I have the pleasure of owning a couple of huskies. Both are rehomes and my latest, Max, has been with us just a couple of months. We were warned that Max had a phobia of water when we picked him up and over Christmas this phobia became manifest for the 1st time.
While out enjoying canicross (running with dogs using harnesses bungee cords and waist harness) over a local woods and pond we went to run over a small slatted bridge which had running water beneath. The moment Max’s front paws hit the bridge he went into full anchor mode, all four paws and legs braced to stop him moving forward. His body language was clear – he was not going to cross the bridge.
I am very experienced at removing human phobias, but this is the 1st time I had a dog as a client. Huskies aren't your usual dogs either, being highly independent and of high intelligence. I needed to think quickly as with this phobia manifest in front of me there was a perfect opportunity to solve it.
Dogs are just like humans in that they work from reference experience to guide them how to act under current stimulus. So I know that Max had learnt this fear from past experience. Unlike with the human I couldn't question him or use hypnosis to discover the genesis of the phobia. So instead, in order to resolve the phobia I needed to give him a new, positive experience, to allow him to know exactly what he needs to do under this stimulus. I knew that he would only need one such experience as dogs live ‘in the moment’.
The 1st thing I did was to not reward him or give him attention for failing to cross the bridge. If I started to sympathise with him he would start to read that his behaviour was acceptable - it would be reinforced. As with humans, the behaviour that is rewarded is the behaviour that persists.
So I instantly grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and started to drag him with me over the bridge. I maintained confidence in my mind and kept calm, allowing Max to understand that he was not being punished and instead was to follow the leader. I started to move him over the bridge like he had no option and gave him no time to think. The interesting thing is that almost instantly he relaxed and just trotted nicely over the bridge, meaning I could immediately let go of his neck. The moment he realised his fear was far worse than the actuality he just carried on like nothing had happened.
Working on the human neurology rule of 3 repetitions to help encode the change, I then reinforced this new behaviour by guiding him back and forth over the bridge 3 times. At no time did he show any sign of fear or phobia and just showed perfect willing to accept my leadership and that all would be fine.
Some people may say that I was cruel to drag him over the bridge however the manner in which I did so was no different to the way he plays with my other husky. And it acted as a perfect pattern interrupted to his old behaviour. There is no pain or punishment in handling a dog in this way in such an instance – I consider it to possibly be cruel to allow this phobia to persist or pamper to it.
The next day we tested our work and did the same run again. This time Max ran comfortably and happily without even noticing the bridge. Job done.
Human phobias develop in exactly the same way that dog phobias develop. There will either be a one-time event which encodes fear to the stimulus or it will be learned through observation of others experiencing fear to the stimulus. And, just like with a dog, the plasticity of the brain can be employed to give a different reaction to the stimulus without fear. Many clients of mine who come to me reporting phobias often leave with a sense of wonder about their old fear stimulus instead.
While walking the Huskies I often see the genesis of phobias to dogs being taught to children. I often walk past schools at drop-off or pickup time and every so often as I walk past mother will usher their child behind them, looking at the huskies in fear, while commanding “watch out – big dog” or similar. Quite nicely allowing their own insecurities and fears to pass the children. Of course, I just ignore this behaviour and walk past with my dogs under control and wonder when it will be that this child will become a future client of mine…