Many thanks to Fiona Lovett for giving me permission to share her ISCP Diploma thesis on Employing a multi-faceted approach to treat chronic anxiety. This case study includes a great deal of research and information that will be very useful for caretakers with anxious dogs.
I am a software architect, not a psychologist. In my daily life I deal with the logical, the predictable, never the emotional. If something isn’t working the way I expect, then it is because I have made a mistake somewhere in my code. I have to look through all the files I’ve scripted, spend time debugging to find the error, rectify it and watch, as if by magic, everything falls into order. So, when my young Labrador bitch started to display signs of chronic anxiety, I instinctively looked for something that would explain this development, to find the root cause I could “fix” so that everything would slot back into place.
As it turns out, dogs aren’t computers. Who knew? Thus started my journey delving into canine emotional reprogramming. The rules of behavioural science that govern the dog’s responses to their training environments are straightforward, but the practical application can be anything but. Along the way, my technical brain has consumed as much research and methodology as it possibly could, but I have also had to learn to better read the emotional construct of the dog in front of me. This essay describes our journey from “then” to “now” and the multi-faceted approach we have used to improve her quality of life.
Ask ten behaviourists or trainers what emotions a dog can experience, and you’ll hear ten different answers. Can dogs feel happiness? Most people would answer “most definitely”. Sadness? We’re getting a little less sure now. Love? The owners in a room might leap to assert “absolutely!” whereas some scientists would argue that the reward centres (caudate nuclei) that are activated upon the dog smelling a familiar human (1) could equally be attributed to the dog associating their human with things they find pleasurable, such as food and attention. This can be explained simply, but rather less romantically, as a conditioned response to the human as a secondary reinforcer through repeated pairing with their primary reinforcers.
In truth, we can’t know for sure whether dogs have emotions that can be categorised into the same classes as human emotions, but this lack of ability to correlate them exactly with our own doesn’t mean that dogs don’t experience a vast range of emotions, nor that what they do experience is of any less importance. Consider this: without intrusive study, the same could be said of any two humans – who is to say that the way you experience anger is the same as I? In fact, it’s quite clear that we do not; we cannot. As humans, we are all so wonderfully unique that every person’s brain functions in a subtly different way, but this is of little consequence when I observe you in a state of anger. I am not observing the stimulation of the left hemisphere of your brain; detecting the reduction of cortisol or increase of testosterone in your body. No, the way I determine if you are angry in the first instance is by looking at your body. Have your muscles tensed? Are you becoming flushed? Are your eyes hardening and your respiration rate rising? All these micro-behaviours give me the clues to your emotional state. Whether or not you are feeling it in the same way I do is of no import; I can still label that state as “anger” and that helps me to predict the more pronounced behaviours that might follow.
This is also how it is with dogs; when talking about what constitutes a happy dog, we use phrases such as “soft eyes”, “loose body”, “wagging tail”, each of which is simply a physical manifestation of something that we label “happy”. Seeing an unfamiliar dog with these attributes, we would be able to make a rough estimation of what behaviours might potentially occur next; giving you a lick, leaning against you for an ear scratch, putting paws up on you, bringing you a toy. For a familiar dog, we might be able to be more precise in predicting the subsequent behaviours.
The same analysis can be used for negative emotions. If I see a dog who is rigid, trembling, tail tucked between her legs, head down, ears back, licking her lips and trying to make herself as small as possible, how could I not describe that as “fear”? Anyone, with or without experience of dogs, would instinctively label it as such. This is because, despite our somewhat different body shapes, dogs and humans have many similarities in the way we hold ourselves and shape our faces to reflect our feelings. Flinching away, shrinking or expanding our bodies, widening or narrowing our eyes, tilting or turning our head, relaxing or clenching our mouth. All micro-behaviours that we attribute to recognisable labelled emotions without a second thought. Does it matter that my dog may not be experiencing fear in the exact way that I do when I am exposed to a scary stimulus? Of course it doesn’t. All that matters is that my dog is clearly exhibiting behaviours indicating she is suffering from emotional distress and it is my job as her care-giver to ameliorate that situation.
Willow wasn’t a puppy I put a lot of time into researching. In fact, I had never intended to have a dog at all at this point in my life. Yet, when I chanced by happy coincidence to be present at her birth, and even helped to bring this litter of Labrador puppies safely into the world, the ball was set rolling that would eventually lead to me sitting here at my computer, composing this essay.
