Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fears and Anxiety

Last Friday night we had a meeting for KHAWS -- a HAWS program for kids between the ages of 8 and 12 years of age that meets once a month.  The presenter this month was a dog trainer who came to tell the kids about dog sports, and she brought her very well behaved choclate lab to visit the kids as well. 

One of the kids who attends this program is a girl who was attacked by a dog when she was younger.  As a result she is terrified of dogs, and her mother enrolled her in KHAWS so that her daughter would have an opportunity to spend time with safe dogs in a controlled environment and hopefully, eventually get over her fear.

The mother stayed during the program and I was extremely impressed with how she helped her daughter.  The dog was about 25 feet from the girl at all times, but the girl was still afraid.  We left the door to an adjoining room open to her so that she would have, as she called it, a safe place to go when she was feeling overwhelmed with anxiety at the presence of the dog.  The little girl took advantage of the safe place any time she saw the dog move or even stand up from a down. 

At one point the presenter mentioned that her dog had developed a fear to something.  I overheard the mother telling the little girl, "See, even dogs are afraid sometimes".

By the end of the evening the girl remained in the room -- albeit at the 25 foot distance from the dog.  But the dog was up and moving, and being greeted by the other children, and the girl chose to remain.  Her mother remarked that her daughter's behavior around a dog was the best it's been that evening. 

As a dog trainer I'm well versed in helping dogs confront fears that they may have.  Common convention is that forcing a dog to confront something it's afraid of is the worst thing you can do -- it can backfire and cause the dog to be even more afraid than it was to begin with.  Dog trainers much prefer to work at what we call a "threshold" -- an exposure that causes the least amount of fear response from the dog, and as the dog recovers at a particular threshold we expose the dog to their fear item at a stronger and stronger threshold, until the dog is capable of coping with whatever previously caused them extreme anxiety.

Dog trainers also use "safe places" as well.  It provides an opportunity for a dog to remove himself if the threshold he's being worked at becomes a little too much for him.  A dog who is empowered to make his own choice when nervous is more likely to be able to deal with his fears.  A good example of a behavior modification model that uses this is Behavior Adjustement Training (BAT) developed by Grisha Stewart.

The empathy the mother displayed for her daughter and the decisions she was making on her daughter's behalf were right on target.  And it's a good reminder that no matter if you are a human being or an animal, we all have fears.  And what seems silly to one person (I can't imagine being afraid of all dogs) is very real to another.  So whether you're a dog who's afraid of men with beards, no matter how well intentioned the bearded man is, or a little girl who's afraid of dogs - no matter how well behaved the dog might be, it's not silly at all.  

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