E194: Sharon Carroll - Fear, anxiety, or something else?

Sharon Carroll comes back on the podcast to talk about what we know about the psychological issues possible in dogs — and some of what we can do about them.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Sharon Carroll.

Sharon started competing with dogs over 30 years ago. She then made the change from competing with dogs to competing with horses.

For the next few decades, Sharon had a successful career riding and coaching through to the international levels of both eventing and dressage. She has been an Australian representative rider, and in 2013 acquired her EA Level 3 dressage specialist coaching certificate — the highest equestrian coaching qualification attainable.

Sharon holds a Bachelor of Applied Science, a Graduate Diploma in Captive Vertebrate Management, and a Master of Animal Science. She is currently working on a Ph.D.

Animal behavior, training, species-specific cognition, and welfare are key areas of Sharon's focus.

Sharon assists owners with behavioral issues in both horses and dogs; she is a fully certified behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) in both species. Much of Sharon's routine work is with anxiety-based issues and aggressive behaviors in dogs.

Just under two years ago, Sharon made the transition back from competing with horses to competing with dogs, and is now looking forward to progressing in a range of dog sports.

Hi Sharon, welcome to the podcast!

Sharon Carroll: Hi Melissa.

Melissa Breau: I'm so excited to have you back. To start us out, do you want to remind listeners who your dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Sharon Carroll: Of course. I love talking about my dogs. My oldest dog is 13 now. He's a little Papillion called Dodge. Most people with a dog that age would say he's retired, but he's actually retired from nothing because he never did anything. But he's very good at cheering on the other dogs and eating lots of treats. During COVID I got very bored and put a novice trick dog title on him. He thought that was fun, and now he wants to get involved in every training session I do because he's realized how many treats are involved.

Then we have Jericho. He's a 3-and-half-year-old apricot Standard Poodle. He's got his CDX and his Rally Masters. During COVID I fiddled with tricks with him and he has his expert trick dog title.

And then I have Vincent. He's the baby of the family. He's a silver Standard Poodle. He's 18 months old and he's now got his champion trick dog title just last week and he got his Fenzi Team 2 just a couple of weeks ago. That was pretty exciting for him, and he'll head out into obedience and rally next year, assuming the world turns back to normal.

I've dabbled in a little bit of nosework with the dogs. But something I've never had a go at, I'm really keen to have a go at, is tracking. I've noticed Lucy has a Foundation Tracking coming up next term, so I'm thinking I'll be trying to get a spot in that class.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Lots of different things there. And congrats on the new Team 2 title. That's a big deal.

Sharon Carroll: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned in the intro much of your routine work is anxiety-based issues and aggressive behavior in dogs. What do we know about the range of conditions that dogs can have?

Sharon Carroll: It's a hugely developing field, and if we'd had this talk twenty years ago, people would have thought we were all mad, because it really is that current and it's developing constantly.

There's still debate whether wild animals can have psychopathologies. Some researchers and scientists believe there's very clear evidence for that, especially things like the wild elephants that are suspected to have PTSD issues, because the triggers that are causing their PTSD are very similar to the triggers that would cause ours: breakup in family unit, early separation, early maternal separation due to poaching, habitat destruction similar to us losing our homes.

We see in those elephants the increased startle reflex or the change in the subtle responses, and we see antisocial behavior and them having difficulty forming all those social bonds, and we see hyper-aggression — all sorts of things that we might see in psychopathology in humans. So there's a good bit of evidence out there for wild animals, and there's still some researchers suggesting that there are wild animals out there of various species, but that perhaps it's difficult for us to identify them in the wild.

And then there's other people that suggest that there probably isn't a lot of psychopathology in wild animals, but the reason being given for that is that through natural selection it just doesn't favor those animals. It's difficult for them to survive potentially and certainly to reproduce.

So it's potentially something that doesn't affect our wildlife as much as it does affect our dogs, because they're very much under the pressure of our artificial selection, where we certainly don't select against behavior or pathologies.

