I mean. Admit it. You’ve done it too.
That not-so elegant flailing of arms and legs punctuated by random screeches and grunts. That feeling of intense creepy crawliness as your brain tricks you into thinking that every little thing that brushes up against your skin is exactly what it isn’t.
Phobia: An exaggerated, irrational fear. That’s exactly what my reaction was. An utterly unhelpful, illogical, disproportionate, maladaptive response to a harmless situation.
Slowly the concrete facts of the present moment begin to creep back as my emotional brain tries hard to convince me otherwise. The thinking brain begins to kick in again. No, Jo, you’re not covered in spiders. You weren’t covered in spiders ten seconds ago as you were walking to the car either. Be logical. I tell myself.
Part of me is still not convinced. This part of me is also adamant that the dinner-plate sized spider on the passenger door of my car has wings and any second now will hurl itself towards me, attacking me with its sabre-like teeth and sharp claws that it quite obviously doesn’t have.
‘Is it on me? Get it off! Why aren’t you helping?!’ I ask hubby incredulously.
He comes over to see what the commotion is all about. He spots the harmless huntsman spider on my door, looks at me dancing around pathetically, rolls his eyes and smirks, then quickly flicks it off its perch with his thong (a.k.a. flip-flop, if you’re from any part of the world that’s not Australia).
I bravely slip past the bewildered-looking spider on the floor (read: take a wussy 3 metre wide berth), open my car door a fraction and squeeze myself into the passenger seat.
I’m safe. I think.
I take a few deep breaths. My heart rate slows, my blood pressure drops, and blood starts to flow around my body a bit more normally. Parasympathetic nervous system at its best.
I can now start thinking a bit clearer. I start to evaluate what just happened.
Why did I react like that? I’m an educated, logical person, right? I know that huntsman spiders are harmless. I know that they can’t fly, or jump very far, or beat me over the head with a baseball bat. Why is it that such a harmless animal strikes irrational terror in me but not hubby? Why do I feel such a compulsion to react like that, but hubby doesn’t?
The answer is quite simple, really.
Animals show variations of equally ridiculously irrational behaviour; picture the 80kg bullmastiff who tries desperately to get onto his 50kg owner’s lap.
Phobia. An exaggerated, irrational fear. That’s exactly what my reaction was. An utterly unhelpful, illogical, disproportionate, maladaptive response to a harmless situation. What many people don’t actually realise is that this condition is actually a form of mental illness. Dysfunction of the brain.
The same conditions have been proven to occur in our pets. We actually see these more often than we realise; picture those dogs that tear apart the curtains when left alone in the (safe, warm) house, or those like Fluffy that chew a hole in the wall during a distant thunderstorm, or break their teeth chewing through your metal gate on New Year’s Eve. Completely irrational responses to harmless situations.
It may not appear this way at first glance, but the physiological processes that occur in animals during these situations are almost identical to those that I described earlier in humans. This ‘emotional brain’ is highly conserved amongst mammals, who all need to be able to respond to potential danger quickly. Our logical, ‘thinking brain’ is just too plain slow to do it on its own.
In dogs, for example, you pretty much see the exact symptoms that I experienced earlier: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, redirection of blood to vital organs. The shallow breathing is evident as panting. They don’t do the kung-fu ninja dance though, you kind of need to be bipedal for that. Instead they show variations of equally ridiculously irrational behaviour- picture the cat that hides in the shoe cupboard, or the staffy who breaks his toenails while frantically scratching at the front door, or the 80kg bullmastiff who tries desperately to get onto his 50kg owner’s lap.
Be human or animal, when you are in this state there is no talking logic. If hubby told me to calm down, sit still, stop shuddering, or *gasp* stand within one metre of the aforementioned harmless spider, I’m pretty sure he would have been met with some not-so-nice words on my part.
