I’m getting a Master’s Degree in fear.
First, we worked with a trainer to decrease Honey’s fear of the bike cart. Then we fostered the extremely fearful Cherie. And now, I’m months away from terrifyingly transforming my life by setting out for a life at sea.
I haven’t written my thesis yet. But I’ve learned a lot. And one thing I do know is there is only two ways to break through fear.
Do you want me to tell you what they are?
Food Won’t Break Through Fear
One of my neighbors has adopted a beautiful dog. This dog is so lucky. She has landed in such a loving home.
It’s a good thing because she’s pretty fearful.
Her person tells me that loud trucks, flashing lights, and thunderstorms are particularly scary. But even in our backyard, with Honey doing her best flirting, this pup was frightened.
What was lovely to see was that she responded to her fear by getting closer to her person. It looks like she’s already found someone she can trust.
But her person said something to me that got me thinking. “We’re still looking for that treat that’s so delicious she can’t resist it. When she’s really scared, she won’t take a treat.”
I remember our foster dog Cherie being too fearful to eat. But it’s not because I didn’t have yummy treats.
It’s because food doesn’t break through fear. No matter how yummy it is.
And I know from personal experience.
What Fear Feels Like
The first time I felt fearful on the water was the first season I learned to sail, just a few years ago.
We were one of the few boats out on a cold and gloomy October day when the winds started gusting.
Although inexperienced, we knew we should try to depower the boat by taking down some sail. So I crawled up on the cabin top, clung to the mast, and tried to figure out how to bring the sail down on a boat we had sailed only a few times.
No, I wasn’t scared then. I knew that I would slide right off the slippery deck if I didn’t hold on. So I kept a death grip with one hand while working and wrapped both my arms around the mast when a big gust heeled us over more.
But Mike was scared for me.
I didn’t become really scared until I gave up trying to lower the sail and realized we’d have to return to the dock in high winds. It felt like the next gusty wind was going to turn the boat on its side.
I love cheesecake. But if someone had offered me a huge slice of Lindy’s cheesecake in the cockpit of that heeling sailboat I would have smashed it in their face. So I understand why a dog who won’t take a treat when scared.
Luckily, with me back in the cockpit, Mike recovered his courage and got us home safely.
I still remember it as one of the scariest moments of my life.
And yet I recall being out on the water under similar weather conditions a few years earlier in a kayak and feeling absolutely fearless. If anything, my kayaking trip was more dangerous.
But paddling a plastic boat in a lake roiled with whitecaps and working to cross the waves at the right angle so I wouldn’t swamp my cockpit felt more relaxing than a wet ride on a sailboat built with a heavy keel to resist tipping over.
There are two reason the kayak trip was less scary. And they are the only two ways to break through fear, whether it’s human or canine.
Two Things Break Through Fear
So what was different about kayaking in a storm compared to sailing in a storm? And what does this mean for helping a fearful dog?
I can sum up the difference in two words: control and experience.
Although the wind and waves were doing their thing, I paddled and steered the kayak myself. I felt the movement of the waves and responded to them. I felt in control.
And although I didn’t have thousands of hours of kayaking experience, I grew up in the water and understood the feeling of floating close to the surface. My past (safe) experiences taught me not to be afraid.
On the sailboat, I only felt under control when I was working on the sail. Although that was much more dangerous than riding in the cockpit, the sense of being in control made me feel better. And seeing me slipping and sliding on the wet deck made my husband feel worse.
Gaining more experience sailing, particularly spending time on the tiller, has also lessened my fear. And it’s a good thing. Because 98% of the people who hear I want to live aboard a sailboat tell me how scary it will be.
So how can we help our fearful dogs gain a sense of control and experience to lessen their fear?
BAT Helps Dogs Feel In Control
Grisha Stewart, a Seattle dog trainer, answered for me the question: “What is the best reward for a frightened dog?”
Why it’s getting to move away from whatever is frightening her. Duh!
And yet until I read about Behavior Adjustment Training (or BAT), I never thought of this.
Modern dogs have very little control over their lives. To keep them safe (and from irritating others), we walk them on a leash. Where we want to go. And when we want to go.
