Page 3

From a Medical Perspective ... Fear and Anxiety: When Medication Can Help Build Bridges Bethany Jordan, CDT, CVT, CPDT-KA The DogSmith ® Copyright 2012 Fear is a response to an experience. How is it that an experience can alter a dog’s world, filling it with terror significant enough to affect learning ability and confidence? Ultimately, it is the brain that processes and internalizes learning and traumatic experiences. It is the brain that mediates all cognitive, behavioral, and social functioning. It is the brain that initiates the body to act in times of “fight or flight” to survive when faced with threatening situations. It is within this brain that lies the canine; and within that our companion, family member, and friend. Understanding the function of chemical processes within the canine brain and brain-mediated responses to threat provide the key to understanding the fearful dog and how we can assist the brain to facilitate a positive learning experience. Anxiety is a condition which commonly accompanies fear or may exist alone in a generalized or contextual state. Even though they commonly coexist within many conditioned emotional responses, it is important to differentiate between the two: fear is a normal response to realistic and imminent danger,1 and anxiety is not linked to an objective source of danger and is more future-oriented.1 In other words, anxiety is the anticipation of danger or lack of reward2 and includes such feelings as apprehension, nervousness, and tension.3 Many dogs that suffer from fears and phobias also experience high levels of anxiety that can lead to excessive worry, strong somatic and physiologic signs of arousal and increased vigilance,4 ultimately prohibiting them from exploring new environments or offering new behaviors. As professionals, we can interpret a dog’s body language to decipher a fearful situation. From the outside we look at the position of the ears and tail, body posture, and other fear or distance-increasing signals. This emotional response is referred to as respondent or classical conditioning and is a mechanism by which the dog can learn to predict events in the environment.3 An important development in learning theory literature within the last decade is the acknowledgement that conditioning is not a low-level reflexive stimulus-response process, but a highly complex cognitive operation.4 Such conditioned emotional responses are best altered through a detailed program including systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning, however; complex processes in the brain can have a paralyzing affect on even the most well-structured program. Therefore, the question remains as to why a behavior change program alone cannot always achieve the desired goal. Carried out by chemicals, the brain utilizes two main systems to constantly change focus either to maintain normal balance or assist the body in times of significant stress. The first system is the autonomic nervous system, which functions to divert blood flow from non-essential areas to provide the muscles of escape or fight with much needed nutrients and oxygen during times of stress.5 The autonomic system also returns the body back to normal chemical balance after the stressor is gone. With the second system, a specific stressor can trigger neuroendocrine adjustments of the brain by activation of hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (HPA axis), resulting in the release of chemicals such as cortisol and adrenalin5 which allow the body to function the most efficiently to either escape an attack or confront the attacker. The brain is not without limitations, however; in times of extreme stress, the brain will “shut off” all upper centers of reasoning and cognition and activate areas which allow for hearing, sight, mobility, and balance. In short, when in times of extreme stress, no learning can take place because the brain will disengage learning centers to allow for more efficient fight or flight. In situations such as phobias, the HPA axis will engage rapidly, greatly compromising any chance of counterconditioning. According to David Appleby, a “phobia occurs when fear is not extinguished, but remains at the same high level even though the conditioned stimulus is never again paired with the noxious unconditioned stimulus.” 2 In cases of phobia, a single trial learning experience has left such an impact on the dog that the HPA axis will engage immediately with the next predictable cue of the same stimulus instantly placing the brain in a state of crisis for survival. For the phobic dog, or one who has extreme levels of fear or anxiety to early predictors of the stimulus, it can be almost impossible to build a more positive association when the brain immediately shifts into survival mode. Using the right medication at the right time for the right situation can help build a bridge to a happier, more (Continued on page 10)

3

BARKS from the Guild Summer 2012  
BARKS from the Guild Summer 2012  

The online magazine of the Pet Professional Guild