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Dog Phobia Case Study

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A phobia is an “irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid the subject of the phobia” (Ankrom, 2009 pg.325). Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder that may leave an individual with a strong irrational fear of something that poses very little or no danger to the individual. Phobias, to the individual may cause physical symptoms such as panic, fear, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, or a strong desire to avoid a specific situation or object altogether. To the individual affected by a phobia, his or her fear is not only rational but also very real. Overcoming a phobia can be a lifelong process in identifying the true nature of the phobia, finding the origins of the phobia, and possible extinction of the specific phobia. Regardless how a phobia is acquired the individual suffering with this type of anxiety disorder identifies the phobia as real and at times can become debilitating. In this case study of Sally, the topics of operant and classical conditioning and observational behavior are explored as it pertains to the case of Sally and her fear of dogs. In addition, this paper will attempt to explore the different therapies that may be conducive to helping Sally learn to identify and cope with her phobia as well as understanding the origins of her phobia. Dog Phobia Case Study of Sally

“Sally is a twenty three year old woman who has a severe phobia of dogs. She has had this phobia since she had a negative experience with dogs when she was in the second grade. She now goes out of her way to avoid dogs and places that dogs may be. This causes her to experience anxiety when she meets someone new and is invited to an unfamiliar area.” Operant Conditioning

In this example of a dog phobia, Sally may have been affected in several ways while developing this phobia from early childhood. Operant conditioning theory suggests that reinforcement, punishment, and extinction are essential tools to help identify the development of a phobia. In Sally’s case, the incident that occurred in second grade that caused Sally a negative experience with a dog began the initial spark that ignited Sally’s initial fear. Although Sally had the initial experience, most of her experiences from that point forward with other dogs can only be viewed only as negative interaction, thus reinforcing the phobia. Sally developed the initial fear only reinforced her phobia by avoiding other dogs and removing herself from situations that may cause Sally to encounter another dog. Punishment, in operant conditioning theory is any consequence that causes a behavior to occur with less frequency. In Sally’s case, the more she avoided dogs and less interaction with situations that may include a dog, Sally will have less consequences of her phobia. The less Sally interacts with dogs or finds herself in a situation that may lead her to interact with a dog, extinction of Sally’s phobia may occur. Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning theory suggests that learning new behaviors through the process of association will result in a learned response. Phobias are learned behaviors through traumatic or life altering events, where an individual associates a specific stimulus with a specific response. Certain stimuli introduced in a precise manner will ultimately evoke specific responses in humans (Wells, 1997). In the case of Sally, the unconditioned stimuli (UCS) the negative interaction with a dog evoked an unconditioned response (UCR), a fear of dogs. As time progressed, Sally began to associate her fear of dogs, a conditioned response (CR) with the idea or thought of a situation that involved dogs, a conditioned stimulus (CS), thus causing Sally to avoid people and situations that cause Sally any discomfort. According to the theory of classical conditioning, the specific fear (UCR) caused by the negative interaction with a dog (UCS) can be unlearned by simply reversing the process (Wells, 1997). Presenting the subject, in this case Sally, with the conditioned stimulus (CS) without the presence of the unconditioned stimulus (US) the fear will no longer elicit a response by the introduction of dogs (CS). This is known as the process of extinction. By presenting Sally with a dog slowly in a controlled environment, working specifically with her comfort threshold, eventually Sally may learn how to engage dogs without the fear of dogs (CR) previously affecting Sally’s life. Observational Learning

The social-cognitive theory suggests that humans learn by observing the behaviors of other individuals within his or her environment. “The person being observed is called a model and this observational learning process is also known as modeling” (Cervone & Pervin, 2010). In the case of Sally, her response to the negative experience with a dog in second grade may have been a learned response Sally observed from another individual in her environment. By observing the actions of others in response to negative experience or fear pertaining to dogs, the phobia Sally developed may have been an observed response Sally witnessed from a model within her environment. Sally may have learned prior to the initial experience with the dog that dogs can hurt humans, therefore magnifying the response to what Sally perceived as a negative experience from childhood. Unfortunately, in the case study of Sally’s phobia of dogs, the reader is not privy to the circumstances or the incident Sally had with the dog. No evidence is present which would otherwise contradict a negative experience, however with the information given; one cannot know the true trauma inflicted by the dog in Sally’s case. Extinction of Sally’s Phobia