She was born from strong working lines, from a father with solid temperament, and a mother who had been poorly treated in a former home, but who is now doted on and works well under gunshot despite being scared of thunderstorms – and mice! Living in a very remote area for the first eight weeks of her life, being brought up in an outbuilding away from the family home, Willow didn’t have the most enriching of starts to life but was able to run freely for much of the day with her seven litter mates, watching the chickens in their pen and breaking into the vegetable garden on a regular basis. I visited them several times over these first few weeks of life, and always left with the impression that she was a robust puppy, full of optimism and joie de vivre. That continued once she came home; I enjoyed watching my puppy happily meeting people and other dogs, confident in every situation until – with little warning – she wasn’t. At around six months of age, she started to demonstrate behaviours that confused and worried me; she would bark at strangers, or people in strange situations. She was particularly reactive towards children and would snarl and lunge towards them. Anything new in her environment would worry her. I researched best I could and started a programme of desensitisation to help her overcome these issues, but as time went on she continued to develop novel fears. Where she was once unfazed by the sound of avalanche blasting or gunshot, now she would flinch. Over time, this flinching turned to cowering, reluctance to walk past the particular spots she had been when she heard these noises, and by the time she was two and a half years of age it had culminated in a refusal to leave a corner of the kitchen for days on end. Her quality of life was in tatters and I had to find something that would help her.
What is anxiety?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (2). It is a perfectly normal emotional reaction to potentially harmful situations and can be life-saving. We, along with our dogs, are very good at picking up tiny nuances in body language and environment that can warn us of a threat, even if we’re not entirely sure why we feel uneasy. In The Education of Will, author Patricia McConnell references Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear where he discusses these tiny clues:
… although those clues may be objective and factual, we may not be consciously aware of them. De Becker tells the story of a man who walked into a convenience store and immediately left without buying anything because of an overwhelming sense of dread. The next person to enter was shot and killed. While being interviewed after the crime, the survivor said that he had no idea why he had left the store. But as he talked it out, he realized that he had actually noticed a group of signals that were full of information: Except for one brief, nervous glance, the clerk didn’t greet him as usual; instead, he kept his gaze locked on another customer who was wearing a heavy jacket on a hot day. A car sat outside with the engine running. (3)
Although the man hadn’t consciously noted these facts at the time, he had registered them in his subconscious, which gave him the sense of foreboding that eventually likely saved his life. In situations like this, anxiety is a hugely valuable emotion and shouldn’t always be considered problematic.
However, in those circumstances where anxiety grows beyond any justifiable environmental conditions and becomes uncontrollable, it should be considered pathological and an “anxiety disorder”. Dogs with anxiety disorders may demonstrate a range of behaviours in response to a trigger stimulus both immediately after its occurrence and in the aftermath, which may include: trembling, freezing, attacking, whining, barking, fleeing, self-harming, compulsive repetitive behaviours such as pacing, destructive behaviours such as chewing or scratching at household objects. In all cases, the dog is unlikely to be in a position to respond normally to his handler’s cues.
Anxiety blocks the learning mechanisms, incapacitating the animal to respond efficiently and making it even more susceptible to anxiety, generating a vicious circle. (4)
We can imagine the nervous system as being a set of scales, with behaviours we perform to thrive (eating, breeding, resting) on one side, and the behaviours we perform to survive (fight, flight, freeze, fool around, faint) on the other (5). As one side of this set of scales is activated (lowered), the other side is lifted. That is, the more threatened you feel, the heavier the “survive” side will become and the lighter the “thrive” side. This makes sense; if you are just a little anxious in your daily life, the scales will be slight out of balance and you may still be able to eat or perform the behaviours that predict those “thrive” rewards, albeit somewhat distractedly, but if you are truly scared, you certainly won’t be interested in even the most tempting piece of food, most attractive potential partner or the opportunity to kick back with a beer.
Whilst normal anxiety is considered necessary for any animal’s survival, it is clear that anxiety disorders are life limiting and a real welfare issue. Not only does extreme anxiety have a huge impact on a dog’s quality of life in the moment they are suffering, it also restricts the activities and outings an owner can plan and therefore the enrichment options available to the dog. If the owner struggles to cope with the reality of the disorder and its behavioural impact, then there is also the possibility of the dog being surrendered to a shelter or even euthanised.
With this in mind, is there anything that can be done to curb the likelihood of any given puppy developing anxiety disorders in later life?
Early socialisation, habituation and sensitisation
Most people have heard of socialisation in respect to puppies, but they can be somewhat confused about what this actually means. How does it differ from habituation, and what are the dangers of unintentional sensitisation when related to these processes?
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines socialisation as “the process whereby an individual learns to adjust to a group (or society) and behave in a manner approved by the group (or society)”. (6) and habituation as “the waning of an animal’s behavioral response to a stimulus, as a result of a lack of reinforcement during continual exposure to the stimulus.“ (7)
This means that when we are talking about introducing a puppy to members of a social group, be that other dogs, humans or any other animals, we are socialising them. When we are introducing the puppy to common sights, sounds and experiences, we are habituating them. Both are important concepts and should be included in an education plan for a puppy to become a well-rounded individual that is able to deal with everything they will encounter in day to day life, as well as novel situations, but it’s vital that the handler takes note of the responses of the dog they have in front of them throughout the process. Blindly putting a puppy into situations that over-face them can easily have the opposite effect to that desired and, rather than ending up with a calm and confident dog, the dog can in fact become sensitised to these stimuli, meaning they start demonstrating fearful or aggressive behaviours towards them. This is particularly important, it seems, during developmental fear periods.
