It’s always tempting with fearful dogs to want to make everything go faster: ‘What’s the harm in trying to make them go out on a walk? They have to do it sometime.’ Or: ‘If you don’t show leadership and encourage them to face scary situations, they’ll never improve.’ Or: ‘Why don’t we just give it a go and see what happens?” But there’s a reason why an incremental, evidence-based, non-aversive approach is always the right one to take with fearful dogs - or any dog for that matter. That reason is risk: the risk of slowing or stalling rather than accelerating progress or, even worse, damaging the trust that you have carefully built up and setting you back further.
The “go faster” desire is, let’s be blunt, entirely human led – and it’s understandable. Living with a dog who shows signs of fear and/or aggression is tough and it’s immensely frustrating. But, from the dog’s perspective, there is no need to “hurry up”. Their priority is to feel safe. And if you have a fearful dog, however hard it is, your number one job is to make that happen: to manage the circumstances so that they don’t feel under threat and don’t have to face the source of their fear or anxiety head on. With that always top of mind, your next job is to incrementally, systematically and effectively resolve the problem through desensitisation (using exposure to whatever provokes the fear in a way and at an intensity that does not cause anxiety) and counter-conditioning (teaching that the sight/proximity of what worries them predicts really good stuff). That’s DS/CC for short. With this method, the dog stops seeing the world as scary and starts associating the object of their fear with positive experiences. The aim, all the time, is never to provoke the fear. Because while the ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ philosophy might be OK in a 1980s motivational self-help book, where the reader can exercise choice about how much fear they face, it’s a bad and fundamentally unsafe principle to use with a fearful dog who can’t.
If you use DS/CC, you’re not flying blind, taking a punt to see if something works. It’s a method that ensures you always have a very good idea, of what will happen at the next stage. It’s not deciding to experiment to see what happens and gamble with the well-being of an animal who has little, if any, say in the matter. DS/CC isn’t based on anecdotal evidence. It’s researched, peer reviewed, repeated. replicated and proven to be effective.
A properly executed DS/CC plan means observing the dog carefully, watching for both indications that they feel safe and comfortable as things are now and those that show they are ready to take the next step. The dog will make as much progress as they are able to and certainly more than they would make using a less structured method.
For those who are not persuaded here’s an analogy:
Your friend can’t swim and is afraid of the water. He says he’d like to learn to swim, though. So, as a friend, you have two choices. Two strategies you could adopt. You could throw him in the deep end of the pool and “see what happens”. He might panic, thrash around for a bit and then discover he can float and even do a little doggie paddle (pun intended) and get to the side of the pool. Before long, he might be happily swimming lengths at Olympic speed. He ‘might’. It’s not very likely, but he ‘might’. More likely is that he panics, sinks, takes a big mouthful of water and is convinced he is going to drown. He’s rescued by the lifeguard and never goes near water, or you, again. In fact, he has a panic attack at the very sight of you. You, the person who claimed to be a friend and promised to help him overcome his fear of water by teaching him to swim, but thought nearly drowning him was a great idea. The alternative approach is to put floating aids like arm bands on him and introduce him to the shallow end of the pool. You allow him time to feel comfortable and assure him he can call it a day at any time. You invite him to grab the rail at the side of the pool and steadily walk his feet backwards until he is floating, gently flicking his feet up and down. As time goes on, and when he is ready, you give him the floatation board and while you hold him under his torso and belly, he starts to kick his legs and makes his way across the pool. When he’s ready you support his body a little less and practice until he’s ready to take the next step. Once he’s swimming with the floatation aids, you watch him gain in confidence and gradually go further down the pool. Then the arm bands come off and so on. You get the picture? Ultimately, he learns to love swimming and the person he would describe as his best friend? Well, that would be you.
The time limit that you put on your fearful dog’s progress is not theirs. It’s yours. Don’t gamble with your dog’s future happiness. Do it right. Do it the proven way. Proven with countless hours of scientific research. If you are faced with a fearful dog and you don’t know the right way to help them, hire a reputable, force free trainer. You won’t regret it. And remember, steady and measured wins this race. Take your lead from your dog. If you deal with their fear now in a measured and empathetic way, you’ll be setting them up to cope well with anything new and challenging the world may throw at them in the future. Images: https://unsplash.com/photos/AP1JDJ1LaCQ?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink