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Phobias - Ying & not Yang

You know how life has its balances, ups & downs, positive & negative, dogs & cats. This is a common characteristic of many features in nature. Occasionally there are exceptions to this rule.

Dogs have an innate ability to discriminate between pleasant and unpleasant sensations. Through these dogs learn to negotiate their environment and survive.

Dogs are naturally and actively inquisitive and when they find something that is pleasant they are rewarded. If they keep repeating the behaviour that they found rewarding they soon learn it and predict that they will continue to be rewarded.

For every equal there is an opposite and this is true for an unpleasant stimulus. If the dog finds something unpleasant then it quickly learns to avoid it in the future.

So far so good, dogs repeat behaviours that they find rewarding and avoid behaviours that they find unpleasant. Equal and opposite. However, now comes the problem. If the dogs repeat the behaviour that it found rewarding and the rewards stop being delivered it soon learns not to waste its time repeating that behaviour if no reward is forthcoming. Imagine a situation – a dog pushes a button and gets a treat, so it keeps pressing the button and gets a treat every time so it keeps repeating it. If the treat stops coming then eventually the dog gives up pushing the button. Makes sense.

Now imagine a situation where a dog has learnt to avoid a sound that hurts its ears. If a light comes on then 5 seconds later the dog is exposed to a loud sound. However, if the dog pushes the button within 5 seconds it stops the sound. Soon the dog learns to push the button within 5 seconds and completely avoids exposure to the unpleasant sound. But what happens if the sound is inactivated? The light comes on the dog pushes the button anyway even though the sound is permanently inactivated and it has in its mind avoided the sound.

This is the inequality, the big difference! If you stop rewarding a dog the behaviour that previously delivered it becomes extinguished. But if you stop an unpleasant stimulus the behaviour that helped avoid it continues – potentially forever.

This is a big deal and is a very powerful learning tool! So how does this relate to phobias? Phobias are irrational fears, fears of things that do not present a threat. So why are phobias persistent and difficult to get over?

Again imagine a situation. A dog has a phobia of black dust bin bags, something happened a long time ago when the dog was investigating a bin bag and now it’s scared of them. It cannot remember why it’s scared of them but every time it sees a bin bag it becomes anxious and tries to avoid it. If the dog successfully bypasses the black bin bag and nothing happens then its prediction that avoiding it will avoid the unpleasant event has come true. This reinforces the irrational behaviour and phobia. The phobia will persist until the dog confronts it and learns that its prediction that something unpleasant will happen is in fact not the case. If the dog approaches the bin liner and its prediction that some thing unpleasant will happen doesn’t happen it’s learnt some thing new and this is the start of overcoming the phobia. Wow!

Now I’m not saying that every dog or indeed every person with a phobia should confront their phobia head on because you can imagine it’s going to cause a lot of anxiety. However, the point is phobias have a lot to do with the persistence of learning regarding the avoidance of something unpleasant. What can be a great teaching tool on one hand can be the reason being persistent phobias on the other.

If your dog has a phobia which you want help overcoming you should consult a professional dog trainer or behaviourist or your vet.

David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®