By Andrew Koh, owner and trainer of Rufus CDX, the 2009 SKC Reserve Obedience Dog of the Year.
Yesterday, while at a ceiling fan shop, I overheard 2 friends having an interesting conversation. One was telling the other how funny it was that her dog became very fearful, each time her ceiling fan was turned on.
Although this was just a causal conversation between friends, the scenario highlighted here is not uncommon as can be seen in the Youtube video below.
Click here to see the video
What’s sadder is that owners with fearful dogs tend to view such behaviours as funny, when in fact it is a sign that their dogs need help. If not nipped in the butt, such fear can at times lead to more serious problems in the near future. For example, fear can sometimes turn into aggression.
But how exactly do we help a dog overcome its fear for ceiling fans or just about any other object or living thing? The answer is simple – Desensitization and counter conditioning or DSCC for short.
What is DSCC?
As its name suggest, DS and CC is made up of 2 components, namely, desensitization, which is the process of making the dog less sensitive and hence less reactive to the trigger (ceiling fan in our example) and counter conditioning, which aims to change the dog’s emotion response to a trigger from negative to pleasant and positive.
Desensitization is often achieved through exposing the dog to the stimuli it fears but at a less overwhelming, below threshold level, so as not to cause a panic attack. This is done over numerous sessions with the trainer gradually increasing the exposure level at a rate the dog can tolerate.
Counter condition on the other hand is achieved through simple classical conditioning, again over many sessions. The aim of counter condition to make the once feared trigger, a reliable predictor of rewards to come, hence changing the emotional state of the dog from that of fear of the trigger to that of eager anticipation. Needless to say, the use of super high value treats is thus important in the counterconditioning process.
Applying DSCC to Overcome Fear of Moving Ceiling Fan
Have an assistant turn on the ceiling fan and have the dog approach the moving fan. Stop the moment the dog hesitates or stiffens up and go no further. What you will want at this stage is for the dog to be aware of the presence of the moving ceiling fan without ever going over threshold (desensitization). Why? Because your dog’s brain is simply not wired for learning once it goes over the edge. At this sub threshold level, immediately whip out your most tasty treats and continuously hand feed your dog. While still feeding, have the assistant shut off the fan. Stop feeding the exact instance the fan is turned off and move away from the fan. As with all classical conditioning, your objective is for the dog to pair (in his mind) the moving fan to tasty treat. You want the dog to learn over time that seeing a moving ceiling fan is good news because it accurately predicts that treats are on the way.
Repeat the above steps again over several sessions and once you see your dog more relaxed at this given distance, it is time to increase the exposure level once again. Do this by moving the dog even closer to the moving ceiling fan, again stopping at a just below threshold distance. Repeat the counter conditioning process (i.e. continuous feeding of treats only when the fan is moving) till the dog is happy and relaxed at this new distance before moving even closer again, till you are eventually able to have your dog 100% relax, directly under the ceiling fan. It is important to note that this process of increasing the exposure level should not be rushed; always attempt to move closer only when your dog is comfortable and ready.
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