Getting your dog quickly away from a scary situation is often the best option
As part of my on-going quest to lead a generally less cluttered life, yesterday we joined a field full of other locals who had risen at dawn to sell our unwanted stuff at a car boot sale. Among the items for sale was a large bag of freshly washed dog toys that I had to smuggle out of the house.
Dogs are a given at most car boot sales and I mostly gave the toys away to any passing dog that showed an interest. One Jack Russell called Tyler became so excited by his free squeaky that his person bought him four more. A tug rope went to a sweet old yellow Lab called Dylan who pounced on it like an Andrex pup and as we were packing up, I gave the remainder to a lovely lady who ran a rescue centre.
The dogs were a natural highlight of the morning, but there was one dog that simply broke my heart. A tiny Yorkshire Terrier, quite recently rescued from a puppy farm. Typically terrified of anything and everything as ex-breeders usually are, play was the last thing on this poor little dog’s mind.
Seeming to take little comfort from her chilled out companion dog, she ducked, cowered and sprawled herself flat on the floor against the tsunami of feet, trolleys and other dogs that surrounded her, her tail so tucked it hugged her belly.
Chatting to her owners, it was clear that they considered such outings good for her and told me with pride that she’d made good progress over the weeks since they’d adopted her. If this was progress I shivered at the thought of what she had been like before.
Sadly, thanks to a certain unqualified and dangerous celebrity trainer, flooding as a desensitisation technique has resurfaced from the archive where it should have been left to gather dust with choke chains and dominance theory.
Flooding is a ‘behavioural desensitisation program for treating phobias and fears in which anxiety-producing stimuli are presented at a high intensity and continued until the fear response is diminished.’ (V.Schade, Bonding with your Dog 2009) The human equivalent would be to lock someone with arachnophobia into a room full of tarantulas in the hope that they’d just ‘get over it.’
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think being stuck in a room full of spiders would help me overcome my fear of them and it’s pretty much the same for dogs. Studies have shown that when any animal is fearful (and that includes us) the rational, thinking part of the brain is sidelined in favour of the amygdala.
Sometimes called the reptilian brain, the amygdala is responsible for memory, decision-making and emotion. Our amygdala keeps us alive because it’s job is to react to danger, either real or perceived. We can thank this part of our brain for every ‘fight, flight or freeze’ decision we’ve ever made.
In the case of the scared little Yorkshire Terrier, flight and freeze were very much in evidence as she scuttled around the circumference of her lead, cowered and threw herself on the floor in a freeze before being dragged off again to the next stall. The sad thing about this form of ‘training’ is that dogs are incapable of learning in this state. The next car boot sale she’s taken to is likely to be just as scary as this one.
The reason for this is that when the amygdala is in charge there’s not a hope in hell of the brain learning anything new. As far as it’s concerned your life is in danger so all other concerns are jettisoned out of the window – survival is the only priority. If I was stuck in the room with the spiders you’d have a hard time getting me to recall my name let alone asking me to pick up a new skill while I was in there! It’s the same with dogs.
A far kinder form of training is systematic desensitisation. This is the method advocated by reward based trainers and is the one we’ve used to great effect with both Little Bear and Annie – and it’s by no means rocket science!
Annie’s explosive reaction to a dog a football pitch away has been systematically reduced and eventually extinguished by keeping her below the point where her thinking brain checked out in favour of her amygdala. Gradually over time, using distance from the stimulus (in her case another dog) plus food as rewards she was able to stay calm enough to learn that the other dog was nothing to be afraid of. For the scared little Yorkshire Terrier, standing at the gate of the car boot for just a few minutes might have been learning enough. With the submersion into the throng of the event itself slowly built up over weeks, months and perhaps even years this would have been a far kinder and far more effective method of helping her to overcome her very real fears.