Behavioural consultant Sarah Stremming hypothesises that dogs who are continually exposed to trigger stimuli throughout a fear period will remain sensitised to it (8). This is corroborated by experimental studies using Pavlovian conditioning which show that learning a fear requires only a few repetitions of an aversive unconditioned stimulus being paired with the previously neutral cue to result in the subject having learned fear memories which are persistent. (9) Whilst these learned fears can be inhibited through new learning, it appears that the original fearful association of the stimulus is never unlearned; the subject rather creates a new positive association which competes with the existing negative one. However, if there is no continuation of the positive pairing with the stimulus, the new learned response will diminish, and the original fear response will re-emerge.
Studies in rodents have demonstrated a nonlinear progression of cued fear extinction and contextual fear expression (10) (11) that suggests that, during these developmental stages, the animal will become exploratory, but remain cautious. In terms of our dogs, this makes absolute sense; as the puppy transitions towards adulthood, they need to become more independent, and concurrently have to start making decisions on what constitutes a potential threat to their safety. Combined, these two traits will increase the chances of survival but, where the animal is forced into a situation where he is repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus which he finds aversive (including having a fear response exacerbated by this critical development period), that will create a fear memory that will be persistent. Stremming suggests that, if we were to recognise a fear response that was caused by this developmental period, we could take action to ensure that the dog was not repeatedly exposed to that stimulus until the fear period had subsided, and a normal neutral response would be established. Her suggestion is that, if the puppy suddenly starts reacting negatively to a stimulus that was previously neutral (for example, barking at a certain family member, being fearful of other dogs and so on), then that response is likely due to the fear period, so avoidance would be beneficial. This is in contrast to a response caused by some sort of trauma, in which case a programme of desensitisation and counterconditioning would be appropriate. We can envisage how, during one of these developmental fear periods, it would be incredibly easy to accidentally sensitise our dogs to a stimulus when we are trying to do the exact opposite.
Had I known about this research when Willow was a puppy, I would certainly have approached her socialisation and habituation in a different manner. To an inexperienced handler, she appeared to be a normal, confident Labrador puppy when still an infant, but as she approached adolescence, she suddenly became fearful of unusual noises, strangers and particularly children. In hindsight, I can recall several experiences that could well have created persistent fear responses, but I was too unfamiliar with canine behaviour to identify them as such at the time. As the behavioural issues developed, I entered into a very thorough programme of desensitisation and classical counterconditioning to try to reduce her reactions and to help her overcome what I considered to be inexplicable fears. In the light of this research, I may well have done better to avoid situations where she encountered these stimuli at all until she had passed out of the developmental period. Of course, with no way of comparing the two outcomes for a single dog, it is impossible at this stage to know what the implications of this would have been to Willow and how much difference it would have made to her. There is also the question: if her upbringing had been completely uneventful, would she have been a typically robust Labrador, or is her breeding a factor in fearfulness?
Identification of genes responsible for behaviours is problematic as they are remarkably complex, involving both environmental and multiple genetic factors. Genes simply define the proteins that are made in the body; it is the interactions between the environment and these proteins that culminate in a disorder, meaning that behaviours must be analysed in the environment within which they are occurring. That is not to downplay the importance of genes in anxiety disorders. In humans, it has been shown that polymorphisms in the serotonin transporter gene can lead to increased startle responses to conditioned fear triggers, and a polymorphism in one of the dopamine-degrading enzymes can lead to an inability to extinguish conditioned fear. (12) In short, individuals who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are quick to learn to fear a trigger, and struggle to overcome it. According to the same study, “approximately one third of the variance in human fear conditioning and the risk to develop anxiety disorders can be attributed to genetic factors”.
Within closed populations such as the breed registers of pedigree dogs, personality and physical traits have been selected for many generations. Breeders will choose the ideal mate for their dog to result in the puppies most suited to the tasks for which they are being bred. This is why the offspring of Champion dogs are sold for a premium; there is a higher chance that the physical and temperamental characteristics of the parents will be passed down to the puppies. However, when choosing for a small subset of criteria, it is very easy to overlook other aspects that might mean the resultant puppies would not be as well-rounded temperamentally as they could. In the world of field trialling Labradors, successful dogs will naturally have high drive, be highly focussed and be able to react quickly to changing stimuli in their environment. It is that “good” reactivity and energy that can easily exhibit as neuroticism. Is it any wonder that dogs bred for their alertness can sometimes become hyper-alert? When I look at Willow, bred from strong trialling lines, this is what I see. I also own her brother, who is interesting used as a comparison. Shadow is constantly “on”, can have issues with fear aggression towards other dogs, and alert barks. When given a job to do, he is a controlled bundle of nervous energy, like a coiled spring. This energy makes him incredibly fast, driven, and easy to train. His sensitivity is focussed into activity, compared to Willow’s, which translates into fear. Two dogs from the same litter who exhibit their neuroses in different ways, one which would be considered highly constructive from a working perspective, and the other completely unproductive. Breeding is always a bit of a lottery as to what will be produced, but when choosing my latest puppy, and with the history I already had with managing Willow’s fearfulness, I made sure the odds were wholly stacked in my favour by choosing a litter from lines with definitively proven solid temperament. Genetics aren’t everything, but they can certainly provide for a very solid, or very weak, foundation.
