What Martinis and Chocolate can Teach You About Overcoming Your Pet’s Fears

Fear is a powerful emotion. It takes a lot to overcome it, in dogs and cats as well as humans, but there are some techniques that can help.

I am afraid of spiders. Granted, there are species of spiders than can pose some danger in certain situations, but I live in a big city with no dangerous spiders. I’m afraid of them out of all proportion to the threat they pose to me. I have no idea why; I just am.

What I do know is that the best way to get me over my fear is definitely not to put a spider on my arm and then hold me still until I stop screaming, hyperventilating, and sweating. I may eventually either shut down or faint, but when I revive, I will still be afraid.

The answer is also not to put a spider on your arm and point out that you aren’t afraid and haven’t been harmed. This is the kind of emotional fear I can’t reason my way out of. It also won’t work to give me a book that describes how harmless and amazing and useful spiders are. I have actually read one, and I’m still afraid.

Can Fears Be Cured?

But here’s something that might work. Suppose you put a spider in a glass box, so I could see it, but I knew it couldn’t get out, and then you offered me chocolate. Honestly, if you had that box right next to me, I probably couldn’t eat the chocolate (although I have a hard time imagining circumstances under which I would not eat chocolate). But if you stood across the room with the spider in a box, so I could see it, but it was far enough away that my heart wasn’t racing, I would be happy to take the chocolate. I might actually be so happy that for a moment I’d forget the spider was there.

The next day you might show me the box and suggest I take a step closer, still handing out the chocolate through it all. Over a few days, we might get closer and closer. The point here is not to make the chocolate contingent on me getting closer (I get chocolate no matter what!), but to let me choose to approach. When I can stand right next to you with the spider in a box, and I can happily keep eating chocolate and barely paying attention, you might return to across the room (just so I wouldn’t get too scared) and open the box. To make sure I didn’t revert to screaming, you might pair that very challenging transition with some chocolate plus a chocolate martini.

If we kept going this way, increasing my exposure to the spider in tiny increments and pairing it with chocolate in all its forms, eventually you could probably put a spider on my arm and I would not scream. My feeling about spiders would have changed from “spider equals terror” to “spider equals chocolate.”

Emotional Science

The behavioral science term for this process is desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization means to make less sensitive to something. Counterconditioning means to teach someone to change their emotional reaction to something. These two are used together to help reduce problematic reactions that are rooted in feelings.

We use desensitization and counterconditioning when feelings are so strong that typical training techniques are not enough to overcome them. You might teach a dog to go to his bed, but when you’re running the vacuum cleaner the noise scares him too much and he can’t settle. Or you might teach a cat to sit on her tree, but if you bring home an unfamiliar cat, she may feel too threatened to go there and just sit and observe. The arousal is stronger than the training, and you have to bring down the arousal level before you can change how the animal feels—because animals (including us humans) can’t learn when they’re panicking.

Using This Technique

Let’s look at these two things separately, and then how you might use them together with your companion animal. In the spider example, I started my desensitization with a spider in a box all the way across the room. If you want to make something less scary, you expose the animal to it in a way that doesn’t seem threatening, so she is aware it’s there, but genuinely isn’t scared. If anything other than her awareness or curiosity is aroused, you put it farther away or make it smaller or quieter or slower or perhaps not moving at all.

With loud sounds such as a vacuum cleaner or a baby crying, if you can’t make them quiet enough, start by recording the noise on your phone (or downloading a YouTube video with the same noise) and playing it at very low volume. Keep it low enough that you always get a calm reaction. Then, very gradually raise the volume—always keeping it low enough that your pet does not become aroused. You want either calm curiosity or no interest at all. Anything else and you’ve gone too far.

What about counterconditioning? Remember, you do that by associating the scary thing with something else that your pet loves. Eventually, the scary thing stops being scary (that’s desensitization) and it predicts good stuff, so your pet is actually happy about it (that’s counterconditioning).

Let’s go back to the baby crying example. Whenever you play that recording, you also offer your pet something she loves—playtime, cuddling, brushing, food. It doesn’t have to be the same thing every time, but it always has to be fabulous. Then she’s thinking, “Whenever I hear that noise, I get my favorite things. Wow! That noise tells me goodies are coming. It’s not so scary after all.”

Be careful about two mistakes people often make with desensitization and counterconditioning. The first is pushing the exposure too far, too soon. Remember, your goal is to make sure your pet is never feeling scared or threatened. If she’s too aroused to enjoy her special reward, you’ve gone too far. The second mistake is to offer something for counterconditioning that’s only mildly rewarding. It has to be something your pet absolutely loves; save it for the training sessions, too, so it’s extra special. Use whatever is the equivalent for your pet of a chocolate martini with a scoop of chocolate ice cream in it.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.