Helping Your Fearful Dog - First Identify His Threshold
It’s that time of year – tax season. Let’s pretend that you need to learn the tax codes. In fact, your next paycheck depends upon it. It just so happens that I’m a tax expert. Let’s sit down and begin.
First, let me introduce you to my pet tarantula, Tony. Tony accompanies me everywhere. He’s your average Honduran Curly Hair tarantula, about 5 inches across. He has a very calm disposition. He’s never bitten anyone and I’ve had him over 8 years now. He’s going to hang out on the table while we work.
For many people, Tony would prove to be too great a distraction. How much learning could you do while my pet tarantula walks around the books? Are you able to focus on the tax codes? How often do you look at Tony?
Some people would say they couldn’t work at all. Whether you are paralyzed with fear or simply uncomfortable, you’re not set up to learn well. Your attention is divided between Tony the tarantula and the learning process.
How could I help you?
1. I could simply pick up Tony, place him on your lap and you’d see for yourself how utterly harmless he is. (Flooding)
2. I could hold Tony in my lap while we work
3. I could have you feed Tony his favorite treats (and give you some chocolate too!)
4. I could place Tony at the far end of the table and let him approach you
Which of these options would work for you?
There are quite a few people that would say none of these would work. The fear is simply too much to overcome. In these cases, the folks would rather I put Tony away – far away. For some people, they’d say the lesson is over and they are simply not going to learn.
Here’s another option: I take Tony and place him in a special clear tank at the far end of the room. You can still see him but he can’t get any closer to you. Over the next few weeks I’ll be coming to your house every day to teach you the tax codes. Every day, Tony accompanies me. We start our lesson with Tony in his special tank across the room. Over the course of several days, we bring the tank closer. We only bring the tank as close as you are comfortable. The distance between you and the tank is called your threshold. If we bring Tony too close and you’re uncomfortable, then we move him back. We want to keep you below your threshold – that is, far enough away from Tony that you can concentrate. Over time, you’re able to focus while the tank is moved progressively closer. This process is called desensitization. The key is that I won’t bring Tony any closer than what you can handle. It may take days, it may take weeks, it may take months. I know that over time, you will get comfortable enough that Tony will be able to be on the table, while we work. In fact, given enough time, he’ll even be able to out of his tank while we work. The key to success is slow, gradual acclimation that is based upon your threshold. I’m not the fearful one. It doesn’t matter that I love Tony and know that he’s harmless. It’s you who determines how close Tony can be for you to learn. You decide your threshold and I respect it.
Take this story and apply it to our dogs.
How many times have we tried to use treats when our dogs are terrified? Think of the scary stranger trying to give a scare puppy a treat.
How many times have we simply stood with our dogs next to the scary person/thing in hopes that our dogs figure out it’s OK?
How many times have we even pulled our dogs over to the scary person/thing, thinking that they should see for themselves that it’s not scary?
These scenarios play out many times for owners and their dogs.
The next time your dog is afraid of something/someone, remember Tony the tarantula. Remember the threshold that you needed to learn tax codes. The threshold was the distance that you needed from Tony for you to be comfortable to learn. Apply the same logic to your dog. Back up from the scary thing/person until your dog is not hyper focused. That distance is his threshold. A threshold may be 5 feet, 15 feet, or 50 feet or more. Only your dog can decide the threshold. With very gradual acclimation, you can slowly shorten the threshold. The key is always keeping your dog below threshold so that he can learn and still be in the presence of the “Scary” person/thing.
If you’re having a hard time helping your dog, let me know. I’m happy to help. I promise, I won’t bring Tony with me. I’m actually terrified of spiders!