Happy Halloween! In honor of the day, I wanted to start with a scary story that one of my human pack members told me.
When he was about seven years old, his uncle took him to an amusement park near his mom’s home town, and they went on a roller coaster. It wasn’t much compared to places like Six Flags, but the first time around really scared him. He wanted to get off, but it turned out that there were still two more circuits to go. The second time was scarier and the third time was scariest, and from that moment on he refused to ever go on a roller coaster again.
Now humans have this funny emotion called “pride,” which is the flipside of another emotion called “shame.” Animals don’t really have either, so you can never shame a dog into doing something scary. But you can shame a human — especially if he’s about nineteen and hanging out with people his own age whom he wants to impress. So they shamed him onto the ride and he loved it.
In two and a half minutes, twelve years of fear turned into an enthusiasm for roller coasters. That’s one of our amazing abilities as humans, in fact. We are able to deal with our fears when our intellects override our instinct to flee long enough for us to realize that we are in no real danger. This is exactly why haunted houses are such popular attractions this time of year. Humans like to be scared because we enjoy the sensation. Dogs, not so much.
There’s an old saying, that a scalded dog is afraid of cold water — and there is, of course, a lot of truth in this. For a dog, fear is a survival skill. Something was scary enough to make the dog run away, triggered by a self-preservation instinct, so the next time the dog encounters something similar, it will run away without taking the time to assess the situation.
Dogs are really good at recognizing patterns, which is why one very specific incident can lead to a fear of a wide range of things or even people. Have you ever met a dog that’s afraid of all people in hats? That’s a perfect example of a specific event leading to a general fear.
People can do this to some extent — like my pack member and all roller coasters, even though he only had a bad experience on one — and particular human fears can become universal. The mere mention of “dentist” fills a lot of people with dread, whether they’ve actually had a bad experience with one or not. But, unlike a dog, a human will face the fear and make an appointment when that toothache gets bad enough.
In some cases, you can get a dog over their fear by forcing them to confront it, much like my pack member’s friends did with the roller coaster. In effect, you’re shoving the dog on the coaster and making him ride it until he’s not afraid of it anymore.
Longtime fans of “Dog Whisperer” may remember the ATF dog Gavin that I worked with. We wound up setting up a treadmill with video projections and speakers to expose him to the sights and sounds of fireworks, gunshots, and every other loud noise he was afraid of. The key was to keep him moving forward despite his fear until he learned to not be afraid of the sounds.
For some dogs, though, this kind of procedure won’t work because they can’t even keep moving in the face of their fear. They shut down completely. For these dogs, it’s necessary to help them create new associations by exposing them to things they find pleasant while they’re calm, and then gradually introducing the object of their fear, bringing it closer and closer until it can be in their space without them reacting.
This method works well with dogs that are very food or treat motivated. Think of it as getting a fearful friend to ride the roller coaster by promising him a hundred bucks to do it — or using your dog’s senses to walk them past their fears.
Stay calm, and ride that coaster!