When in doubt, bail out!

man paddling a yellow kayak in white waterOver the years I have instructed people in a variety of skills. I was a life guard and swim instructor and have taught white water canoeing and how to roll a whitewater kayak. I’ve introduced people to the joys of cross-country skiing and rock climbing. Several of my young relatives learned to drive a stick shift in my vehicles.

The instruction for each of these activities began in situations in which the student was most likely to be successful, and if they were not, their safety and the safety of those around them was ensured. It makes little sense to put a new driver behind the wheel and send them onto the highway, when an empty parking lot is available.

As skills are mastered the conditions for performance change. After someone is comfortable rolling their kayak in a heated pool we’d head out to a pond, or flat stretch of river. Psychologically this has an impact on a student, even if the level of difficulty has not changed. They can keep on their mask and nose clip if they prefer for comfort’s sake, but the shock of cold water, and just being in water that seems less predictable (there may be fish or rocks to contend with) will raise their level of stress. If the additional stress they experience is still tolerable, their learning curve should continue to climb. If not, they may not be able to perform whatever skills they already learned, and would not be expected to learn any new ones.

Before I even teach someone how to roll a kayak or paddle a canoe, the first skill students learn is one which is easy to perform and will be their ‘fall back’ skill in the event they are unable to perform the rolling or paddling skills they are practicing. People learning to swim will be able to grab on to the side of the pool, or put their feet down. Drivers learn how to brake.

Should they find themselves in literally ‘over their head’ a kayak paddler has the option of popping their spray skirt and floating out of their boat and swimming to shore (hopefully while hanging on to both their boat and paddle). Up until now the spray skirt has kept water out of the kayak and the paddler from sliding out of the boat. By grabbing hold of a loop at the front of the skirt and pulling, the spray skirt disconnects from around the cockpit and the paddler can lean forward and push themselves out of an upside down boat. It’s a skill that requires very little practice for a boater to become proficient at. The inclination to get out of a boat that is tipped upside down is about as natural a response as you can get. In fact learning to hang out upside down is a skill that needs to be practiced in order to roll efficiently.

When working with a fearful dog, a ‘bail out’ move should be among some of the first behaviors they learn. Our goal is usually to get our dogs to be able to move toward or interact with their triggers, but they need to be prepared to respond to situations in which they are too stressed or over their skill level. Practicing moving away from triggers can be like popping out of a kayak, since it’s something that many fearful dogs want to do anyway, it’s easy for them to learn and when super stressed, can perform with little thought.

Practice bail out moves with your dog before they find themselves struggling and too stressed to think.

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8 comments so far

  1. Deborah Flick on

    Thanks for this reminder. Sadie and i learned and practiced ‘turn’ for just such situations and then, well, we sorta forgot about it. Time to get out that old cue and polish her up 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I call it the GHOD move (get the heck out of dodge!)

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Good advice. I’m still steaming from our walk yesterday. I’m under the weather, so I must have been distracted because I didn’t see these two unfenced, reactive dogs come barreling at us — barking and growling, etc. We’ve had problems with them off and on for years now.

    Since I didn’t have a chance to prepare Lilly, she delivered a full-on reactive display back that them — lunging and barking and growling.

    They did chase us down. Lilly did feel threatened. I don’t blame her.

    What broke my heart was how she walked with her body carried about an inch lower than normal on the rest of our walk. She was that upset.

    My poor sweetie.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Total bummer. Scary for everybody! I carry a small aerosol can of citronella spray. I’d be aiming for those dogs.

  3. Lizzie on

    Great idea to carry a spray Debbie, I’ll have to look into finding something of the like over here.

    I’ve had lone dogs, usually Labs or Boxers, come bounding up to Gracie, the owners are no where to be seen, not necessarily aggressive just dominant, but won’t go away. I’ve even kicked one or two of them, bit risky I know, but they don’t even react to me they just want to keep pestering Gracie. Meantime Gracie is pulling my arm out of it’s socket trying to run away, it’s all very distressing.

    It’s only a matter of seconds when these things happen and the dogs seem to come out of no where, so there’s no time to GHOD, but thankfully encounters like this have been few, and Gracie does recover quickly, bless her 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sometimes throwing a hand full of kibble away from you can help too. The spray is basically harmless but they don’t like it.

  4. Sue on

    I always carry a spray now after Molly, my yorkie, has been attacked a couple of times recently. It only sprays out air, but is quite loud. Oddly enough, i havent had cause to use it yet. My only worry is that if my dogs are off lead, they might be startled too and run off. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it if they were on the lead and a large dog got too close. (mine are both fearful and small)
    We have a jogger who goes around here with his agressive dog on a long lead attached to his belt. The dog is always in front and the owner about 10 feet behind. I am very tempted to aim the spray in the owners face next time i meet him!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      One concern I have when I use anything to disrupt another dog’s behavior, around other dogs, is how it might affect those other, good dogs. