I am recently took a bit of a vacation. Flying was involved. Are you afraid of anything? Spiders? Heights? Clowns? Well, I’m afraid of flying. Not complete terror kind of fear but lots of anxiety. In fact, I’m one bad turbulence incident away from a meltdown. One could say that I have a strong negative conditioned emotional response to flying.
So, why get on a plane when I am so afraid? To visit friends whom I miss very much. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I was excited about this trip. So very excited. Did that make the flight any less scary? Nope. Not one bit.
But we’re talking about dogs, right?
What on earth does this have to do with dogs? If you have an anxious or fearful dog, everything. Let’s suppose your dog is afraid of strangers, unfamiliar men in particular. Every time an unfamiliar man approaches while out on a walk, your dog might cower or desperately try to move away. She might even bark or growl. What do you do if this is your dog? How do you help your dog feel comfortable with these unfamiliar men?
Let’s give the man some treats and coax your dog to approach the man to receive these treats. That should show your dog that men are nice, right? These could be the yummiest treats in the world, the ones that your dog would do anything for under any other circumstance, but it’s not likely to work. And it won’t work for exactly the same reason that flying is no less scary to me even though I would get to see my friends.
Repeat after me: This is not a training problem
The issue is that we have not changed the conditioned emotional response (CER). Ugh, jargon. In my case, I learned (was conditioned) to fear (emotional response) flying from one very bad experience. At some point, your dog became fearful of unfamiliar men. It doesn’t matter how it happened. What matters is the emotion: the fear, the anxiety. Imagine you are afraid of snakes but you love chocolate ice cream. Someone locks you in a small room with hundreds of snakes and an endless supply of chocolate ice cream. Are you any less afraid of snakes? I didn’t think so.
Locking you in a room full of snakes, hoping that you just “get over” it, is known as flooding. And it won’t work. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ll be even more fearful of snakes. You dog is not going to suddenly love unfamiliar men when you force her to approach the man, regardless of the treats he’s offering.
One thing that you need to remember is that fear and anxiety are not training issues. The same tools that you use to teach your dog to sit and stay are not going to change your dogs emotional response to a scary thing. Changing that negative emotional response to a neutral or positive one is our goal. We need behavior modification tools.
More than one way to cook an egg
Honestly, there are so many approaches to behavior modification out there: desensitization with counter conditioning, Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT 2.0), Emma Parsons’ Click To Calm, Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed, and Suzanne Clothier’s Treat and Retreat to name a few. From my experience, the methods that work at the ones that keep your dog “under threshold,” that is, feeling relaxed and not threatened by the “scary thing,” whatever it may be, throughout the process. For the dog that’s afraid of men, that may mean she observes a man 100 yards away to start. That may be the distance at which your dog can observe the man without feeling fearful or anxious.
Regardless of the method, what is the end goal? That your dog can comfortably walk by an unfamiliar man? Seems reasonable. That your dog will rush to greet an unfamiliar man and shower him with kisses? Probably asking too much. Likely you’ll land somewhere in between. It’s difficult to move from a very negative emotional response to a very positive one. Sometimes a neutral emotional response is the best you can do. And that’s still a good thing.
If you want to help your dog overcome a fear, I strongly suggest hiring a behaviorist or a trainer with behavior education and experience. Overcoming fears is not the same as training a dog to do tricks. It’s a very different beast, and it needs to be done right, for you dog’s sake. If you’re local, contact me.