Dog’s Eye View: Phobia or Foible
Chapter 4 in the not so secret life of Maxwell SMART
A phobia is an irrational fear. A situation that one person sees as perfectly OK, another will panic at the sight or mention of it. A foible is a quirky behavior but it doesn’t carry a strong emotional response.
Maxwell SMART has a phobia about cooking in the kitchen. Or is it a foible?
The first time it happened was a day or two after we brought him home. I went into the kitchen to start cooking dinner. I took a pan out of the oven and placed it on the stove. Max ran upstairs and crawled under the bed. He would not come out. His little body trembled.
I laid down on the floor and talked sweetly to him and brought him out from under the bed. He snuggled tightly against my chest as I carried him back down stairs.
He stayed by Skippy on her bed until I went back out to the kitchen and stirred what was in the pan. Then he retreated to his cave under the bed again.
It took a couple of hours after dinner for his panic to subside. We finally had to move the bed to remove the dog. I didn’t cook another meal in the kitchen for a few days and his behavior returned to normal.
This is definitely a fear-based reaction.
We’ve had him now for just more than three months and the initial panic reaction has settled into getting next to Skippy and keeping careful watch of the kitchen. At other times throughout the day, he goes in and out of the kitchen like a normal dog.
What triggers the fear response? My husband and I finally narrowed it down to the sound of the pan scraping over the top of the electric burner. We eliminated every other thing like turning on the water, emptying out the garbage, clearing the dishes and even running the garbage disposal. Max’s trigger is the sound of the pan on the burner.
I can think of many scenarios in which he might have a bad experience in the kitchen. I can blame the former owners for scaring the little guy. But, really what good does that do?
Shall I blame that phobia on a terrible former owner? Do I say “Oh well, that’s just how he is” and let him run for cover every time I cook something on the stove?
Or do I buckle down and help Max learn that the kitchen is a safe place?
So how do I know his behavior is fear based? The body language he exhibits tells the tale. He showed ears flat, lip licking, tail tucked and won’t respond to cues or take treats.
The real trap here would be to continually sympathize with Max during this fear behavior. Sympathy alone might become reinforcing to that fear behavior. That reinforcement strengthens the fear or enables the fear.
A combination of what we behavior consultants call a program for desensitization and counter conditioning is now in place. And it’s working.
We are creating a new ritual involving cooking time with other reinforceable behaviors. Staying by Skippy on her mat is a reinforceable behavior. It does no good to force him to stay in the kitchen until he “gets used to it.”
That continual exposure technique is called “flooding.” Flooding actually can backfire and the fear behavior comes back stronger.
We’ll never know what Max’s life was really like before he came to live with us. He has a sweet personality and maybe he was born that way. At any rate, Max’s phobia is steadily decreasing as he continues to trust his new family. And we are constantly learning more about his needs and how to help him thrive.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25+ years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado. Visit http://www.totalteamworktraining.com.
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