The last thing we should expect from people experiencing panic is normal behaviour- so why do we so often expect it from our pets in what amounts to the same situations? Why do we tell Fluffy to sit still when she is pacing during a storm, or pull a hissing Ginger out from under the bed to ‘face her fears’ when visitors come over, or expect Scooby to sleep quietly in his bed during Australia Day fireworks? Why do we withhold sympathy from Max when all he wants is to be near his loved ones after every crack of thunder?
If you take one thing away from reading this post, it should be this: Panic is irrational. It’s illogical. It’s reflexive and automatic. Panic cannot be controlled by the conscious mind- the thinking brain. Not while it is highly aroused, anyway. During a panic episode, the mind physically cannot learn anything beneficial. Expecting an animal to learn anything using traditional training methods at this time is wasted effort. Even detrimental.
No amount of obedience training is going to cure your pet of its phobia.
The key to treatment is changing the underlying emotion from being negative, to being positive or neutral. This is done using behaviour modification, not obedience training
Teaching a cat to sit still while being patted by a person she is afraid of, or a dog to lie terrified but perfectly still in its bed while you vacuum 20cm away is no more a solution to a phobia than expecting me to be able to display socially acceptable etiquette at a dinner party while sharing a fork with a tarantula. (For those of you who don’t know, huntsman are a species of Australian tarantula. Probably the only animal native to the country that won’t kill you, but it certainly makes up for this lack of deadliness with its furry hugeness.)
How then, do you treat a phobia?
The key to treatment in the long-term is changing the underlying emotion from being negative, to being positive or neutral. That is, from fear or panic, to joy or indifference. It is simply not possible to do this with obedience training alone.
In the field of behavioural medicine, this type of treatment is broadly known as behaviour modification. More specifically, we use techniques like systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning. We also manage the environment so that the animal is able to make good choices about how it reacts to such scary situations, so that the behaviours aren’t allowed to be ‘practiced’ any further, and above all, so that the animal feels ‘safe’. This is especially important in the short-term, as well as during a panic episode.
Once medical causes are ruled out or treated, and neurochemical imbalances are stabilised, then – and only then – is learning able to begin.
Now before you start Googling ‘DIY Behaviour Modification 101’, do yourself and your pet a favour and see a professional. In person. I’ve seen many cases like these worsen because of good-intentioned owners and well-meaning, inexperienced trainers. By professional I mean a Veterinary Behaviourist, or a veterinarian with an interest in (and preferably further training in) Behavioural Medicine.
Why a vet and not a trainer (at least initially)? Because anxiety and phobias are medical conditions. Mental illnesses. Physical diseases of an organ- the brain.
And just like disease of any other organ, like the liver or kidney, it is illegal for anyone other than a person with a veterinary degree to diagnose and treat such conditions. Not only can a vet provide you with an accurate behavioural diagnosis to then be able to choose the appropriate treatment (or refer you to an expert who can), but they can also perform a thorough examination and perform laboratory tests to rule out concurrent medical problems causing or contributing to these problems. I frequently see mental illness improve after the medical treatment of ear infections, Addison’s disease, dementia, thyroid illness, skin disease and pain.
And then there’s those cases that need behavioural medication, which again, can’t be prescribed, recommended or discontinued by anyone other than a veterinarian. Nope, not even your dog trainer. Or your breeder, groomer, dog walker, or the nice lady at the pet shop.
Yes, I said the dirty word – ‘medication’. In many cases, it can literally be a life-saver. But that’s a whole other topic. Perhaps I’ll write my next blog post on this- stay tuned!
Once medical causes are ruled out or treated, and neurochemical imbalances are stabilised, then – and only then – is learning able to begin. Behaviour modification is slowly introduced, often with the aid of an experienced, force-free, rewards-based trainer or behaviourist. Owner, pet, vet, trainer and behaviourist working together as a team.
So next time someone tells you that your panicking pet ‘just needs to learn some rules’ or ‘needs to go to doggy school’, be sure to ask them when the last time going to university helped anyone get over their spider phobia.
Thanks for reading! - Dr Jo