There are a number of potential causes for a dog or cat to be afraid of people. Genetics most certainly plays a role, either exacerbating the other causes or being the sole cause itself. Lack of socialization – controlled and positive experiences with a variety of stimuli – at the proper age can lead to a pet who is afraid of new people and things. A traumatic experience associated with a person/people can also create fear in a dog or cat. It is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that the person intentionally mistreated or harmed the animal; a car backfiring while a truck blows its horn as the dog looks at a child on a walk can result in a dog who is afraid of children.  

Regardless of the source of the fear, a combination of desensitization (DS) and counterconditioning (CC) is almost always the most effective treatment. Desensitization means to introduce the fear-inducing stimulus repeatedly but at a low enough intensity to not elicit a response. Counterconditioning is a process of changing a negative emotional reaction to a positive one by pairing the fear-inducing stimulus with a joy-inducing one.  

Before You Start 

There are a few things that you need to know before beginning a DS/CC program. You must understand what frightens your pet; your pet’s stress signals; as well as what your pet loves.  

You can’t treat fear if you don’t know what your pet is afraid of. Is it all men or tall men wearing glasses, for instance. Fear can be a complex emotion and there can be many associations an animal makes with what it fears. For example, a pet who is afraid of Aunt Sally could develop a fearful response to anyone wearing a similar rose-based perfume. Make a note of as many details as possible about the situation when your pet responds fearfully – location, time of day, sounds, odors, etc., in addition to the trigger and distance from the trigger. 

In order to properly desensitize and countercondition your pet, you need to work below threshold – the point at which the animal demonstrates a fearful reaction. Most failures in treating fear result from the owner trying to train while the animal is over threshold. The learning center of the brain literally shuts down at this stage so behavior change is impossible to achieve. Closely observe your pet and watch for initial signs that he or she is stressed/afraid. Common early signs include tensing/stilling, change of breathing patterns, dilated pupils, and hackles raising/piloerection. Continued exposure to the trigger will generally lead to trembling, drooling, lip licking/tongue flicking, hyperpanting/increased heart rate, and avoidance and can progress to barking/hissing, growling, lunging, swatting (cats)/snapping (dogs), and biting. 

You need to know what your pet loves, as that will be used to create a new, positive association with whatever he currently fears. This article will refer to treats, as those are the top favorite of most pets and are easy to administer but anything that your pet adores – playing with a favorite toy, a scratch behind the ear, etc. – can be used in counterconditioning. However, to be most effective, this “good thing” should primarily be available only to your pet during your treatment sessions until he is feeling more comfortable with his trigger. 

Don’t be afraid to get creative when it comes to treats. Chicken, freeze-dried shrimp, hot dogs, and cheese are commonly used treats, but we’ve known dogs who work best for carrots or French toast and cats who can’t resist sour cream. You will be using very small amounts (about the size of your pinky fingernail) in order to avoid lag time as your pet eats as well as to prevent satiation and digestive upset. You can reduce your pet’s meal size if you are concerned about weight gain or loose stool due to the extra food. 

The Procedure 

Below is an example of a step-by-step treatment plan for a pet who is afraid of men with full beards demonstrating signs of fear when the man is 15 feet away. While your pet might have a different fear the general path will be the same – simply make appropriate changes based upon your dog’s or cat’s trigger and threshold.  

1). Work in an environment where your pet is comfortable. A man with a mustache (a faux mustache is fine!) should appear 20 feet away. Immediately give treats to your pet. The man should move out of sight after about five seconds. Because this is well under your pet’s threshold you only need to repeat this step four or five times. 

2). Repeat step one with the man 19 feet away. Ideally the man is able to move closer while out of sight of your pet rather than walk toward her. If this isn’t possible (he is coming through a doorway into a hall, for instance), he should turn his body slightly sideways when moving forward so as to appear less intimidating. Repeat until your pet is comfortable with the man at that distance for three or four repetitions. 

3). Repeat the above, continuing to reduce the distance between the man and your pet by approximately one foot at a time. When your pet is relaxed and comfortable with the man when he is next to her for a few seconds for ten repetitions, go to the next step. 

4). Repeat the entire process with a man with a short goatee or Van Dyke. Watch your pet’s reactions carefully. The more repetitions it takes for your pet to be comfortable at a certain step, the more repetitions you should do once she is comfortable before moving ahead (e.g., if it takes three reps for her to be relaxed, do three or four more reps; if it takes 15 reps for your pet to be fully relaxed, do 20 repetitions at the relaxed stage and then proceed). 

5). When your pet is relaxed with this man nearby, repeat the entire process with a man with a fuller goatee/Van Dyke or with a beard of light stubble.  

6). Repeat the entire process with a man with a slightly fuller beard. Continue in this vein with men with more facial hair, if desired. 

If you want/need your pet to be comfortable around the trigger for extended periods, not just in passing, duration will need to be built into the plan, as well. It can be added at almost any point but it must be increased separately from other factors. In the above example, a few seconds could be added once the pet is relaxed at each distance, or duration could increase once the man is nearby, adding a few seconds every five or six repetitions (or as the pet’s behavior dictates) until the goal length is met (or, better yet, exceeded). 

If your dog or cat exhibits signs of fear or stress during the training session, you have moved ahead too quickly. Go back one or two steps and go from there.  

Each training session is best kept to no more than five minutes but breaks between sessions needn’t be hours in most cases; generally, ten or 15 minutes will suffice. There is no formula to determine how long it will take to desensitize and countercondition a dog or cat to something it fears. The more times the pet has experienced fear and/or the more intense the fearful response, the longer it will take to overcome.  

What to Do in Uncontrolled Situations 
Don’t forget, it is your job to go the extra mile to avoid your pet’s triggers. But sometimes the unexpected happens or it might not always be predictable when some triggers will cross your pet’s path. Unfailingly have your pet’s “good thing” with you if there is even a chance that the trigger will appear. If it does, immediately start to dole out the good thing until the person is out of sight/hearing range, then remove the good stuff. Should the trigger suddenly appear at a point that is far beyond your pet’s threshold – for example, your dog is doing well with men 15 feet away but a man steps out of his car when you are six feet away – turn around and get distance. You can try using her good thing until the coast is clear but she might be too anxious or aroused to have any interest. Remember, once over threshold the learning center of the brain is nonoperational.  You simply need to diffuse the situation.  

A desensitization and counterconditioning program can be rather detailed and complicated. Working with a private trainer, certified behavior counselor, or applied animal behaviorist can be beneficial and should not be considered a last resort, especially for long-term fears. We can provide referrals for such professionals if needed. 

If you would like information from an Anti-Cruelty Society Behavior Specialist regarding this behavior topic, please call 312-645-8253 or email behavior@anticruelty.org

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