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Canine Behavior/extreme paranoia and anxiety from crawling bugs on walls

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My 18month old male pitbull is always extremely paranoid and jittery about the bugs or whatever it is he sees on the walls. I can't get him to stop shaking,pacing and constantly looking up the walls, from side to side. I believe this started when he would watch me kill the roaches in the apt. Pretty soon he was the one to alert me that there was either one coming or he could spot it and I still could not. He even is doing it in the dark. He will perk up his ears and look all around the room and then finds it with ease. So then he will either jump up the wall or just sit there til I kill it. But after he still stays on the stare for the bugs. Now its worse...he is having what seems to be panic attacks. Short or to rapid of breathing. Constant pacing and hiding under the coffee table. What will help

Answer
Thank you for your question. I'm so sorry your pup is having such a traumatized response to this issue. I can relate a little. I accidentally taught my dog that flying/buzzing insects are worthy of terror. This happened because when he was a puppy (maybe about a year old), a wasp got in my house and he watched me flailing around trying to get it with a fly swatter while also trying to avoid it. it buzzed passed him a few times so he heard the buzz and made the association that that sound made Mama super scared and act crazy and it scared him. Then after that, he started leaving the room and trembling and cowering when ever he heard a buzzing sound - even just a house fly which is only irritating to me, but not actually scary.

You can either manage it by gently escorting him to another room and addressing the bug while he's not present. Hopefully he'll learn that when he sees/hears a bug, he should just leave the room and when he comes back in, it'll be gone.

Or you can approach it from a proper Counter Conditioning way. To do this, we need to pair the scary bugs with something wonderful so that the moment he notices a bug, that triggers the arrival of something he loves (then escort him out of the room so you can deal with the bug without him seeing you). For the vast majority of dogs, the single best thing to use for this process is going to be a food item.

It should be a tasty bite of something he absolutely LOVES and he should only get it when he notices bugs. It needs to be something properly "high value", not dry, store-bought treats. I usually use string cheese or cooked chicken breast or hot dog as a starting point and then let the dog guide me to what they like best. Then I keep a stash of that handy (in a ziplock bag that sits near me when I'm home and goes back in the fridge so it doesn't spoil when I'm not ready for it. If there's a real concern about food spoilage, you can try store-bought soft treats that are meatier. Or many dogs really love Cheerios (I use the Multigrain cheerios as they're a little sweet, but not overly sweet). Of course, only contemplate Cheerios if your dog is not allergic to wheat.

So, here's how counter conditioning looks:
You're watching TV and your dog is hanging out with you. You see his ears perk up and he starts acting "hyper vigilant" as he scans the walls looking for the bug.
The moment you see the hyper vigilant behavior, start "raining" treats around him. These should be very small bites so that you can drop several. You can drop them 1-3 at a time and scatter them around right near him. He may not initially even notice that you did it. That's OK. Do it anyway, then escort him into another room (gently, no yanking or dragging, of course) and scatter a few more treats for him before you close the door to keep him confined while you tend to the bug. Then let him out of the room. When he comes back, he'll look for the bug and then he'll notice the treats and eat those.

If you're lucky, he'll notice the treats when you first drop them. But it may take several repetitions before he starts to be able to register the treats when he's that worried.

NOTE: We are NOT reinforcing fear by dropping treats. First, it's not possible to reinforce an emotion. You can only reinforce or punish behavior. Second, reinforcing means to "make stronger". We are not making his fear or his fear behavior stronger by pairing the scary bug with tasty treats falling from the sky.

Instead, what we're doing is teaching Pup that the presence of the bug RELIABLY PREDICTS GOOD THINGS. Once he makes that connection, he will start to look to you (or for the food) when he notices the bug. That's a major milestone in the process! He's beginning to understand that Bugs = Manna from Heaven. Now, bugs are not quite as scary. . .  Pretty soon, bugs will be even less scary and may in fact even be exciting.

Once it's clear that he's made the connection, continue raining food every time he notices a bug for another dozen or so times. Then, you can start doing the food every other time he notices a bug, then after a couple dozen food deliveries on an every-other-time basis, you can drop it back to a more random sometimes-there's-food-sometime's-there's-not pattern, with an AVERAGE treat delivery of every 4th or 5th time. That means that sometimes you might give him treats when bugs appear 2 or 3 times in a row, but then it might be 5 or 8 or even 10 times before the next time food appears. This is called maintenance, so that we continue to make sure that bugs = good things and don't become scary again.

Now, I've suggested that even after you've dropped treats, you should escort him to another room. this is so you can deal with the bug without your behavior in that process unintentionally scaring the dog. Once he has relaxed and is no longer panicking over the bugs, you can try letting him stay in the room while you remove the bug - just be sure that you're behaving and sounding happy and that after you remove the bug, you follow that with treats and love and praise. It's important that he believe you're having a good time and that you're not afraid. If you're afraid - that could increase his fear because dogs take their cues from us and if we're frightened, then we are telling our dogs they have good reason to be frightened as well.

I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.

Jody, CPDT-KA
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist

MAPP 2016 Candidate
Tufts Cummings Veterinary School
http://NutzAboutMutz.com

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, CPDT- KA, APDT

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IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 5 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If youíre looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if youíre local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at http://CashewsCorner.wordpress.com/ If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.

Experience

I have been professionally modifying behavior and training obedience for 7 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I have just changed the name of my business. It is no longer Good Dog! Dog Training. The new name is Nutz About Mutz!. If you see previous questions with the Good Dog! website information, that is my response.

Organizations
I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications
http://NutzAboutMutz.com ; http://CashewsCorner.wordpress.com ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

Education/Credentials
I have a graduate education in animal behavior and learning. (While I completed my coursework and did the requisite research, I did not defend a dissertation. I am qualified, but not certified and so technically not a doctor. This is commonly referred to as Ph.D.-ABD which means All But Dissertation.) My educational focus was with non-human primates, but my personal interest is with domestic dogs and their relationships with humans and other animals. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences.

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