top of page

International Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors

Christina Shusterich article on the Treatment of Stranger Phobia in a Beagle published internationally by the Association Of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors - An International Membership and Certification Organization of Companion Animal Behavioral Specialists

A Case of Desensitization, Counterconditioning, Modeling and Obedience (DRI) 
Christina Shusterich, BA, CBC

Heidi was a 10-week-old Beagle purchased from a breeder in Missouri and transported via plane and car to her new owner in New York. After approximately 2 weeks in her new home she began to exhibit a fear of strangers that was first manifested by her backing away from visitors. Thinking to reassure her, her owner tried carrying her when strangers were present and noticed Heidi was shaking. When she did not carry her, Heidi began to run away from all visitors and hide until they were gone, sometimes hiding for several hours.

Heidi exhibited a panic reaction to being walked and immediately upon being taken outside the front door would be unable to move further. She would initially freeze in her body and behavior, and then, cowering and shaking, she would lunge at the front door, frantically scratching to get back indoors. Her reaction was so extreme her owner Christine was unable to walk her. However, Christine did have a small, fenced in and secluded backyard where Heidi exhibited no symptoms, was comfortable and went about freely.
The household consisted of Christine, her mother and her grandmother. Fellow animals were a 15-year-old cat and 2 other dogs, both 3-year-old neutered males, one also a Beagle and the other a Lab/Shepherd mix.

I was called by the client when Heidi was 4 months old to help Heidi overcome her fear of strangers in and outdoors and to train her in basic obedience. Session times were 1 – 1.5 hours in duration once per week eventually totaling 7 sessions. The other animals were initially segregated during sessions. To start with, Christine was instructed not to pick up Heidi any more when strangers were present and it was explained to her that carrying Heidi in these situations was not comforting or reassuring to Heidi but rather in all likelihood was increasing her panic reaction as Heidi was experiencing overwhelming fear she could not escape from. She was also advised against picking up Heidi in general as it can foster a feeling of helplessness. Christine was advised to avoid having strangers to the house while we worked with Heidi and was also advised not to walk Heidi outside at this point in the program.

Desensitization & Counterconditioning 
The first step in treating Heidi (as well as to permit me to interact with her) was desensitizing and counterconditioning her to strangers, beginning with me. I had also brought my assistant along with me to act as a neutral stranger presence. During sessions she sat in a remote part of the room and did not look at, make eye contact with or interact with Heidi in any way but was merely present.

Upon arriving at their home, Heidi immediately ran from me to the top of the living room stairs, where she apparently felt more secure. Therefore, desensitization and counterconditioning began on the stairs with Heidi at the top and Christine and I at the bottom sitting together, Christine facing Heidi and I sitting sideways to Heidi but closer to her than Christine. I placed treats on all the steps leading to Heidi where she would run away at my approach and then return once I had retreated back to the stair bottom. At first, she would only eat the treats on the first two steps closest to her while Christine and I verbally praised her. Over the next sessions I placed treats progressively closer from the near end of each step to the far end and then down to the next lower step and so over sessions Heidi slowly walked down the steps ending with her only two steps above me and eating the treat from my hand. I was able to intermittently look at Heidi but could not make eye contact with her at this point, as it would cause her to run back to the top of the stairs.
Thus the desensitization and counterconditioning process consisted of my approaching Heidi with a reinforcer (treat) and retreating while she was reinforced for her approach to me (however far the initial distance) by the treat and praise and by doing this over and over again at progressively shorter distances. At this point, I felt that Heidi was strong enough to proceed to the next stage of treatment.

Modeling & Obedience 
The next phase of treatment for Heidi involved the use of Christine’s other dog Thunder, a
3-year-old neutered male Labrador/Shepherd mix. Thunder was a calm, tolerant, friendly and eager to please dog who was also quite large, being more than double Heidi’s height and weight. Thunder was the very patient Alpha dog of the household.
Apart from her fear of strangers, Christine described Heidi as rambunctious, active and very assertive with the other dogs, competing vigorously with them for objects and affection. In fact, she described Heidi as being quite possessive, often stealing toys and bones from the other dogs and pushing past them for affection.

I decided at this time to include Thunder in our sessions for several reasons:
1- I wanted to engage Heidi in obtaining my affection, attention and treats while I interacted with Thunder based on the idea that her possessive, competitive traits would overcome her now desensitized fear.
2- I wanted to use the larger and alpha Thunder as a reassuring presence for Heidi and literally work them side by side;
3- I wanted to train Heidi in basic obedience and alternate behaviors to engage in rather than her fearful reactionary behaviors by training her and Thunder simultaneously;
4- I wanted in all ways for Thunder to act as a model from which Heidi could take her cues for appropriate behavior in interacting with strangers (the foundation for the appropriate behavior being our obedience training in which Heidi could later take her cues directly from her owner’s commands).

Obedience and DRI (differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior) 
A primary purpose of training Heidi in obedience aside from its inherent benefits was to train her in alternate behaviors which would be incompatible with her fearful reactionary behaviors or employ differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors (DRI). In addition, Heidi would be learning to look to others, Thunder, myself and Christine, for her cues for appropriate behavior in fearful situations.

