First of all, what is fear? Fear is an emotion in response to the perception of a threat. Since the correct and timely response to a threat can mean the difference between life and death, it is more beneficial to react now and think later, so to speak. Just think of when you’re startled by a loud noise; you’ve reacted (by jumping, gasping or squealing, as well as the vegetative processes such as the increase of heart and respiratory rate, perspiration and the release of adrenaline) before you are even consciously aware of it.
This evolutionary response is initiated by the amygdala, two almond shaped organs, pertaining to the limbic system. The limbic system is a primordial system of organs
responsible for emotions, memory and many involuntary responses. In states of intense fear, the emotional reaction completely bypasses the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in decision making and inhibition of emotional responses.
This means that a startled animal (human or otherwise) is not in control of its reaction to intense fear, and that said reaction is no more a decision than the release of adrenaline is.
Once habituation sets in, through repeated exposure to the stimulus without negative consequences, the emotional response will be quelled by the decision making and inhibitory regions of the brain. This can be seen in our city dogs: they sleep through noises that would send most feral or rural dogs into a panic. They’ve heard the cacophony of cars, construction work and the like so many times, their brains have decided it’s more advantageous to not react rather than to initiate a reaction to fear (the latter being a very taxing process).
Although the process is the same, the time it takes to habituate an animal and the number of exposures are greatly dependent on many factors, such as: the individual (age, sex, genetics…), the time between exposures, intensity of fear, intensity of stimulus, etc…
Since so many involuntary processes can be conditioned through classical conditioning, it would only seem logical that petting a fearful dog when she exhibits fear would exacerbate the problem. To that effect, many trainers adamantly oppose reassuring a fearful dog, say, during a thunderstorm, “because you will teach her to be fearful”. Luckily, emotions do not work that way! As noted above, emotional responses (fear, anger…) are very taxing on an organism. They cause high levels of stress, made to last relatively brief periods of time, enough to get the animal out of the unfavorable situation it has found itself in (known as the fight or flight response). Thanks to their very nature, emotional responses are reinforced primarily by the realization of the negative consequence or outcome expected from the stimulus.
A dog-fearful dog will not fear dogs any less if every time he is attacked, his owner throws him a steak. Would you all of a sudden look forward to being repeatedly punched in the face if every time it happened, you got a piece of cake? The centers of the brain responsible for emotional responses (such as fear) are no different in humans than they are in dogs, or most other vertebrates for that matter, so the comparison is a legitimate one.
Only if he constantly has positive experiences around dogs, will he be conditioned to not fear them. That being said, it should be noted that one bad experience can easily nullify 100 good experiences, especially in the beginning stages of desensitization training. What constitutes a bad experience is not always obvious: some dogs will only fear a full-fledged attack while others will startle with so much as a brusque movement from the other dog. It is useful to note the difference between reassurance and reinforcement, as they are two very different things. Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood of a behaviour repeating itself, while reassurance is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “anything that removes someone’s doubts or fears.”
Again, we must be careful to not mix up reassurance and coddling (a very valid form of reinforcement): dog owners who scoop up their little dogs at the mere sight of another dog approaching are essentially communicating to their pet that fear is an appropriate and legitimate response to the situation.
Is your dog fearful of thunderstorms? Go to the quietest place in the house and have some white noise going on to drown out the sound of the storm (or fireworks…). Some good choices are fans, the TV, stereo or radio. As the noise drowns out what scares her, play, train or otherwise occupy your dog with something. Is she super food-motivated? Doggy brain training games are great for dogs of all shapes and sizes. From there, slowly start to habituate her to the loud noises she fears (thunder, fireworks, gunshots…) or lightning, if that is the issue. You can do this with the use of canine desensitization CDs, made specifically for this purpose. As far as the fear of lightning, camera flashes may be helpful. Some dogs actually sense the change in barometric pressure, and unfortunately as far as distraction is concerned, there is little to be done. The key is starting small, do so and you’ll be setting yourselves up for success. A good behaviourist should be called to help with severe cases to fear.
Is she fearful of other dogs that pass you on your walks? Have a savory, smelly treat ready (hotdogs cut up into small pieces work great) and have her look at you and do some focused heeling, all the while getting scrumptious treats. Do not keep her in a sitting or down position when the dog (or whatever she fears) is passing by, this will only serve to increase her anxiety by making her feel trapped, also increasing the likelihood of her biting. Moving forward will take some of the pressure off, especially when the other dog is passing by. Walking in circles and preventing a head-on introduction between dogs will lower tension levels, as face to face contact is very confrontational in dog society. Sometimes anticipation can increase if she sees the dog nearing from afar. Adrenaline builds and makes her more anxious, setting you both up for less effective training. Changing directions often and eliminating fixed eye contact work together to lower distress.
Keep distances in mind: if passing on the same sidewalk is too much at the beginning, keep a comfortable distance and only decrease it when she is consistently calm at the one you’re at.
Sometimes you will find yourself in a less than ideal situation, and it is perfectly okay to confidently change course. So long as you’re calm and confident in your movements, you will not be transmitting fear and avoidance to your dog.
Keep in mind that if your dog refuses to acknowledge the distraction (food, toy…) and you’re certain that this particular reward is regarded by your dog as being of very high value, you’re likely asking too much of her for now. Whatever you are desensitizing her to, you must always be at a level where she is calm enough to listen to you, as fear is not conducive to learning.
These are just a couple of common fear scenarios where distraction is key to successful desensitization. It should be noted that the best way to a safe and successful conclusion is with the help of a certified behaviourist.
“Corrections”, reprimands or any form of punishment will help about as much as coddling, if not less. Forcing an animal to face their fears as the only alternative to something deemed even less pleasant will only serve to weaken your bond and strengthen their fear.
Good luck, and happy training!