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UC Davis Veterinary Behaviorists Help Frightened, Aggressive Dog Overcome Fears

August 1, 2014

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Minnie overcame her fears with the help of UC Davis veterinary behaviorists.

VMTH "Case of the Month" - August 2014

When Minnie, an 8-year-old female shepherd/foxhound mix, presented to the Behavior Service at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, her fearful response to noises and unfamiliar surroundings was so severe she refused to get out of the car. UC Davis veterinarians had to perform their initial examination of her in the parking lot.

Minnie’s owners reported that she always hid during thunderstorms, fireworks or avalanche control blastings at nearby ski resorts where they lived. Last year, though, after a particularly loud thunderstorm, Minnie refused to leave the property for walks and was becoming aggressive toward strangers in the house. Her diagnosis of noise phobia and stranger-directed fear-based aggression would need to be treated with an extensive regimen of desensitizing her to the noises and changing her perception of these noises, as well as the strangers.

An advantage of taking an animal to a veterinary behaviorist rather than a trainer is that trainers cannot determine if there is a physical or medical reason for the animal’s behavior. Veterinary behaviorists were able to rule out any possible physical reasons why Minnie wouldn’t go on walks; then, due to the severity of her responses to sounds, they placed her on an antianxiety medication known as fluoxetine, a generic selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which could help change how she perceived certain things. Humans on SSRIs report they are more optimistic. The drug doesn’t just resolve their depression, it makes them think positively about situations.  

Approximately 30 percent of veterinary behavior patients require medication. As a multitude of research has been done on SSRI use on dogs, the veterinarians had reason to believe it could help Minnie.

The drugs were only a small part of Minnie’s treatment plan, though. The real measurement of success would be Minnie’s response to desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) activities the behaviorists planned for her.

The first DS/CC task involved playing a CD of noises on the stereo while keeping Minnie focused on another task. If she remained calm during the noise, she would receive a treat. If she showed fear, they would stop the session and start again later at a lower volume. Eventually, the noises were played increasingly louder until they were a real-life volume; this desensitization plan worked. Minnie began to associate the noises with something positive (getting a treat), and realized that they were nothing to fear.   

Next, Minnie’s owners moved on to a DS/CC task that involved helping Minnie get out of the car. If she got out, she was given a treat, but if she refused, she was driven home and allowed out of the car without a treat. The first car trip was only the length of the driveway, but similar to the CD sounds getting eventually louder, the drives would eventually get longer. After extensive sessions, Minnie was exiting the car at a park three miles away.

Finally, Minnie would have to face her aggression issue with strangers. This DS/CC task started with walks in town to deal with strangers away from home. Next came strangers on their property, and eventually, Minnie dealt with strangers in the house. Like with all the DS/CC tasks, Minnie gradually adjusted to the new situations by associating the strangers with positive things. 

While the treatment plan developed by the veterinary behaviorists was long (taking about a year to become successfully effective), Minnie was responsive to it. The veterinarians credit the success to her owners’ unwillingness to give up, staying on course with the plan despite its longevity. After a year, Minnie was weaned off the fluoxetine, but her owners continue certain DS/CC tasks as an ongoing part of Minnie’s life.  

About the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital
The William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis—a unit of the School of Veterinary Medicine—provides state-of-the-art clinical care while serving as the primary clinical teaching experience for DVM students and post graduate veterinarian residents. The VMTH treats more than 47,000 animals a year, ranging from cats and dogs to horses, cows and exotic species. To learn more about the VMTH, please go to Timely news updates can be received on its Facebook ( and Twitter ( pages.

Rob Warren
VMTH Communications & Marketing Officer