The mechanism by which an animal’s nerve cells can change due to new experiences is called plasticity. The plasticity of the brain varies throughout an animal’s developmental stages and is seen to increase during the “critical period” of sensitivity and then rapidly decrease on the closure of that critical period, meaning that the responses learned during that period are no longer reversible. It was previously thought that there was no way to reinstate the plasticity of a brain once this closure had occurred, but there is now research that concludes this is not the case. This is of great relevance to animals that have been conditioned to be fearful as, if we are able to renew the fear-related plasticity of the brain, then we are able to affect the ability to extinguish the previously learned fear responses.
It has been shown that in mice, long-term administration of fluoxetine (an SSRI – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), alongside extinction training, appears to have the effect of erasing fear responses rather than simply applying the band-aid of a competing positive association that we would normally see once a fear response has been created.
Fluoxetine-induced plasticity may allow fear erasure by extinction-guided remodeling of the memory circuitry. Thus, the pharmacological effects of antidepressants need to be combined with psychological rehabilitation to reorganize networks rendered more plastic by the drug treatment. (13)
The thing to note here is that in this study, the application of the fluoxetine alone did not have any long-term benefit, and neither did the extinction therapy. In both cases, the subjects experienced a reinstatement of their fear responses after the drug or psychological therapy was discontinued. But when combined, the fear response in the subjects was significantly reduced.
This is important, as many people will be advised to use drug therapy to counter the effects of fear but are not properly counselled on the use of extinction therapy alongside. Additionally, many owners experience great reluctance to enter into a course of medication for their animals, and these studies clearly show that it is unlikely that there will be a permanent extinction of learned fear responses without the use of these drugs.
Willow was prescribed fluoxetine by her vet when we mentioned to him about her crippling fears. At this stage of her life, she was so sensitive to certain noises that even if she was inside the home and heard the snow plough going past, something that was barely audible to me, she would start shaking, becoming rigid and unresponsive. In the aftermath of one of these events, it would take several days before she was prepared to leave her “safe spot” in the kitchen again. Her quality of life was being severely impacted and as a result, so was mine. Her being stressed made me upset and anxious. I didn’t know if there was any hope for her future and, at my lowest and with her continual and rapid decline, thought that there may come a point where we would have to consider the kindness of letting her continue to live a life of such fearfulness.
The fluoxetine took several weeks to start taking effect, but when it did, the changes were quite noticeable. There was no immediate improvement in her fearful responses to her triggers, but she became far more gutsy in other ways. She would compete with the other dogs to chase a ball; she would be prepared to run down a steep bank or jump a fence that she would have previously dismissed as an insurmountable obstacle. This behaviour change reflected the changes observed during the critical developmental period, where the animal becomes more exploratory. That alone was not enough, however. She would still exhibit the same fear responses to her triggers, and still took a considerable amount of time to recover after a scare. What it did allow for, was an introduction of stimuli at a very low level so we were able to start on the process of desensitisation and counter-conditioning which had been impossible prior to medication, as she would shut down at levels of her triggers that were so quiet as to be unworkable for training purposes.
Desensitisation, counterconditioning and concept training
Desensitisation is the process whereby the learned emotional reaction to a stimulus is diminished with repeated exposure to it at low intensity. Counterconditioning is changing the subject’s emotional response to the stimulus, usually from something unpleasant to something pleasant. By combining these two approaches (often shortened to DSCC), it is possible to change a dog’s emotional response from one of fear to one of indifference or even happiness.
With Willow, I found it impossible to apply these principles before she was medicated, but once the fluoxetine had started to take effect, I was able to start work on one of her big triggers that I had some control over; the sound of gunshot. Hunting is restricted by date so when we arrived in Spain in the spring, I knew I had a few months where we wouldn’t have to deal with unexpected shots. I started with a child’s cap gun at a great distance and made it a predictor of her favourite thing: chasing a ball. We worked through the levels of this to bring it closer, and also introduced party poppers at a greater distance, always letting her be aware that the noise was going to occur so she could be prepared for it, as the startle response was a big contributing factor to her fear. We kept sessions short, to a few repetitions every other day, to enable her cortisol levels to return to normal between sessions. I also took care to assess her emotional state; as a very sensitive dog, she can find relatively banal events stressful enough to accumulate in what is known as “trigger stacking”, which leads to a situation of the last straw breaking the proverbial camel’s back. We had to be careful during these sessions; as much as she loves her ball, if she was scared, she wouldn’t run for it, so it really was a case of keeping her well under her fear threshold in order for it to be effective as counter conditioning. Behavioural consultant Hannah Brannigan talks about this in her article “Classical Conditioning is a One-Way Street”:
In all cases, the real solution is to find a way to break down the event or stimulus that is setting off the bad feelings, and find a version of it that is neutral. Find that spot. Get ahead of when the worry actually starts. And then pair that pre-worry moment with something really good. (14)
By meeting this challenge of staying in the “pre-worry” zone, Willow was able to change her feelings towards expected noises quite rapidly, and we progressed through to using a Ball Boy (tennis ball attachment attached to a dummy launcher) and then on to the dummy launcher itself; this a piece of equipment used in gundog training, which fires a blank .22 calibre shell to project a training dummy up to 100m from the operator. It is incredibly loud when fired but, through the process of carefully conditioning her to other lesser stimuli first, Willow is now able to sit not just happily, but with great anticipation for her retrieve, with the launcher being fired just a few feet away.
Unfortunately, this isn’t where her story ends, as she still had the issues of unexpected gunshot and all her other triggers – to name a few: avalanche blasting, snow ploughs, thunder, strong wind, birds swooping. The approach of desensitisation and counterconditioning is very powerful for stimuli that we can control, but for those we can’t, we can be left struggling to find solutions. That’s where the idea of building confidence though concept training comes into play.
The words “confidence”, “optimism” and “resilience” are often used interchangeably, but they have subtly different definitions. Confidence is the ability to look at things in a positive manner, understanding that it is in your control to effect changes necessary to achieve a positive outcome. Optimism is similar, in that you believe there will be a positive outcome, but the factors that govern this outcome are outside of your control. Resilience is the ability to bounce back to equilibrium after a stressful experience. Whilst there is some discussion about the concept of “learned optimism” in humans, this field is still under dispute and hasn’t been investigated yet in dogs. It is believed that some dogs are inherently more optimistic than others (15) but little research has gone into whether it is possible to change this trait in non-human animals. If we consider confidence, it is clear that this is something that can be affected by learning. If you were given a task but you lacked the skills to perform it, you would not be confident of achieving a positive outcome; however, once those skills had been learned, you could be far more confident of success when given the same task. By the same token, teaching a dog some management skills for when novel events occur can lead to her becoming more confident in her ability to deal with them and, as a consequence, find herself less stressed by the situation. Because we are not necessarily dealing with specific stimulus in this sort of training, it is often referred to as “concept training”; that is, teaching the dog how to problem-solve in a more generalised manner rather than requiring specific cues to tell them how to behave. The concepts we used are too numerous to list here, so I will just detail a couple that worked very well for Willow.
- Often, after recovering from her periods of intense fear, she would seem keen to go outside, but fearful of going through the hallway, stairs or garage necessary to get there. A pressure on – pressure off game, where she approached the thing she was nervous of, but then moved away from it, helped enormously with this. I would start the game by tossing a treat away from the zone she was nervous of and, when she had eaten it and turned back, I tossed one closer to the target zone. By keeping this at a distance she was in her “pre-worry” state, giving her this movement pattern and not incrementally increasing the pressure on her, she was able to break through the invisible barriers with far less stress than any other method I had tried. We played this game wherever she appeared nervous of something.
- “Front feet on” is a game that I shaped with Willow one day when she didn’t want to go out, just as a trick to build her confidence. It is very straightforward; I point to an object, give her a “hup” cue, she puts her front feet on it and stays there until released. Once we started taking the game out and about, I realised how powerful it was as a concept. She absolutely adores the game in itself but does find it difficult at first to perform the behaviour against new objects or surfaces. But by re-training her in these scenarios, she learns that what she thought was scary is actually safe, and she will start performing with more and more enthusiasm, especially when shaping is used instead of luring. This breaks through small barriers where she lacks confidence and ends up with her being more prepared to try against a wider variety of objects and surfaces, because she has had the reinforcement of facing small fears and succeeding. Continuing on with the game, I realised that it was a powerful position when she was standing up against something tall. Willow has a self-soothing behaviour of suddenly jumping up a single time towards my face when she’s stressed, in a frantic, not aggressive manner. Looking at the front feet up behaviour, I thought that it might help to achieve the same results in a more appropriate manner. Outside of the arousing environment, I taught her a “get up” cue, which means to stand up with her front feet against me and her back feet very still. From this position, she can look into my eyes, which she finds soothing, and I am able to stroke her body and neck to calm her. It has been shown that “power poses”, where the subject expands their body in their space, can elevate testosterone, decrease cortisol and give increased feelings of power in humans(16) and I believe the same effect happens with Willow when asked to perform the behaviour. Out of the wide variety of behaviours she can perform equally well on cue in different levels of eustress, she is far more likely to successfully perform the “get up” on cue even when experiencing low levels of distress.