And then we have more pressure on dogs. Some dogs have careers. Military dogs have careers. We have performance dogs who are under a different sort of pressure than what the average dog would be, physically and psychologically. All dogs pretty much have an unnatural lifestyle compared to what they would have had thirty years ago, let alone thousands of years ago. So I think it would be pretty elitist and naïve to assume that only humans could have mental health issues or psychopathologies.

In dogs we see — to circle back to answer your question — in dogs we see canine compulsive disorders. We don't use the word OCD in dogs because the obsessive part does require us to somewhat know they're thinking, the obsession part that occurs in humans. So it's termed often canine compulsive disorder, but we certainly see compulsive disorders in dogs. Anxiety disorders — I think the one most commonly people would recognize is separation anxiety, but there's a range of anxiety disorders in dogs. Specific phobias — noise phobias probably would be the one that most people would recognize there, or confinement distress, equivalent to claustrophobia in humans.

Then we see things emerging. People start talking about things like ADHD-like disorders in dogs. And then of course we've got canine PTSD. In the military dogs it's not uncommon to be diagnosed with canine PTSD, where the dogs generally change their feelings and their joy around their toys, and a whole lot of things change, just like you'd find similarly in PTSD in people.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little more about the differences between some of those conditions? What do we know about them?

Sharon Carroll: They're all based on behaviors in animals, because in humans most of these conditions, although we can see some of the behavioral components and the effect on physiology, we mainly are going to see these identified in humans due to the humans sharing their feelings and thoughts about what's going on.

In animals of course we can't do that, but we do base it on behavior. So when we see a behavior that appears similar to a behavior we might see in a human, and especially when that behavior then has a reduction or elimination when administered similar psychotropic medications to what would treat that condition in humans, then we start to say, "Well, we probably are seeing that condition."

What I would say is that a lot of people look at a fearful dog and immediately jump to the labeling of anxiety or anxious. I'd say there's a big difference. Fearful dogs — even really, really fearful dogs — with really good management and training can usually come completely out of their shell and become completely what we would call "normal." Dogs with true anxiety behaviors, it can be a lifelong slug, similar to what it can be in humans.

Melissa Breau: The more we become aware of the variety of psychological issues that dogs can have, I'd assume the harder it becomes to differentiate, especially for your average dog trainer or your average person who doesn't have a background in some of this stuff to what's "normal," like a normal fear response, and what isn't. When do you see something as worthy of looking for a diagnosis versus something that falls into that normal range?

Sharon Carroll: It's really tough. What I would say is we have to never forget there's wide variation in dogs, just like there is in people.

We have high-energy dogs and we have low-energy dogs. We have dogs that have high frustration thresholds and dogs with low frustration thresholds. Some dogs will jump to aggression very readily. Other dogs almost never show aggression. We know that some dogs are going to be very comfortable around unknown people and some dogs aren't. Some dogs are going to be comfortable with an unknown dog in their face and some dogs aren't. So we have to know that everything is on a spectrum and there's a wide range of normal. We have to not be quick to jump to the idea that it might be abnormal.

As a behavior consultant, most of the times that I'm contacted by people, the dog is actually showing a really normal response. It's what we term "undesirable," something we might want to address for a range of reasons, but it's not necessarily an abnormal behavior. I worry about under-diagnosis, but I worry about over-diagnosis as well. I certainly think labeling dogs is not necessarily a great plan unless it's going to benefit the dog in some way.

On top of that, the honest truth — I'll probably get shot down for this one — but the honest truth is if you take a behavioral issue and you take that dog to a G.P. vet, they're probably going to look for a physiological cause, if you take that dog to a behavior expert, they're going to look for a behavioral disorder, and if you take that dog to a trainer, they're going to look for a training issue. I don't think any three of those things are wrong. Often it's a combination of those things, so we certainly have to look at all those things. No dog is going to not need to potentially … you need to look at those issues, but I think that's just a little bit of reality. Sometimes we can jump to wanting to label a dog when maybe it's just a version of normal and it just happens to be that dog.

