Who's Afraid of the CAR, now?
Phobia Reversal in Canines: Dog Couldn't Cope in Cars!
By Casey Sugarman
"Haddy" is the doggie mascot on a racecar team, which is ironic considering she wouldn't even get near a car! "If she had to go to the vet or anyplace," says Linda Marsh of Lyme, "we'd pick her up and put her in and she'd heave and vomit a few times on the ride." "Even with car sickness drugs and even on short trips, she'd still foam at the mouth and she just looked awfully unhappy. We didn't know how to help her."
Everyone knows at least one dog with a hang-up. "S/he's a great dog, all except for this one thing…" "S/he's perfectly friendly as long as you don't…" "Ever since it happened, that's just the way s/he is." Whether it's a scary object, a scary noise, or a weird reaction, "fear triggers" can make otherwise good dogs unhappy and even unsafe. "Around a car, Haddy would seem to stop breathing, like she had gone to planet Neptune in her mind, she'd shake or even nip at us."
For owners who have tried the medications, herbal calmers, or months of repeat exposures and are still at the same dead end, this situation is actually quite common. Many dogs suffer from an undiagnosed problem which is considered by many canine authorities to be either nonexistent or irreversible.
Sound phobias like the sound of thunder, spatial phobias like stairs or cars, visual phobias like the sight of a tall man, contact phobias like nail clippers or medical items, and less obvious phobias like fear of open spaces, are often the hidden root causes of many behavioral issues in dogs. Blind and deaf dogs, understandably, often have phobias as well.
"Haddy is still a puppy at 1 year old and had no bad experiences in the car that we were aware of." Haddy's car phobia combined a fear of vibrations and unpredictable movement, which is common in sensitive and alert herding breeds, and since "Haddy's brain would seem to shut down" just as she was placed in the backseat, she was never cognizant enough to learn that the car was safe.
A phobia is an emotional abscess. At the core is a buried unconscious memory of a set of un-processed negative experiences in the past that owners may or may not have witnessed. A phobia also becomes something like an addiction. Countless layers of evasive habits, excuses, and irrational beliefs surround the core like layers of an onion, keeping a rotten memory hidden and walled off in order to shield the brain from further bad experience.
Complete phobia reversal in dogs and other animals is not only possible but the process is predictable, and complete recovery is routine. And yet, Canine Phobia-Reversal Therapy is not an arena for recreational or even mainstream animal trainers. This therapy does not use standard "habituation" or any "pack leader" methods, nor does it use any psychic or "body energy" approaches.
Canine Phobia-Reversal Therapy does not merely teach dogs to "get used to it"; it teaches dogs to seek out the once noxious stimulus and see it in a new way, as a plaything. The treatment teaches a game to the dog which rebuilds the dog's experience of primal emotions. In Canine Phobia-Reversal Therapy, dogs are not rewarded for doing a correct behavior, dogs are rewarded for rationally taking charge of a situation, and then for sharing that authority with the owner. Dogs who have gone through the therapy seem to say: "Go ahead, I'm ready, try to scare me!"
Just like PTSD therapy for returning military personnel, re-experiencing each layer of his memory puts the dog in complete control of a new rational approach to the original trigger. There is no need for punishment, restraints or even any equipment of any kind. In Haddy's case, the only tool used was a tiny dish of vanilla ice cream per session. As with the human animal, any animal learns fastest when they are challenged to be creative, and creative problem solving is what quickly builds a strong, self-reliant foundation.
Haddy's car phobia took only 5 sessions to reverse. Now Haddy jumps in the car by herself, looks out the windows, and stands up on the console. She has gone on long trips and short trips, all with no drugs, and she has not been sick once, because her physical motion sickness was actually caused by her mind's anxiety. Even if she eats a meal just before a trip, she's fine. Now she can go to the beach with her family! According to Linda, "As a member of the pit crew, Haddy doesn't have to drive 200 mph in her team cars, but if she had to, I bet she'd be fine with it."
Casey Sugarman, Phobia Specialist/ Behaviorist
For 10 years, Sugarman was a senior veterinary biologist at New England Aquarium, Boston, and has now been reversing phobias in animals and in people for 18 years.
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Note: This article is not instructional. Emotional recovery in phobic individuals should be directed by a professional behaviorist to reduce risk of injury.