One of the main principles of BAT is to reward your dog for calm behavior near something scary by walking them away from it. Eventually your dog learns that a calm response means she can move away.
But to get that calm response, you have to start with the scary object (or person, other dog, truck etc.) far enough away that your dog is below her reacting threshold. (To see an example of this training method in action, check out this video.)
One of the best things about BAT is that you can practice it on any walk. As long as you spot the scary item far enough away that your dog doesn’t react fearfully toward it before you realize what’s happening.
If rewarding our dogs for reacting calmly to a fearful situation means we’re allowing them to walk away from it, how do they gain experience with scary things?
Gain Experience Slowly
Honey’s trainer Russ taught me to figure out the slowest possible progression to help Honey do something scary. And then slow it down even more.
I’ve learned that it’s impossible to go too slowly when you’re working with fear.
Russ taught us a clever technique for giving our foster dog Cherie a safe spot while letting her gain more experience with scary things. And it only took a clicker, a towel, and some liverwurst.
We were lucky that Cherie felt totally comfortable in the house. So it was easy to teach her to “go to bed” on a towel using the method shown in this video. (Tip: some dogs get scared from the noise of the clicker. Putting the clicker in your pocket may help. Or if they’re really freaked, just quietly say “yes” as your cue that she’s done what you wanted.)
Once she was rock solid in the kitchen, we moved the towel to other parts of the house. And then the back porch. And then the yard.
Eventually, I started tossing the towel over my shoulder when I took her for a walk. Once Cherie would “go to bed” on an early morning walk with nothing scary in sight, we started finding scary things to practice with.
On recycling day, I’d ask her to go to bed while the truck was many blocks away. Cherie never got comfortable enough to sit on her towel when the truck was right in front of us. But she was able to do it when the truck was in sight farther down the street.
By associating the towel with fun and happy times in the house, Cherie slowly began to see it as a safe spot even in a bigger and scarier world.
Eventually she gained experience reacting calmly to the things that scared her the most—strange men and noisy trucks.
Cherie taught me a lot about fear. Her lessons have helped me prepare Honey for life aboard a sailboat. And they’ve helped me deal with my own fear as well.
Control and Experience
No treat in the world will break through fear. Only feeling a sense of control over our situation and gaining experience can help us deal with fear.
Cherie reacted badly to someone I didn’t expect to frighten her. I became worried that she would bite someone.
Her fear made me fearful.
I gained a sense of control by relying on expert help from Honey’s trainer. And I read books and blogs from people dealing with fearful dogs so I knew what to expect.
And finally, I gained experience by working actively with Cherie instead of ignoring her problems or sheltering her away from scary things so she never had a chance to react badly.
I’m applying those lessons by dealing with my own fear today.
I spend more time at the tiller when we go sailing, gaining both experience and a sense of control.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll end up brave enough to pursue my Ph.D. in fear.
Your Turn: Have you or your dog dealt with something that really frightened you? What helped?
Resources for the Person Living with a Fearful Dog
Here are a few resources I found helpful in working with fearful foster dogs as well as timid Honey. But nothing is better than working with an experienced and gentle trainer.
Debbie Jacobs – A Guide to Living with & Training a Fearful Dog (Good basic introduction to what to expect living with a fearful dog.)
Patricia McConnell – The Cautious Canine-How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears (Short, clear, and easy-to-understand ways to help a fearful dog.)
Turid Rugaas – On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals (One of the best guides to understanding dog body language, a crucial skill for helping a fearful dog.)
Emma Parsons – Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog (Karen Pryor Clicker Book) (Even if your dog doesn’t react aggressively, this book is an excellent guide to using the clicker to shape new behaviors. I used its methods to teach my dog Shadow not to react to dogs on leash.)
Bringing Up Bella – A beautiful rescue dog from Puerto Rico makes tremendous strides thanks to her loving people, careful training, and help from behavioral medicine.
My Imperfect Dog – He’s scared to go on walks. And he’s scared of the car. But Silas’s person accepts her imperfect dog. And over time, they’re making great progress at dealing with his fears.
Fearful Dogs – Trainer Debbie Jacob’s blog. Excellent for its insistence on gentle training and relationship building to help a dog get past fear.
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