Airborne Monstrosities – High Anxiety


Third in a series

Jan and Marty enjoyed watching the hot air balloons drift over their Corrales home but Koko’s arrival changed that and a whole lot more. This wigged-out adolescent Labradoodle became terrified of the backyard sky. She’d been blessed with an idyllic puppyhood, the best food and a loving family, so she couldn’t blame her mother.

Koko also fixated on window reflections with growing terror. Dogs on TV, who she thought were running at her, scared her witless. Even when not suffering an adrenaline surge she desperately needed to be with her people, nudging and following, sometimes mounting their legs as a displacement behavior. She just didn’t know what else to do with herself. Are we having fun yet?

Koko’s brain, like everybody’s, is the most complex organ in the body. It seemed stable when she was a kid but its neural circuits, driven by her genetics, shifted as she matured. Jan and Marty were flummoxed by who their new dog turned out to be. I’m a believer in temperament testing puppies and kittens to help find a good match but the pet you end up with can be a crap shoot. Jan and Marty were committed to Koko; they decided to play the hand they were dealt.

Koko’s fear of hot air balloons, fireworks, and thunder storms had become classically conditioned. She’d associated anxiety with the backyard because that’s where she was first exposed to these terrifying events. Being near the TV in the evening triggered a similar reaction.

Will Rogers famously said, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” Old Will didn’t realize it but, beyond his sage advice, he was explaining neuroplasticity. The brain is a plastic organ because it can change its anatomy and its chemical transmitters. If Koko were forced to “face her fears” by being shoved outside during Balloon Fiesta or fireworks the neural pathways that carried and supported her intense fears would strengthen. Avoidance of her these triggers (stop digging) was job one.

Next week: Brain Adjustment

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Dr. Jeff Nichol is a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist. He provides consultations in-person and in groups by Zoom ( Each week he shares a blog and a video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up at no charge at Email pet behavior or physical questions to or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.