- I have used noise boxes during periods of low arousal to teach her that sometimes she is in control of noise production. Initially, this involved scattering treats in a box with a few pieces of crumpled paper for her to root around in, progressed to items with more noise and, eventually, on to complex constructions of far larger cardboard boxes, plastic pots and other safe objects that move when pushed. This builds tenacity and problem-solving ability whilst the variable surfaces and noises that are made as she works her way through the puzzle help desensitise her to noises and unexpected movements as she learns that she is responsible for them by choosing to interact. Similarly, I feed her from a metal bowl on a stone surface to incorporate as many ways as I can for her to make unusual noises herself in a controlled, safe and rewarding environment.
Another concept that made a huge positive difference was reinforcing her ability to choose. This was a real turning point for me in my relationship with her. Once I realised it was causing her stress to try to coerce her into situations she was scared of, I spent a while not asking her to go into those situations at all. Whilst I believe that was an important period to help her regain trust that I wasn’t going to try to make her do something she was scared of, this avoidance wasn’t helping her build confidence. I started to slowly reintroduce those difficult situations but teaching her that she had the option to say “no” and, even more importantly, reinforcing her for doing so. As an example, if we were in the hallway playing the pressure game, sometimes she would disengage and head back to the safety. Originally, I would have tried to entice her back in order to “finish on a high”. Once I realised that there was no “high” once she had reached the point of disengagement, I decided to start reinforcing her for making the right choice for herself in that moment. So, I would happily say “OK, let’s go home” and let her lead the way back, giving her treats as we went. It seems counter-intuitive but some animal behaviourists such as Dr Susan Friedman and Ken Ramirez believe that control is a primary reinforcer which means that giving the dog the control to end a training session when they choose is a powerful way of reinforcing the less likely behaviour – engaging in the training session – making it more likely in the future. Whether it is truly a primary, or in fact a secondary, reinforcer, the increased propensity for engagement is certainly my experience. By this note, the reinforcement of the treat isn’t wholly necessary, as the control itself is reinforcing, but the handler must be careful to ensure that the disengagement from the game isn’t inadvertently punished by the removal of interaction.
Epigenome and diet
For breeders and owners around the world, it is clear that genetics have a big role in the temperament of our dogs but there is still more to the picture. The expression of these inherited genes can be manipulated by the epigenome, which is influenced by lifestyle and environment. This means that, as much as our genes are fixed for life, those genes can be turned on or off by the things we choose to do to our minds and bodies, and that can have a profound impact on the way our genes are expressed, for better or for worse. It is even possible that these changes in the expression of the genome can themselves be heritable (17). Epigenetics is a science still in its infancy, so it will be interesting to see how the field develops, but if we revisit the proposed figure that a third of the people who suffer from anxiety disorders do so because of inherited genes (12), then it would suggest that the remaining two thirds have developed the disorder in some manner due to their environment.
To address Willow’s anxiety issues, I obviously couldn’t alter her genes, but maybe I could alter her epigenome enough to influence her gene expression. We know that the epigenome can be modified by diet and pollutants and that these alterations can cause a multitude of issues caused by abnormal gene activity, including cancers and metabolic and degenerative disorders (18). In our everyday life, we are luckily exposed to very little pollution, but it certainly made perfect sense to examine her diet. Was the kibble I was feeding, a good brand I had researched for balanced nutrition, negatively influencing her epigenome and contributing to her anxiety?
Human literature reveals epigenetic associations with anxiety behaviours and disorders (19) but evidence is, for now, sparse as to whether diet can have a direct enough impact on the epigenome to cause anxiety disorders. However, well-respected canine behaviour consultants such as Sarah Stremming say that the anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore; in her experience, dogs that suffer from chronic anxiety can experience significant improvements simply by switching to a more wholesome diet. There has been increasing interest in researching the “gut-brain axis” which reveals that there is bidirectional communication between a body’s central nervous system and their gut and, specifically, that poor gut health has been linked with severe mental illness including anxiety (20). This means that, not only does a poor mental state affect our digestion (it is widely recognised that stress can lead to digestive difficulties), but that this may also work the other way around; having poor gut health can lead to reduced mental health.
Nutrigenomics studies the interaction between nutrition and the expression of the genome. The possibilities for this branch of science are very exciting as they may eventually allow us to make precise positive changes to the epigenome based on an individual’s needs, and to use tailored dietary supplementation to improve the physical and mental health of a subject. As noted, this is a science still in its early years. However, the indications are that following what would be normal recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, including consuming a balanced diet based around fresh foods, promotes good gut health and healthy gene expression. Conversely, being exposed to pollutants can have a detrimental effect on the way the epigenome influences the activity of the genes.
