I thought the word trust would be one of those vague labels that is tough to pin down. You know, hard to define but you know it when you see it. But when I checked the dictionary, I was intrigued to find two simple ideas that hit the nail on the head. Under the word trust it said,“the confident expectation of something” and “implies a feeling of security.” – Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D.
Earlier this week, I took a fearful training client of mine to the beach. The fact that joyful trips to the beach are now a regular occurrence for her is a beautiful one because one year ago, these trips were not possible. Despite excellent socialization and dedicated dog parents, this dog entered a severe fear period, developing several phobias and generalizing her fear to previously safe environments, one of those being the beach. Through dedicated work desensitizing and counterconditioning her to fearful stimuli, collaboration with a veterinarian for medications to assist her recovery, and setting a consistent foundation of trust that her environment is safe, she has not only blossomed and developed strong coping skills with her fears, she enthusiastically visits and plays at the beach nearly every day.
For this dog, trust is imperative. She needs to feel secure in her environment and with the people surrounding her, and expect that activities and events in her environment will result in safe, enjoyable things, as opposed to dangerous and scary things.
The insidious thing about fear is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully extinguish – neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has published invaluable research on how fear affects the brain. This dog’s continued success depends on consistent feedback that she is safe, that she can trust the humans around her, and that she will be OK, even when the environment gets chaotic.
Fearful dogs aren’t “cured” of fear like a puppy with giardia or a dog with conjunctivitis. They develop coping skills to navigate and lessen stress, and their guardians manage their environment and consistently maintain messages of safety and positive associations. Life with a fearful dog is a rewarding journey.
As with any journey, bumps occur. Earlier this week, I took the fearful dog mentioned earlier to the beach, whereupon a rogue, off-leash dog bolted from its owner, chasing Riley into the water, nipping at her tail, while the guardian screamed for the dog to stop. The combination of a large, charging dog and the accompanying noise of the other guardian scared Riley. Despite all my best efforts, the environment imposed chaos. My initial thought was “Oh no. Will this scary experience cause her to regress at the beach? Will she generalize this experience tomorrow and decide the beach is scary?” After all, this is how her initial fear of the beach started. She encountered a scary stimulus, and for several months needed a gradual training plan to feel safe at the beach again.
Immediately following the incident, I checked Riley’s body language. She took food, but I could tell she didn’t want to stay at the beach. For the rest of the walk, I did everything I could to capitalize on positive experiences. I let her choose. I rewarded her heavily for any behaviors she offered, and let her decide where she wanted to go, knowing she would tell me where she felt safest.
The next day, she led me tot he beach, and she played. I was relieved. But it wasn’t magic. It was the power of padding.
In the context of training, padding refers to consistent deposits into a dog’s trust account. In the case of Riley, these deposits include: I’m safe, the beach is safe, good things happen with humans, good things happen when she is at the beach, and heavily reinforcing her coping skills. The amount of deposits is important. Withdrawals are costly, as shown through ongoing research on the lasting effects of fearful experiences in the brain. Withdrawals are also inevitable. The world is chaotic. We may do everything we can to manage a dog’s environment, but sometimes a loud noise, an off-leash dog, or a new scary stimulus comes crashing into the safe barrier we strive to maintain.
We don’t always have control over these withdrawals. We only have control over all the deposits we put into a dog’s trust account, so when the unavoidable withdrawal occurs, our dog has a strong, long history of deposits to fall back upon.
A metaphor I often use with clients: Envision a wall of dials. Each dial can increase or decrease stress. Some of the dials are beyond our control: Emergency visits, injuries, environmental chaos and noise. That’s when we take action of the dials we can control, dialing down a dog’s stress, bit by bit where we can, to prevent a stressful event from spiraling into a catastrophic one.
Whether your dog is fearful or not, don’t forget the power of padding. Someday, you’ll need those trust deposits and your dog will thank you for them.
Many thanks to Joanna for encouraging me to write this post. For more information on working with fearful dogs, visit Debbie Jacobs’ site fearfuldogs.com.
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at email@example.com.