Conditioning can help dog terrified of sneezing

2/23/97

Dr. Spiegel,

We have a mix...Golden, collie, German shepherd and a few other things. Charlie is a wonderful gentle and a very smart dog. He lives in our house with us and is a part of the family since he was a small puppy. He was born on our farm as one of ten.

At first I thought it was a coincidence; but later realized it was not. Whenever I would sneeze (my wife says I sneeze in German, violent foot stomping real sneezes), Charlie would jump up from wherever he was and run to me with his normally erect ears flat on the sides of his head, his eyes would be rounder than usual. His front legs would be trembling, the top of his head would feel noticeably warmer and if you held your fingers on his head, his jaw muscles would be vibrating. He was as if I had just threatened to kill him, or more that he feared I was about to die in front of him. He is nine years old now and goes through this routine any time I sneeze. He is beside himself in his actions. As well as the things I described, he moves back and forth next to me trying almost to hide his face in the pillows on the sofa (if that is where I am). He appears to be rooting. I have to talk to him, hug him, reassure him and it takes 5 to 10 minutes to get him back to normal.

When my wife sneezes, she gets a much lesser version of the same thing, and when our 25 year old son sneezes he gets just a little of it.

I have, half in jest, told my wife that dogs have incredible hearing compared to us humans and he can possibly hear my heart beating and maybe hears it miss a beat??? My wife believes that Charlie thinks I'm shouting and swearing at him in anger. He is a very sensitive dog and has never been hit or shouted at. Knowing all this, about a year ago we noticed that Charlie was following me around the house and acting like his 'sneeze routine' though I hadn't sneezed at all. We feared that he thought I was about to die, I felt my pulse and told D. that if anything happens and I wind up in ER to tell them how Charlie had been aware of something most of the day. Dr. Spiegel, as it turned out, nothing whatever happened to me and Charlie got back to normal by about six that evening.

Charlie is somewhat unique to us. My wife D., who is a kindergarten teacher has talked to Charlie since he was born and believes that puppies and children are very much the same in their raising. They will react to anything you say or show if you have talked to them right along. We would really like to know what he must think or fear when I sneeze. The other evening we had some friends for dinner and the wife had just heard on a Baltimore station of a very similar event with a Golden Retriever that reacted to his owner sneezing. Do you have any thoughts or ideas as to what we are seeing in Charlie?

C.C. Camden, DE


Dear C.C.

Great Letter!! I wish I had a whole page in the paper to respond to this one!

Your descriptions are excellent; and you've just about figured him out in your own words: ?He was as if I had just threatened to kill him" accurately represents the level of fear within him... fight or flight; yet, he does neither. He does not flee from the thing that produced his intense fright, but rather, he approaches it and remains by it, all the while afraid (though the fear progressively lessens with the passage of time in a given incident).

He is able to approach and remain with you because intense fear is not the only thing operating in this situation. One or a combination of two possible motivations are drawing him to you at these times. In addition to being very scared/startled, he may very well be uncertain/confused as to what happened and concerned for you OR he may be sticking around to seek your assurance that everything is ok. It is probably some combination of the two. Your presence offers him comfort and security and he knows you would not hurt him; so he is able to come to you, watch you, and relieve his fear despite the fact that you were the source of his terror.

Your loud/violent sneezes are kinda like thunderstorms. Even though he may have heard a hundred of them or more by now, your sneezes still catch him off guard. If these figurative "storms" (your sneezes) stuck around long enough or happened routinely, then Charlie might have a chance to get accustomed to them. But they are unpredictable and they are uncontrollable to Charlie and that makes them particularly stressful (especially since they sound so angry [loud/sharp/startling].

This is a situation that can be remedied fairly easily with an appropriate behavior modification plan of counterconditioning and desensitization (very, very quiet non-threatening make-pretend sneezes, slowly and gradually building up to full force sneezes... seeing all the while that he is remaining relaxed and nonreactive. Rewards for remaining completely relaxed can be incorporated as well).