Melissa Breau: You were talking about the downsides almost of labeling. But is it ever important, or when would it be important, to know what the underlying condition is, if a dog is behaving in a way that's outside of "normal"?

Sharon Carroll: We definitely need to be able to identify genuinely abnormal behavior or even extremes of behavior. I think we look to do we need further help. That's one of the reasons why we want to go looking. Do we need to access veterinary help? Certainly if I see a sudden change in behavior without an obvious underlying reason, or if I see something that I think might be pain related, or the dog is causing injury to itself trying to escape or from a compulsive disorder.

I saw a dog a week or so ago that had compulsive tail-chasing and it had one eye surgery and two tail amputations at different levels because it had injured itself so badly during compulsive tail-chasing. Those sorts of extremes are out there.

Inappropriate elimination — that's another one I'd probably want to be talking to vets. If you've got a dog that's house trained and it suddenly starts toileting in the house, we worry about stress, we worry about anxiety, has something changed in the home to set that off.

Also if there's no improvement. If someone competent has assessed the dog and they've started a training protocol, but we don't see improvement, then we want to maybe be out there talking to a behavior vet.

I think that's one of the important reasons why we want to know what that condition is, so that we can get the right help for the dog. And also to form the right protocol, we need to know.

Say separation-related problems. If it's separation anxiety, that's going to be dealt with differently to if it's a frustration-based behavior. If it's an escape behavior that we can't stop it, we have to say, Why is the dog trying to escape the enclosure? Is it trying to reunite with the owner? Is it an anxiety/panic-type behavior, or is it trying to escape the enclosure because it's fearful of the enclosure or something in the enclosure? Or is it trying to access something outside of the enclosure, so is it frustration-based? I think that's why we want to know that underlying reason, so that we can get the right help for the dog and form the right protocols to help the dog become better.

Melissa Breau: What are some of the behavior-modifying techniques out there for working with dogs who are demonstrating some of these conditions?

Sharon Carroll: There's so many; so many different techniques and strategies. I think the big thing is to know there's not going to be one method that's going to address every dog, so even if you see that one behavior and you want to go and address that, we really have to know what the underlying motivation or the underlying emotion is to address it effectively.

Most of the protocols are obviously going to aim at managing focus and arousal because they're the two really big things. Obviously we have counter-conditioning for fear-based behaviors, maybe functional rewarding, like giving distance for dogs in those settings. There's always going to be a cognitive component. I think a lot of people focus so much on the conditioning, and they start to say classical conditioning, and really, we're very rarely exclusively using classical conditioning in a domesticated animal.

Potentially, if I was trying to get close to a wild animal, or even a captive wild animal, we might be using that classical conditioning approach where it's like I appear and food appears. But for our domesticated dogs, we're almost always going to be asking for a behavior, or perhaps we somewhat think of looking at lack of a behavior. We're looking at them not performing the behavior we don't want. And that's part of what we're reinforcing. So there's a counter-conditioning component, but a lot of it is to do with operant conditioning when we're managing behaviors in dogs.

The big thing is always going to be assessment of the motivation or emotion that's actually driving the behavior. That's how you're going to get the best protocol. If I had a dog that had fear-based behaviors and I tried to use a protocol that was designed for impulsivity issues, I'm possibly going to run into trouble. Equally, if I have a dog that's performing these behaviors not for fear reasons, it's performing them because of maybe a breed-specific tendency or it's performing it from frustration, or it's an impulse issue, and I use a fear-based protocol, I'm pretty unlikely to be really successful.

So if I'm picking the wrong strategy, I might get some improvement but not full improvement, or I might actually make it worse, which would be a much bigger problem. There's lots of techniques out there, but the real key is knowing which technique to use and when to use that technique.