By feeding your dog nutritional ingredients that send desirable signals to his epigenome and promote healthy gene expression, you can manage environmental influences to help him live a life of optimum health (21)
I recently switched Willow to a fresh food diet after researching nutrigenomics. Without any strong scientific evidence at this stage to indicate that there would be a noticeable change based on doing so, I still felt that it was a worthwhile exercise. If I was able to feed her a balanced diet from home-prepared ingredients, as I was confident I could, then the biggest detrimental factors would be potential cost and the time taken to prepare the food in comparison to delivering kibble from a packet. The cost difference, as it turned out, is negligible and I am more than happy to spend fifteen minutes every few days cooking up a batch of food that is then stored in the fridge and dispensed at meal times. Whether or not it has made any difference is hard to tell, as it has been included as a single aspect of a multi-faceted approach, but it is worth noting that within a week of switching her diet to fresh food, she had the most significant experience with her triggers that I had seen to date. During our first walk of the day, there were five avalanche blasts triggered over the course of thirty minutes. Any single one of these would have previously seen her freezing with fear, unable to move until, when she was finally able, she would turn for home. On this particular day, however, she happily continued with the off-leash walk, despite being given the opportunity at every occurrence to return home. My behaviour log for her that day concludes with the words “This. Is. Huge.”.
Since I introduced the fresh diet only three months ago, there has been a marked and undeniable improvement in her anxiety. I am reluctant to attribute this all to her diet, as I have been continuing with other confidence-building concepts in the meantime, but I certainly can’t discount it as a major contributing factor and believe that it has had a positive impact.
In order to ensure that I was giving Willow the very best chance, I investigated a variety of holistic therapies that could be used in conjunction with the other approaches I was implementing. By nature, I am rather cynical when it comes to anything dubbed “holistic” as there are so many snake-oil salesmen out there, it lacks evidence and is largely unregulated, but when you experience the heartache of seeing an animal you love in such distress, you feel the need to investigate every avenue, even if you don’t truly believe it will be of any help.
Keeping that in mind, I investigated several options that I deemed would, at worst, do no harm. This started with the use of an Adaptil (DAP) diffuser and tablets. The scientific studies I came across found no evidence of improvement when using these products (22) (23) yet there was enough anecdotal evidence in my dog-related peer groups that I thought they were worth trying. After several months of use, I concluded that there was no discernible improvement in Willow’s fearfulness and therefore terminated treatment.
My second trial was with skullcap and valerian tablets and drops. Studies have shown some anxiolytic and sedative effects of these two herbs in human and non-human animals (24) but, at the recommended dosage, there was no perceivable effect on Willow during times of fearfulness.
Not surprised, but somewhat reluctant to continue down the herbal route, my final trial was with a diffuser of lavender essential oil. Because of the difficulties in creating a double-blind study using scents, the scientific evidence on the use of essential oils in aromatherapy is often of limited use. A systematic review of randomised clinical trials has been performed and suggests that oral lavender supplements may have some therapeutic effects (25). Using a pure essential oil in an ultrasonic diffuser at high enough concentration to disperse a noticeable scent throughout the room over several weeks, this therapy coincided with Willow’s greatest improvements in fearfulness. However, as it was also at a far later stage in our training process, and also coincided with her change of diet, I cannot attribute it with any confidence to the therapeutic effects of the lavender, especially when stopping use did not coincide with any down-turn in her emotional response.
Despite the slight disappointment of not finding a panacea in my trials of herbal remedies, I continued to explore other techniques to provide Willow with comfort during episodes of extreme fearfulness, such as thunderstorms. Giving her a safe space is important – this is best either a dark corner of a room or, if that isn’t available, I will fashion a den with blankets and towels. Reducing her auditory and visual exposure to the triggers has a noticeable effect in calming her, as does using long, firm strokes on her body. I keep as mute as possible, having previously accidentally sensitised her to a soothing tone of voice. More recently I have discovered that certain music has a dramatic impact in relaxing her; classical music with a lilting flow, avoiding staccato or deep bass tones. The right piece of music will have her closing her eyes and laying her head down in a remarkably short period of time after the stimulus has passed.
Finally, I have started to think differently about how best to encourage her to “snap out” of her depressed state once the trigger has passed. She is certainly recovering far more quickly than she ever has, as her resilience appears to be building, but it is interesting to investigate whether there is anything I can do to help expedite the process. Common advice is to provide a calm environment to allow the dog to reach equilibrium, but with Willow, I’m not convinced that is optimum. Experts advise that a reduction of arousal levels is key, in order to reduce the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the brain. Whilst this might make sense, as the physiological responses to eustress and distress are similar, I have considered how she is able to quickly return to normal levels of arousal after a highly exciting experience. On a couple of occasions, the opportunity to experiment with this has presented. I certainly wouldn’t be able to bring her to a heightened state of positive arousal during the peak of her fears (thinking back to that set of thrive/survive scales), but once I know the stimulus has passed and she has had some time to relax, I have instigated a scenario which has taken her to a very excitable state. A bottle of fizzy wine is perfect for this; when she sees it being taken from the fridge, she runs out of the door and down the steps to the garden, hopping around and barking excitedly at me to hurry up and pop it so she can chase the cork – something she previously found terrifying, but our DSCC framework overcame with remarkable results. As soon as I do this, she is off, competing with her brother to win the prize. As quickly as it starts, the display of arousal is over, as the cork has been won by one or the other. It appears to me that having this clear demarcation is invaluable at resetting her emotional state from one of stress (be that eustress or distress) to one of balance. She has learned the mechanisms by which to regulate herself after a highly exciting event, so using that scenario when she is trapped in a depressive state with no such clear demarcation gives her the tools necessary to gain control over her emotional state once more. This is an idea still in its infancy, but one I would like to see pursued further.
