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Veterinarian Technician August 2009 (Vol 30, No 8)

Inside Behavior — Diary of a Fearful Dog

by Julie K. Shaw, KPA-CTP, RVT, VTS (Behavior)

    Understanding Fear

    A fearful response may initially include defensive aggression or cowering, shaking, freezing, and dilated pupils, along with conflict behaviors, such as yawning, turning away, licking, or scratching. The tail may be low or tucked toward the ground, the ears may be rotated back from the head, and the body may be leaning backward. Depending on the learning history and degree of fear, the animal may retreat from the stimulus, freeze because it feels unable to affect the situation, or attempt to defend itself against the stimulus.3

    Fear often has a large conditioning component. Fearful reactions can be enhanced if the animal practices avoidance. The animal learns through repetition that the dangerous situation can be avoided through escape and the escape behavior is, therefore, reinforced. Behaviors learned through avoidance can be persistent because the animal does not learn that the situation it avoided was not harmful.

    The animal also may learn that threatening behavior, such as growling, snarling, snapping, or biting, can cause the frightening stimuli to "leave." The aggressive behavior is, therefore, conditioned. Over time, the animal's confidence level may increase as its aggressive behavior "works" and it becomes well accomplished at using the technique.

    Types of fear that can develop include:

    • Animate fears, such as fear of animals, humans, etc.
    • Inanimate fears, such as fear of objects, sounds, etc.
    • Situational fears, such as separation anxiety2
    • A combination of the above

    The general principles for treating fears are described in the box Training and Behavior Modification Tools for Treating Fearful Animals .

    The Diagnosis

    Jaunter was diagnosed with both fear aggression and global fear by Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD, DACVB, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University. Dr. Luescher believes that the world is a terrifying place for Jaunter, with the environment being rich in stimuli that can lead to anxiety and fear responses. Jaunter growled when people approached, although he never attempted to bite. In addition, he was in a constant and extreme state of anxiety.

    To Jaunter, danger seemingly lurks around each corner. He also suffers from specific fears and phobias, including fear of people.

    A diagnosis of fear aggression indicates that fear is the motivation for the aggression. Fear-aggressive dogs may attempt to defend themselves to varying degrees if they are unable to retreat from the frightening stimulus or stimuli.

    Global fear is a term used to describe an animal whose fear encompasses animate, inanimate, and situational fears. It is frequently impossible to determine all stimuli a globally fearful animal may react to.

    The Treatment Plan

    Jaunter's level of fear was to be rated and tracked on a scale of 1 to 10, with level 1 considered normal reactive behavior and level 10 considered frantic, "hysterical" behavior.

    There were several points that had to be considered when creating the treatment plan for Jaunter.

    First, identifying every stimulus that Jaunter was reacting to was not an option. His level of anxiety, even in a controlled environment, was rated 10. It was, therefore, impossible to avoid, reproduce, and control so many stimuli.

    Second, because Jaunter had inanimate fears, behavior modification and clicker training were not applicable in the beginning phases of treatment. Counter-conditioning also was not possible because Jaunter refused treats and exhibited a constant high level of anxiety so that little learning could occur. A head collar was required to keep him from running away and inadvertently injuring himself. Jaunter likewise did not respond well to a calming cap. He seemed to become more fearful when he was unable to see danger approaching.

    Third, flooding was an unavoidable constant occurrence. Jaunter's world was rich with stimuli that elicited terror and anxiety. When an animal is in such constant and complete distress, it is impossible for it to respond — rather, it simply reacts and is often unaware of the stimuli it is reacting to. There is little learning occurring, only a desire to "survive." Technicians can explain this experience to clients by describing that it is comparable to having a very bright light shining in your eyes (i.e., the fear) but you are unable to see around or through the light. Until the light is dimmed (i.e., fear is decreased), you are unable to see what options and choices you have.

    Because of all these concerns, drug desensitization was the primary focus of the initial treatment plan for Jaunter. The goal was to decrease his fear to a level at which conditioning could occur, and over time, specific stimuli could be isolated and behavior modification techniques applied appropriately.

    Various treatment protocols can be developed by the veterinarian and centered around tools that are common in behavior modification (see Training and Behavior Modification Tools for Treating Fearful Animals). Technicians should become familiar with the various tools that practitioners and behaviorists can implement in a behavior modification program.

    Ten months after adoption, Jaunter still requires clonazepam 2 to 3 times a day. On Dr. Luescher's recommendation, I changed to trazodone at 100 mg sid to tid, as needed. Trazodone is almost always used as an adjunct to an SSRI and can be used as needed. It much less expensive than clonazepam. It is an axiolytic but also may have a mild sedation effect.5 Jaunter's fear level remains between 2 and 4.

    Read Jaunter's diary .

    1. Crowell-Davis S. Veterinary Psychopharmacology. Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

    2. Dodman N. Fear, Anxiety and Compulsive Behavior in Dogs. London: Professional Animal Behavior Associates; London, 2004.

    3. Landsberg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L. 2003. Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dogs and Cat, ed 2. London: Elsevier; 2003:162, 231-234.

    4. Pageat P, Gaultier E. Current research in canine and fline pheromones. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 2003;33:187-211.

    5. Sherman B. Use of trazodone in veterinary behavior. 2009 ACVB/AVSAB Scientific Program.

    References »

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