Hi John: Our dog was frightened by hot air balloons flying very low. However, two weeks ago whilst out on a walk she came practically face-to-face with a balloon about to take off and since then I can only describe her behaviour as verging on paranoid.
The situation is now rapidly deteriorating. Over the last couple of days it has been extremely difficult to get her to go for a walk. She is so scared that this morning she point-blank refused to even leave the drive.
What can we do?
P. T. – Swindon, England
The pilots of hot air balloons tell me it’s not the sight of the balloon that initially elicits a fearful response in the dogs, it is the sound made when they engage the propane valve. Initially, it’s not the ‘sound’ alone they fear, it’s the direction it’s coming from. Dogs like yours, and those that react similarly to thunder and fire works at least initially don’t have phobic responses triggered by common loud sudden sounds at ground level.
Once a fright establishes itself these dogs start to look for advance clues in hopes that early warning will help in their “survival”. Initially the dog may phobically fear the valve sound but eventually the sight balloons suffices. Thunder phobic dogs more often than not eventually grow fearful as the barometric pressure changes in advance of an actual storm. It’s much the same as if the lady of the house changes the sheets in the guest bedroom. If that, from her male counterpart’s perspective has more often than not led to an uncomfortable visit with the in-laws, eventually the sight of the changing of the sheets alone can make the man antsy. If it happens often enough he becomes conditioned and whenever the new sheets make an appearance so immediately does his dread and rather than wait for his lambasting he flees straight to the pub.
Fear of balloons or any other phobia is a wicked problem because on average it almost always gets worse and takes herculean efforts to improve. I’ve seen a single phobic case that I would say was “fixed”. This was a dog fearful of thunder whose owner moved to a place very close to some busy train tracks and the dogs fear of thunder quickly went away. The results were likely due to something referred to as “flooding” which in essence is swamping the subject with that which they fear where there is no escape. In other words, the in-laws must move in. It seems the brain can only take so much of the fear and learns to if not relax then accept.
Another approach is to systematically desensitize the dog. First the dog has to be conditioned to relax on cue, then that which stimulates the fear is divided up into a hierarchy and the cue to relax is introduced level by level. Most dog trainers recommend this approach but there are very few success stories. Not because it’s an unsound approach but because practical application is difficult for a variety of reasons. The time investment required is not available to the average dog owner, establishing a hierarchy of fear cues is difficult, and the single unexpected appearance of the source of the fear in its full glory can knock Humpty Dumpty from his perch again.
In both cases there are pharmaceuticals and holistic versions of pharmaceuticals that are used to help promote the capacity for the calmness.