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Are You Dealing with a Conditioned Fear Response?

A conditioned fear response (CFR) is different than other fear responses in several ways. One way you can tell the difference between a CFR and more typical fear issues is that the dog will not react in the typical way to your desensitization and counter-conditioning. Another trademark of this kind of a fear is that a CFR is not only resistant to extinction, the the CFR is more likely to display spontaneous recovery. A CFR can exist in addition to other fear issues. I have dealt with CFR in several dogs who had additional fear issues. Rosy’s story helps example how the CFR can be independent of another fear response in a dog. If you plan on dealing with more extreme and resistant fear issues, you will find it helpful to learn how to identify a CFR and why this issue often need different techniques to resolve.

Rosy was a cute little terrier who had leash reactivity towards other dog, and reactivity to people coming into the house. I sometimes use a day long bootcamp when I begin leash reactivity training. This approach allows me to make make better progress in a dog. After a few successful bootcamps, I will transition to weekly training visits. By working with a dog all day long, I can do small desensitization lessons with breaks in between which enables the dog to make process at a gradual pace. Before I did Rosy’s bootcamp, I first did some personality and relationship assessment. If the dog I’m dealing with is noise sensitive, shy, or reserved, I find first resolving these issues first will have a positive impact on training the dog. Rosy didn’t have issues that needed addressed before I worked on her leash reactivity.

I began Rosy’s bootcamp with three training sessions on leash reactivity by working to teach her to relax when passing by a non-threatening dog. Rosy made good progress in each session. Each training session was followed by a break where the dog was encouraged to relax and interact with me in a positive way. Since Rosy had relaxed well in between all three training sessions, I decided to also work on the doorbell issues at the end of bootcamp. This gave the dog a lengthy break before the doorbell reactivity training. I’d asked the owner to allow extra time when coming to pick up Rosy explaining I planned on the two of us working on the doorbell issue together.

To do this training, I planned on using counter-conditioning. I stepped outside of the door, leaving the owner inside my house with her dog. I then rang the doorbell, and stepped inside. I greeted the dog in a friendly manner and offered a high-value treat. This went well, so I repeated the process. However, I noticed the second time I came inside the door, the dog acted more agitated and took longer to accept the treat. I worked with the dog until she relaxed and fed her some extra treats. For the third repetition of the training, I wanted to make sure this counter-conditioning went better than the second one. To do this, I sent the dog owner outside. The owner rang the doorbell, then stepped inside to greet the dog and offer a treat. However, instead of showing her normal delight at seeing her owner, Rosy went over-threshold and didn’t settle down for very long time. The dog had absolutely no interest in eating anything. The complete failure of the counter-conditioning indicated I was dealing with a conditioned fear response.

The original discovery of a conditioned fear response is accredited to the work of John Watson. Watson and his assistant Rayner took an emotionally stable nine-month-old child named Albert and created a conditioned fear response. To create this response, they first allowed Albert to play with a rat, which the child enjoyed doing. Then, Rayner began to make loud and disturbing noised any time Albert reached for the rat. Several pairing were done to allow Albert to associate the rat, the conditioned stimulus (CS), with a fear response from the noise, the unconditioned stimulus (US). Once the conditioned fear response was established, it was noted that Albert transferred that fear to other similar objecting including a Santa Clause mask, a white rabbit, and a furry dog.

This classically conditioned response quickly became a tool for researchers studying fear responses. To create the fear response in a laboratory rat, the sound of a tone or buzzer was introduced to the rats until the rats showed no response. The goal was to ensure the tone or buzzer was a neutral stimulus. The next step was to create a CS to the tone or buzzer. To do this, the tone or buzzer was sounded followed quickly by an electrical shock. After several pairing, the tone became a CS for the fear UR experienced from receiving a shock. Though researchers often used the CFR to study fear issues, early on it became apparent that the CFR could have unique issues of its own.

Pavlov discovered a difference in the CFR over a traditional CR. He did this by first creating a CFR in some rats after many pairing of a tone with an electric shock. He then extinguished the behavior through desensitization. This was achieved by sounding the tone with no follow up of an electric shock. What he discovered was that the next day was when he sounded the tone, the rats CFR returned as if no desensitization efforts were made. Pavlov called this phenomena “spontaneous recovery” and noted that even over time, the CFR didn’t diminish. What that meant was if the CFR was established on one day, followed up by desensitization, and the rats were given a week off, the CFR returned full force the next time the rats heard that tone. Pavlov concluded that a CFR was immune to extinction. Fortunately, scientist who continued work in this area began to find resolutions to extinction issues in a CFR.

Joseph LeDoux has written extensively on fear and anxiety. He is credited with the concept that fear responses have both a high road and a low road response. The high road response in an animal allows for more evaluation of the stimulus, as well as other sensory input. With the high road fear response, the hippocampus evaluates relationships between stimulus and other fear memories before deciding if the fight or flight response needs engaged.

The low road response is a different fear response. This is often called the “take no chances” response. Stimulus, received by the thalamus, does not gather any more information or give the hippocampus a chance to put things into context. With the low road response, the thalamus tells the amygdala to send the message directly to the hypothalamus to initiate a fight or flight survival response.

When Rosy heard the doorbell ring that third time, she reacted with a “take no chances” low road response. She didn’t consider the fact she knew and adored the person who came through the door. The sound of the doorbell, followed by someone entering the house, put her immediately over-threshold. She took a long time to calm down afterwards, and because of the nature of a fight or flight response, she had no interest in eating anything.

My theory is the dog began to react adversely to the ringing of the doorbell and someone entering the house during a fear stage when she was younger. Since the owner did nothing to ease the fear the dog experienced, the dog’s fear UR continued to be paired with the sound of the doorbell CS. After many pairing of the CS and the UR, the dog ended up with a CFR.

Although Pavlov believed that a CFR was doomed to spontaneous recovery, researchers over the years have found ways to help resolve spontaneous recovery of a CFR. When it comes to helping change the behavior in a dog such as Rosy, what I find often works is to take a divide an conquer approach. The divide and conquer approach means you separate the sound of the doorbell (CS) from the fear experience (UR) the dog has when a stranger enters the house. Both are desensitized or counter-conditioned separately. After the dog no longer reacts to either the sound of the doorbell or a person entering the house, the stimulus and previous fear response are slowly reintroduced.

For people who are working with more difficult fear issues, it is important to learn to identify the CFR and to realized that this issue will take different efforts than other fear responses to resolve. It is also important to realize that the CFR can co-exist with other fear issues. That was true with Rosy. She had leash reactivity issues that progressed quite nicely with my desensitization techniques. However, she also had a CFR in regard to a doorbell and people entering the house. That didn’t respond in the usual way to counter-conditioning efforts. By learning when and if you are dealing with a CFR and what kinds of techniques this issue responds to, you can more readily solve that fear issue in a dog.

Benjamin, L.T. (2007). A Brief History of Modern Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Cherry, Kendra, Updated (2016). The Little Albert Experiment, a closer look at the famous case of Little Albert. Psychology: verywell.com

LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain, The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life.

Myers; Davis (2007). "Mechanisms of Fear Extinction". Molecular Psychiatry. 12: 120–150. Simon and Schuster, (1996).

VanElzakker, M. B.; Dahlgren, M. K.; Davis, F. C.; Dubois, S.; Shin, L. M. (2014). "From Pavlov to PTSD: The extinction of conditioned fear in rodents, humans, and anxiety disorders". Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. 113: 3–18.

Venosa, Ali (2015). “This Is Your Brain On Fear: The Fear Pathway And Why A Human Scream Immediately Activates It”. Medicaldaily.com

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