Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Curing my Anxiety Disorder

Yes that's right, I'm not afraid to admit it. I have a phobia. Every since I was a little puppy I had a phobia of metal grates on sidewalks. Sure, there were other things I was afraid of: elevators were super scary at first. It's still touch and go when I see women wearing sunglasses and hats. For the most part, I was exposed to just about every kind of stimulus as a young puppy so while I might be cautious, I'm also curious.

Only a particular kind of grate bothered me. You see, sewer grates were okay. I would sniff them, walk over them (assuming my paws didn't fall through), and generally be okay with them. I was fine with the metal coverings that some trees in urban areas have. They are a wonderful storehouse of smells: I tend to stop at each on of them and smell ever square inch.

There is a particular kind of metal grate that they use to cover subway access vents that really bother me. Some grates that cover electrical vaults under the sidewalk also really bother me. I avoid them at all costs. I walk around them, I sit down and look at the human with pleading eyes, and well, you get the picture. There is a bridge that we walked over once that was entirely a grate: I made the human carry me all the way across the bridge.

No one really thought of this as a huge problem. There were plenty of places for me to walk where there were no metal grates. It was easy enough to go around the metal grates. It never got in the way of my enjoyment or that of my human. I'm small enough that in an emergency I could be carried (like the bridge).

My human tells me that my grate phobia was on his list of things to work on in the future. He's got more pressing things to teach me, so he wasn't in a rush. In the end, this required no work on his part at all: a friend who discovered a well placed piece of food did the trick.

Before we get to explaining how I was cured of my anxiety disorder, let's talk about two popular techniques that are frequently used in helping fearful dogs: flooding and systematic desensitization.

Flooding is a behavioral technique involves exposing a dog to the fearful stimulus until the dog remains calm. This tool is popularized in Cesar Millan's television show, The Dog Whisperer. In my case, I would have been placed on a grate and forced to stay there until my fear response dissipated. An important key is that there is no punishment applied at any time: I would be simply confined to a metal grate and left there until my fear response ended. Flooding is a tool that was researched in the lab with humans. For example, someone who had a phobia of snakes might be locked in a room filled with snakes. The human isn't let out until they stopped trembling.

It's highly effective. It's also dangerous. If a human lacks the necessary skills to induce a relaxation response the episode of flooding can induce a traumatic response. Phobia + trauma equals more problems, not less. This also seems more than a little cruel to me, does it to you? How would you feel if I locked you in a room of snakes, spiders, or growling aggressive dogs? You wouldn't like it? Then why would you want to do that to me?

Another tool is systematic desensitization. In state-of-the-art behavioral treatment for phobias, humans are generally taught a variety of techniques to induce a relaxation response. When the human has mastered these tools they are gradually exposed to the stimulus that triggers the phobia. A person might think about snakes and then practice a relaxation technique, for example. Once a human masters thinking about snakes without inducing a panic response the stimulus becomes progressively more intense. The human looks at pictures of snakes, the human looks at other people handling live snakes, the human looks at snakes closely, and finally the human touches the snake.

Since dogs don't understand English, humans can't teach them progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, or other distress tolerance skills. Dogs can only be confined to an area where they have to cope with a stimulus. Humans can only hope the dogs nervous system is effective enough that some sort of relaxation response will naturally be induced. If it doesn't happen, the dog is likely to develop secondary behavioral problems as a result of the flooding.

So what's a caring human to do? Dogs can be desensitized to fearful stimuli. It just takes a lot of time, effort, and love. My human has let me sniff the scary metal grates for months. This was preparation for his intervention. While I was scared of the grates and wouldn't step on them, I was fine sniffing them. I've had hundreds of opportunities to sniff the metal grate and discover that nothing scary happens. His next step was to start rewarding me every time I sniffed the grate. A "good girl" or a pet behind the ear would suffice. Again, he'd do this every time I sniffed a metal grate (which is at least four times every work day). Eventually the human would catch me touching the grate. Maybe my nose would touch it or perhaps even my paw. My human planned on having a big party every time this happened. An excited "good girl", a scratch behind the ear, or maybe even a little piece of turkey. Yum. Turkey.

In time, I'd be walking across the metal grates. It's not rocket science. It's also not very sexy. Systematic desensitization is slow, methodical, and frankly rather boring. This kind of work doesn't make for exciting television, either. It is however humane, highly effective, and enduring. It also builds a bigger foundation in the human/dog bond.

This brings me to my story. My anxiety disorder wasn't particularly intense. The human never forced the issue thus increasing my fear. I sniffed the grate, walked to the side, and went on my way. It was a minor fear, with inconsequential consequences.

Thanks to a psychologist friend paying close attention yesterday, I was cured of my phobia in a minute. The two humans were talking psychology things (some sort of complaint about insurance companies, I think) when we encountered a metal grate. My human walked to the side so we could avoid it. He wasn't paying attention to me (the nerve!) but the other human was. She saw me sniff the grate and I happened to have the edge of my paw on the metal. She made a big deal about it, said my name in a super excited voice, and got down close to the ground. I got carried away with her excitement. She seemed to excited that I thought there surely must have been something exciting for me to investigate. I walked right over to her on the metal grate. It was a lucky coincidence that there was a piece of food lodged in the grate. I licked and licked and licked, and totally forgot I was standing on something scary.

The humans said goodbye at the T stop and we walked back to the office. We passed by that same metal grate and--you guessed it--I walked right onto it looking for the food. The human was prepared for this and had some turkey in his pocket. Yum! Turkey!

Mind you, I'm still wary of other metal grates--just not the one I found food it. My human tells me to expect to find food in random metal grates from this time forward. By the middle of summer I'll probably we walking on all of them.

That was easy, wasn't it?


  1. I'm really glad your human decided to use this method to help calm you of your fears. I've used this with my horses all the time. When I was younger I had a very old mare who was scared of EVERYTHING. I really worked with her, in the same way Jason worked with you. One of my biggest goals was to be able to take a large blue tarp and place it over her entire body. (I know this doesn't sound practical or useful, but it's a good way to measure progress and I often wear a poncho if I am riding in the rain or cold) Anyway, we started by just laying it on the ground and allowing her to sniff it. I also drug (drug? dragged?) it behind me when I walked around the pasture carrying food. I didn't pay the horse, Becky, any mind but she would get curious and follow me around. She also associated the tarp and the noise it made with supper. Other times I would just have it laying nearby when I groomed her, or I would wrap it around me. Eventually I began to gently touch her flank with it, but moving it away before she got scared. Then I'd let it touch her while I rattled it. Eventually I was able to completely cover her with the tarp (eyes, head, back, everything!) We think she may have been beaten by her previous owners, but within six months you would never know it. After I was confident with her abilities, I gave her to my younger sister. She was my sister's first real horse and the two of them were amazing together. They would get into all kinds of predicaments but Becky never panicked! Had she panicked she probably would have injured herself or someone in my family. They'd get hung in vines, fallen in swamps, stuck in the middle of a lake, weather a thunderstorm together, gone to multiple rodeo camps, ridden with 3 riders, and my sis had even taken to doing back flips off Becky. lol. She was a truly wonderful and trusting horse and I think that had we used the flooding technique, I wouldn't have felt comfortable having her with my sister.

  2. What a great story about the powerful nature of systematic desensitization. I think one of the benefits of this approach is the deepening development of the animal/human bond. Through your actions you taught Becky that humans are generally trustworthy--and thus Becky was able to generalize the sense of safety with the blue tarp to a general sense of security and curiosity with most things. That probably would have not happened at all with flooding and, as you point out, the horse might have been unpredictable and less safe with your sister riding on her and encountering all those predicaments.