Extinction refers to the gradual weakening of a conditioned response that results in a specific behavior decreasing or disappearing entirely. In the case of Sally’s dog phobia extinction can be beneficial in many ways. The theory of extinction exists in both operant and classical conditioning. In classical conditioning the negative experience with the dog (the unconditioned stimulus) paired with the severe fear of dogs (the unconditioned response) eventually may become extinct through controlled interaction (Beck & Emery, 2005). Using a dog (conditioned stimulus) to show Sally her fears (conditioned response) are irrational extinction may occur. Using a dog gradually to show Sally that dogs will not cause a negative experience eventually may help Sally overcome her fear of dogs and situations that may involve dogs (extinction). By slowly introducing Sally to the initial source of her fear, showing Sally she truly has nothing to fear may help eradicate the fear entirely.

Using the operant conditioning model of extinction, initiating several interactions for Sally with a dog eventually may calm Sally’s fear of dogs. The consistent positive exposure to a dog may cause the fear of dogs to lessen and eventually disappear, thus causing extinction of the initial fear caused by dogs. Positive reinforcement to contradict a negative response eventually will cause a positive response. Sally may develop an indifference to dogs with enough exposure leading to extinction of her phobia. Although extinction may occur, this does not suggest the fear or phobia is gone. Sally eventually may return to her unconditioned state. Allowing too much time to elapse after a response has been extinguished can result in spontaneous recovery of the response. If Sally’s positive exposure to dogs stops for any duration of time, she may begin to revert to her previous response, negating the previous positive exposure that aided in the extinction of her phobia. Cognitive Theory and Sally’s Phobia

The cognitive theory targets the thinking process of the individual and how he or she perceives his or her outward environment (Beck & Emery, 2005). Cognitive theory would help Sally evaluate the negative experience with the dog from the second grade. During this evaluation, Sally would be guided through the experience with the dog in order to identify what inside her caused the phobia. Once the cause of the phobia is identified, the cognitive psychologist would help Sally change her perception of dogs and the negative experience so Sally may eventually overcome her fear of dogs. The cognitive approach would suggest the panic and fear coupled with the exposure to a dog or the thought of being in a situation that would cause Sally to interact with a dog, is a direct result of what Sally thinks about the interaction. Change the way Sally thinks about dogs, change the phobia response. Thinking affects feelings, naturally if Sally has negative thoughts about dogs, Sally will also feel negatively toward dogs.

Phobias can be debilitating and often very severe for individuals who suffer from these irrational fears. Although a phobia to a rational thinking individual may seem absurd, to the individual who suffers from the phobia, these fears are very rational and very real. Phobias can prevent an individual from performing even the simplest task, prevent an individual from participating in social activities and cause severe physical reaction within the individual. Therapy can often be successful in helping an individual overcome his or her phobia. With determination and receptiveness to therapy, a person gradually may become well adjusted to his or her fear. Facing these phobias head-on with assistance from a professional can prove to be extremely useful and therapeutic in the recovery process. A phobia is a very real fear to the individual who suffers with this anxiety disorder. In the case of Sally, many options for therapy are available and have been proven to be quite effective.


Ankrom, S. (2009) Development of fears and phobias. Pgs.310-345 Retrieved February 2, 2013 from http://panicdisorder/b/2009/04/27/classical-conditioning-and-the-development-of-fears-and-phobias.htm Beck, A.T., & Emery, G., (2005) Anxiety disorders and phobias: a cognitive perspective. Chapter 4 pg. 325 Retrieved February 2, 2013 from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=xHZWwGK42q8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR15&dq=cognitive+theory+and+phobias&ots=zvdrJsiMAv&sig=-YKZQON6bIlUtQF74ljFa05zwL4#v=onepage&q=cognitive%20theory%20and%20phobias&f=false Cervone, D. & Pervin, L.A., (2010) Personality. Theory and research, Eleventh Edition. Chapter 12: Social-Cognitive Theory Retrieved February 2, 2012 from the University of Phoenix website https://ecampus.phoenix.edu/content/eBookLibrary2/content/eReader.aspx#ch12lev2sec11 Wells, A. (1997) Anxiety disorders: a practice manual and conceptual guide. Hoboken, NJ Wiley and Sons Inc xiv retrieved February 2, 2013 from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1997-36553-000

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