Even if we looked at leash reactivity as just one example, people think of that as one thing that can be fixed with one strategy, but why is the dog being reactive? Is it fear-based? Is it a true situation where the dog honestly feels like there's a threat to its safety, or is it frustrating? Or is it resource-guarding the owner or maybe some objects like toys or treats that the owner has on them? Is it true owner-guarding? Is it a protection-based behavior? Is it just a previously reinforced behavior, whether that was intentional or unintentional?

We've got to make sure we're looking at not just the behavior, but really looking at the motivation and the emotion behind it, so we can pick the right strategy. Because, like I said, there's so many strategies to choose from, but the key is matching the strategy to the actual dog.

Melissa Breau: Which leads really nicely into what I was going to ask next, which is if you could share a little more about how diagnosis impacts our treatment or training plan.

Sharon Carroll: Some cases are just going to be bigger than others. We need to be able to look at what's really driving this behavior so that we can get the correct approach.

If, for example, we look at separation-type issues … just say this is a true separation anxiety. We're going to be in for probably a bit of a long haul. We're going to probably have a team approach. We're probably going to have a vet or a veterinary behaviorist onboard, as well as a trainer, as well as the owners. There's going to be a big impact on the owners' lives for a least a period of time.

That's a much bigger thing than, for example, if we ran out to a dog that had some separation-related problems, but when we get there, we find that it's just inadvertently being trained an incorrect behavior. They've been inadvertently reinforcing the behavior that they didn't want. Or we've just got some frustration issues, so we need to maybe improve the frustration threshold for the dog. We may need to practice some techniques that help the dog calm itself when it does get frustrated.

There's an example, I guess, of we need to get the dog to … it's not just our dog behaves like this when we're absent, but why is the dog behaving like this. When we work that out, we can get the right treatment, we can get the right strategy onboard. Maybe in the case of a frustration-related issue, it turns out to be something that can be resolved quite quickly. We've just got to make sure that we get in there and get the correct identification of not just the behavior but that underlying cause so that we can get that correct training or treatment protocol in place.

Melissa Breau: The big question here, at least the one for a lot of people that's the big question: nature versus nurture. Can you talk to how that plays into all this?

Sharon Carroll: That's a really, really tough question, Melissa. We know it's both. Even for some of the bigger-named psychopathologies, we know we need a genetic predisposition or a genetic susceptibility. But then on top of that, we need exposure to the specific situation or circumstance to actually treat the condition in that person, or in that dog, in this case. And so it's going to be a combination of both. I think we should be paying attention to both.

I think perhaps we're not paying enough attention to the genetic component nowadays because the artificial selection … like if we just look at the nature side of it, we're not going a great job in some cases, and this is why we're perhaps seeing more of these behavioral issues out there.

Artificial selection means we're mostly selecting for one or more specific traits. If we're in performance, we're selecting for the behavioral traits that help us. If it's a working dog, we're selecting for behavioral traits. If we're in conformation showing, we're selecting for morphological traits. We start to focus so closely on those few things that matter so much to us and forget that everything else is coming along for the ride. Sometimes we need to be really careful, and sometimes we should be making more effort to select against some of these psychopathologies or some of these undesirable traits.

On the nurture component, the lifestyles our dogs lead is so far removed from their historic lifestyle — in recent years, even, let alone long term. This places so much pressure on these dogs. I think especially we don't do a great job of socialization, which is really sad because we try so hard to do such a good job.

We're all trying so hard to make sure we do these phenomenal socialization efforts, but if we look at what happens in the wild, if we look at that nurture component, the component we play a role in, if we look at animals in the wild, when they're going through that early socialization window, it's so critical that they learn what's relevant. What's potentially valuable out there? What do they need to know about? What are their food resources, etcetera? They also need to know about what's relevant in terms of what's potentially dangerous. And they need to be able to do it quickly, give their attention to things that are potentially valuable and things that are potentially dangerous.

But you know what's more important? They need to be able to ignore everything else. They have to habituate to everything else, to all that relevant stuff, because otherwise they would be mentally exhausted and they would not be able to function. They wouldn't survive.

