Meet Mr. X. He is a 14-months-old French bulldog I’ve recently seen in behaviour therapy. He was referred to me by a veterinary clinic for his pervasive fears.
Upon closer questioning, it turns out he does not have a fear problem in the broad sense of the term. He is actually bombproof about everything. Everything except for, well, bombs.
He panics at sudden sounds: a mug falling on the floor, a passing car, a moped back-firing.
He doesn’t just startle, he really panics. We’re talking crawling or running to the nearest hiding place, cherry eyes, shrieking. If you try to restrain him in these moments, he’ll frantically try to escape, come what may.
The issue is that it is affecting his walks as he’ll need time to settle after a scare and there aren’t enough noise-free moments in the city for him to recover. This is what gives him the presentation of an agoraphobic or generalized anxiety patient.
His owners want to first give med-free behaviour therapy a try before considering a vet behaviourist route.
Dog behaviour problem: etiology (causal factors)
Many factors have contributed to the problem:
- Genetics: his mother suffers from the same condition
- The dog appears to be more prone, more sensitive, after being overstimulated (e.g. market day)
- A few months back, the problem dramatically worsened after someone threw fireworks at the dog!
- Chronic ear infections: the pain and discomfort alone can decrease a dog’s irritability and fear threshold and put the dog in a state of chronic stress, but it may be something mechanical is at play too. Some ear infections lead to an over-sensitivity to sound.
Dog behaviour advice
- Desensitisation and counterconditioning (D&C) protocol to sudden sounds, with specific instructions on how to make the later stages as realistic as possible (see Punk your dog).
- Take him in the car (he loves the car) to the woods, rather than walking there via busy streets.
- Cognitive feeding: because this calms every dog down (a bit) on every level, it is fun, and it costs nothing
- Avoid above-threshold noise exposures as much as possible, and compensate each unfortunate exposure with 10 D&C moments.
Dog behaviour prognosis
I demonstrated the exercises and left detailed handouts behind and asked them to try this for six weeks, then see me again for a re-evaluation. If the dog is not making suitable progress, then I will refer to the veterinary behaviourist.
Photo: Canis bonus