Almost immediately upon beginning basic obedience training with Thunder, Heidi came altogether down from the stairs and into the living room, very closely watching Thunder’s training from a small distance away. During the first lesson Heidi was brave enough to approach me, stretching her body as far as possible to reach my outstretched hand then retreating quickly. As the session progressed and I continued to work with Thunder, Heidi approached me more frequently although in the same manner and did exhibit some physical shaking at times. In order to really engage Heidi and distract her from her fear towards the end of the session Christine and I instructed Thunder in the “come” command, with Thunder running back and forth between us for treats and affection. To our great delight, Heidi made a major breakthrough and began running with Thunder back and forth between us. Her body language and behavior conveyed a happy confidence as she played this recall game and exhibited no fear, in fact often pushing past Thunder to reach each of us first. Christine was instructed to train Heidi in the other aspects of the lesson before our next session.

Heidi’s obedience training continued in this way with her progressing quickly, she was soon side by side with Thunder during sessions, now working directly with me and earning her treats through obeying the obedience commands rather than for her proximity to me. It was now time to take Heidi outside.

Walking Outside 
A Gentle Leader head collar was used on Heidi due to its effectiveness in reducing pulling. The physical act of pulling is paired with the emotional state of fear as it is utilized in an attempt to escape/avoid whatever is triggering the fear, the interaction of physical and emotional states combine to produce the experience of “fear”. Therefore, each component can act upon and influence the other. By reducing a physical component of fear, i.e. pulling, the emotional aspect and the experience of fear can be diminished. A long lead was also used to provide Heidi with plenty of room for maneuvering rather than a taut, restraining lead. Heidi’s stranger phobia outside proceeded very similarly to her treatment indoors and we actually used a fairly large staircase here as well, beginning at the top and working our way down the steps to the sidewalk. Here, however, we all started at the top platform, Heidi, Thunder and myself and worked our way down together via the obedience commands of sit, down and come, working methodically and slowly. Initially upon going outside Heidi quickly ran back inside about 2-3 times, almost immediately returning back outside. It was soon apparent Heidi needed Thunder to be literally next to her at all times or she would continue to freeze and then lunge back indoors so they were kept tightly side by side.

Upon reaching the sidewalk keeping Thunder next to Heidi was essential — if he got a step or two ahead of her Heidi would immediately exhibit a panic reaction. Heidi’s stranger phobia on the street was treated by training her to walk properly, i.e. luring her ahead with the command of “let’s go” and plenty of auto-sits. As Heidi was unable to pass people on the sidewalk at this point — she would cower and run away from them — initially any stranger was given a wide berth while she was quickly lured past. As is often seen in phobic reactions, Heidi was also hypersensitive to noises, which would cause her to momentarily freeze. This was dealt with in the same manner of luring her and quickly proceeding forward and past the sound. Several sessions were devoted to Heidi’s outside walks and as she progressed she was able to relax and enjoy being walked. However, while she could pass strangers, she needed to be just off the curb into the street to do so and they were passed in a progressively slower but still very quick walk as was the case with any sudden noises. Additionally, Heidi needed Thunder to be with her at all times to persuade her from running back towards home.

Upon completion of Heidi’s treatment and training (primarily determined by the client’s finances), Christine was advised to continue as we had been and to also start to slowly expose Heidi to strangers indoors, letting Heidi completely decide if and when she wanted to approach any visitors rather than having any visitor approach her. She was to proceed in the same way we had been, visitors were to ignore Heidi, not making direct eye contact with her and Christine was instructed to create a trail of treats towards the visitor as we has done on the stairs. Over time, as Heidi grew more comfortable being simply physically around visitors they could begin to intermittently glance at her and place a treat at their feet. Eventually, the visitor was to request an obedience command from Heidi and treat her directly from their hand if Heidi was comfortable with their doing so. The client was advised that Heidi’s fear was very ingrained and deep and needed to be continually, slowly and gently reduced through the programs we had established. This was to be an ongoing and a long-range process with no clear end at this point and may be necessary to an extent throughout Heidi’s life.

Follow up 
At 2 month follow up Heidi was able to be walked outside without Thunder long enough to eliminate and with Thunder was able to go on regular extended walks comfortably. When alone Heidi could be walked past strangers and would not panic although she would somewhat hurry. With Thunder, she would not hurry but had begun to occasionally bark at passersby. Heidi’s owners were advised to continue to work with Heidi’s outdoor program and still provide intermittent rewards for walking correctly (i.e., not pulling and with auto-sits) past strangers.

Heidi had cautiously approached some visitors in the house right after training and quickly sniffed them and retreated but currently is only partially approaching visitors and then retreating and hiding. Heidi’s owners were advised that while they had done very well in working with Heidi it was extremely important to continue to work with her to prevent her fear from again overwhelming her and were instructed again in the program to effectively expose Heidi to visitors in their home.

Christina Shusterich, BA, CBC
President-NY Clever K9 Inc.
© 2004

bottom of page