Today I want to talk about fears and desensitisation. Lots of the time behaviour that looks like aggression or reactivity in dogs is related to fear so understanding a bit about fear and how to deal with it is so useful.
In recent blogs I mentioned being made redundant. In the weeks before that happened, my lovely customers from that job offered me a part time job for a year so that they could benefit from my extensive knowledge of some key parts of their business for a bit longer. They are a lovely company and are a brilliant employer. The only real issue for me is that they are a long way from Scotland. The company is based in the Cotswolds.
There is no easy way to get to the office for visits but probably the fastest way is to fly from Edinburgh to Heathrow and on most of my visits that's what I've done. The only thing is that I don't like flying at all. Flying scares me – especially the take offs and the landings.
On a trip not long before starting my new job, there was a bit of turbulence and I spent the last few minutes of the flight feeling a spike in fear that went beyond my usual anxiety about being on a plane. Then the plane landed fine at Heathrow and all was well.
To try and help with the journey home, I spent some time researching safety on commercial airlines. What I found was that that mode of transport is outrageously safe. These stats are from an American article I read. Anybody taking a car trip coast to coast in the US has a 1 in 14,000 chance of dying. Doing the same trip by train gives a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of dying. On a commercial flight, the chance dying on that trip drops to 1 in 7 million. The chances of me being in a plane accident are so low. By far the most dangerous parts of my travelling were the car rides that I took to get me to and from the airports.
Did knowing that help at all when I turned up at Heathrow airport for the journey home? Not in any way. My fear level remained at its usual pitch all the way to Edinburgh.
Fears don't tend to respond at all to facts and figures.
I thought about how often I've wished and have talked to others who have the same wish – that we could talk to our dogs when we see that they are anxious and explain to them that they have nothing to be worried about. The wish is understandable but it wouldn't help at all. Fear doesn't respond to being talked out of it.
The other thing that doesn't help at all is being with somebody who isn't scared. There is a persistent idea that if the humans behave in a calm way when their dog is scared, that the dog will stop being scared. Fear doesn't work like that either. On that flight home, I sat next to a man who was utterly relaxed. He told me about how he travels by plane frequently for work and that for him it is utterly routine and mundane. I was still scared. Fears are not removed by being with a reassuring person. Or by knowing that there is no need to be scared. If they were, I would have been completely relaxed on that flight. I wasn't. I was visibly worried – once the plane landed the man next to me said that he could see I was frightened the whole time and particularly as the plane descended.
So what does work well for fear? Desensitisation.
That is he process of gradual exposure to something frightening, ideally starting at a low level and building up slowly. The idea is to never let the fear become overwhelming.
With dogs, working to make sure that they can have breaks and the the person with them is watching to understand when they need a break or more distance from the frightening thing is the absolute ideal. It is important as well to bear in mind that it isn't going to be a linear piece of work. While working on desensitisation, it is completely normal to find that one day the dog can cope with being 6 feet away from a frightening thing and that the next day they need to be 12 feet away. Diaries are useful to track progress because it is more likely that progress will be seen over weeks or months rather than from one day to the next.
This works beautifully for fears in dogs and people. The reason the man I sat next to wasn't scared is because he travels by plane all the time. He is desensitised to travel that way and has lost his nervousness about it.
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Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.