Using a multi-faceted approach for Willow’s treatment plan has allowed us to take great strides in relieving her chronic anxiety. In no small part, this is because it has made it easier for me to cope with, as her handler and owner. When I was working within the confines of a conventional DSCC approach, I would find myself feeling helpless, frustrated and saddened whenever her anxiety was triggered. Progress seemed painstakingly slow. In fact, before the medication, it was all but impossible; her anxiety was progressing rather than lessening, as veterinarians report to often be the case in noise phobias. By introducing the concept training, I felt empowered to give her ways of feeling stronger and more confident outside of the confines of DSCC. Even if she was choosing not to go outside, I could work on her putting her feet up against me or scatter some food in a noise box. Using shaping to develop new skills that had no direct relation to anything stressful increased her confidence in working through puzzles. I saw how, as this confidence developed, so did her tenacity; where once she would wait for a frozen stuffed Kong to defrost before eating it, when she’s feeling more confident, she will now attack it straight away. She is less likely to use growling to resource guard a food item from one of my other dogs when she is feeling relaxed. Moreover, using concept training meant that we could have a lot more fun together rather than being so focussed on having to “solve” her anxiety problems. By using play to improve her emotional state, it also improved mine, and enhanced our already strong relationship beyond anything I could have expected.
We’re not at the end of our journey by any means. Just this morning, there was a storm which left her unsettled, tense, licking her lips and seeking comfort, but her reaction to these events is more akin to what the owner of most other dogs would dismiss as normal behaviour. I’m not going to rest on those laurels as that’s not good enough for me – I will do anything I can to reduce her fears to the lowest possible level.
There are days when she still chooses not to go out on walks. I no longer find these worrying, as I understand the value in allowing her to have quiet time to regroup, especially after she has coped with an highly stressful event. Her ability to deal with these experiences in the moment has increased tremendously but it can still take time to recover in the aftermath, albeit that time is reducing. I equate it to a person who has never run before but who decides to start training for a marathon. They put in hours of training, building up in small achievable steps. In the early days, even very short distances wear them down. But as they keep training, they are able to manage more and more until they get to race day and are able to cover the whole distance. But just because they’ve made it to the fittest they’ve ever been, and they’ve run that marathon, it doesn’t mean that they are able to run another the very next day. They need time to recover, both physically and mentally. They will start running again after a little while, but it will be short distances to start with. There will be another marathon in their future and, who knows, maybe one day they will even be able to compete in an ultra-marathon. But, for now, they need to rest.
Just as that runner finds that as they continue to train they need less recovery time for the shorter runs, so Willow also now needs less recovery time after stressful episodes. Where a seemingly small event would previously leave her in a fearful state for several days, she can now recover to a functional state within hours or less. Her resilience is building as she learns that scary things might happen sometimes and it’s OK to be afraid; she will always come through the other side.
My journey with Willow to date has been quite remarkable. I have learnt so much from her and she truly is my once-in-a-lifetime dog. From living with such a troubled soul, from agonising alongside her when she’s been shaking in terror on the kitchen floor, I have been directed ever forwards by a deep desire to make her journey easier. To lift the dark curtains that fall over her mind and help her see the joy in the world. For when she sees that joy, it infects me, too. As a new dog owner, I have made more than my fair share of mistakes along the way, and I have experienced feelings of helplessness and intense sorrow. When I take a moment to look back and see how far we have come, though; to see her bouncing around in excitement waiting to chase a Champagne cork, where once she would cringe away in terror at the sound; I can be proud of where we are. That she set me on the path to become a canine behaviourist in my own right gives us an even more special bond – we are both enriching each other’s lives with every step we take together.
Sometimes it continues to be hard; sometimes we have to take one day, hour or even minute at a time. Working within the constraints of her genetics means that I can only use training and emotional reprogramming up to a certain point; as Dr Patricia McConnell discusses, the animal’s genetics create boundaries within a limit of, say 1-10. If genetics dictate that the dog’s window is from 3 to 7 and we start work when they are a 3, we can only get them as far as 7, and will never be able to make it a 10 (26). I know that Willow will never be completely “fixed”, but I have learnt to both accept and embrace that. I am no longer looking to debug her, to find that error to correct, as if she were a computer with some bad programming. She is what she is, a complicated, beautiful soul with troubles that I will spend the rest of our time together trying to make easier for her in whatever way I can.
A dancer who concentrates on technicalities
may forget to hear the music. (27)
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