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Fear of People - Dogs that Fear People

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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What To Do

If possible, prevention is the best strategy for avoiding fear. Fear of people can be almost entirely circumvented if puppies are socialized from a very early age. It has been said that socialization should begin when the pup is in the womb. While this is something of an exaggeration, it is nevertheless true that socialization should begin even before the pup's eyes open at around seen to 10 days of age. At this time, passing the puppy from one person to another, talking softly, stroking him, and allowing him to smell people's hands, starts the pup out on the right footing. Passing the puppy from person to person, including strangers, for as little as 5 minutes a day, ensures that pleasant consequences are associated with the event.

It is the puppy owner's responsibility to ensure that this happens as early as possible in the pup's life but they may not have an opportunity for input from early on. Most pups are adopted from the breeder at around 6 to 8 weeks of age when the socialization window is all but closed. For optimal confidence in adoptees, it is important ensure that the breeder arranged the correct socialization experiences for them from an early age. This way, the new owner can inherit a work in progress and go on from there. The worst situation is if a pup is raised in a dog-only environment in a kennel, garage, or back room, and only meets strangers following adoption by his new owners. While such dogs need a friend, too, and may sometimes have their fortunes reversed, it is far from an ideal starting point and requires understanding, patience, and devotion to the task in hand on the part of the owner.

Let's assume for a moment that you have adopted a puppy from one of these less-than-optimal situations or from a pet store or puppy mill situation. The first thing to do is to make sure that the pup no longer experiences social isolation and is never exposed to adverse learning experiences in the presence of strangers.

Failing to appreciate the critical nature of the problem and the impact of negative learning experiences, some trainers recommend that new puppy owners take their new dog to a supermarket parking lot, shopping mall, or Little League game in order to expose him to as many people as possible. This they advise in the name of "desensitization" - which it is not. If it is anything, it's flooding. That is, continuous exposure to something that you don't like or of which you are fearful in the hopes that you'll get over it.

Flooding, while an effective remedy for some mild fears, can backfire, compounding moderate or severe fears with each subsequent exposure. In other words, instead of the problem getting better, it gets worse. True desensitization is a program of baby steps, introducing the fearful pup to one person at a time, at a distance that will not generate fear, and then, over time, increasing the pup's exposure while ensuring no negative consequences, only positive ones. The latter technique of substituting a positive experience for a fearful one is called counterconditioning.

With this type of training, patience is vital. Desensitization takes time and therefore patience but with persistence it can pay off. Unfortunately, desensitization is never over even when it's over. Desensitization exercises must be repeated periodically for the rest of the dog's life. Fear, once acquired, will always be likely to rear its ugly head - though new and continued learning experiences can minimize its impact.

The Really Difficult Case

When a dog's fear of people is so extreme that desensitization is virtually impossible, it may be time to consider fear and anxiety-reducing medications to facilitate a desensitization program. Medications that may be beneficial include clomipramine (Clomicalm®), buspirone (BuSpar®), fluoxetine (Prozac®), amitriptyline (Elavil®), or a beta blocker [propranolol (Inderal®)]. While not a complete solution to the problem, these drugs can help greatly in retraining fearful dogs. The psychological advantage they provide the dog is worthwhile if only for humanitarian reasons. In some cases drugs work so well that the dog is virtually fearless while on medication. This is the time to arrange many positive interactions with strangers so that the dog can learn that they mean him no harm. When medication plays a role as important as this it should be continued at an effective level until the dog is entirely comfortable with exposure to strangers. Then the dose of medication can be reduced incrementally while, hopefully, the newfound confidence remains in intact. The latter process is termed "pharmacological desensitization."

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