What we don't do is enough of that. We don't do the having them ignore lots of things. Instead, I think sometimes people see someone working a behavior modification case, like a dog that's developed some fear-based issues, maybe it's got fear-based issues to dogs, and they see these protocols, like "See the dog, feed the dog." Let your dog see the dog, and then feed your own dog.

They start to do that with puppies, and you go, wow, you're just making that a potential resource now. Every time they see a dog, their arousal increases because they go, "That's important, that's become relevant. You've taught me that it's relevant, that dog." So they start looking for dogs. I'd rather them think that most dogs out there are irrelevant and that they should just walk past them. They're not potentially valuable or potentially dangerous.

Sometimes we have this idea that we're going to give them such a positive outlook that we forget that arousal comes in two forms. Positive arousal can be just as difficult to manage and just as much of an issue as when a dog arouses for negative emotions. So we have to be careful we're not training these dogs to hyper-arouse about things that we wish they'd consider were a bit irrelevant.

Just in dogs as a whole, but even in looking at the psychopathologies, we probably aren't doing the greatest job at the nature part or the nurture part, unfortunately, because I think everyone that's out there breeding is trying really hard to breed the best dogs for what they do, and I think everybody that owns a dog is trying to do the absolute best thing they can do to give that dog a well-rounded life. But sometimes I think we get a tiny bit mixed up at times.

Melissa Breau: I realize, looking back at the questions as we were chatting, that I didn't stick something in here specifically about the webinar you have coming up. So I do just want to quickly touch on that. You are going to do a webinar on this stuff for us, coming up on December 3. Do you want to say anything about what you're going to cover in the webinar or what folks should know?

Sharon Carroll: Sure. We're going to look at all of this type of stuff. We're going to talk about habituation and how important it is to teach dogs about things that are irrelevant. We're going to talk about how dogs form perception and response, so why two different dogs perceive something completely different. One might see it as a threat and one might see it as completely benign. Even two dogs that see it as a threat — why does one lunge and bark and one runs away? We're going to talk about those sorts of things.

We're going to talk about behavior modification and how we select an appropriate method and what's so important to select an appropriate method. We're going to talk about some emotions, things like anxiety and fear and frustration and anger, and how they play their role. And just a tiny bit about arousal and genetics, and the role genetics play in this particular topic.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. And again, for folks who are listening, you should be listening to this the Friday before — if you're listening the day it comes out — before the webinar. So the webinar will be next Thursday. All right, last question here for you, Sharon. What's something that you've learned or that you've been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Sharon Carroll: I think what I've been reminded of is that dog training is really hard. Period. It's just really hard. Every time you think you're starting to become really competent, something will come up that will make you believe you're actually completely incompetent.

I think we're all trying so hard to do the best we can for the dog, and achieve the goals we're trying to achieve, and I think it's just really hard. Mentally, for people, it can be really hard. It's a bit of a lonely type sport. You're often working on your own. Sometimes you don't have a great support network in that the people around you might not have the same philosophies as you, so you're not only dealing with your own demons trying to get the best outcome, but then you're questioning that sometimes because other people have other thoughts, and then on top of that you sometimes feel like you need to defend yourself. It's just hard. It's really hard.

The dogs make it worthwhile. I just love my dogs. I love all dogs, but I love my dogs. They're not the most perfect competition dogs. I have dogs that are a little bit low energy. I'd love to have a dog that could work for longer than mine and that loved repetition. I mean, they love work, but they don't like repetition, they don't like the long periods of work, and I'm a bit more of a driven person than they are, so I suspect by the time I talk to you again the next time there's going to be another puppy. I'm already starting to look for another puppy because I need to share the load of my desires so that the dogs don't get pushed to do too much.

And so it's really hard, and I think everybody that's out there trying to train dogs probably agrees. It has some amazing high moments, but it has some really tough moments where you question yourself and you think you don't know what you're doing, and it's hard.

Melissa Breau: Thank you for coming on the podcast Sharon! It's good to be reminded of that.

Sharon Carroll: Thanks so much for having me back.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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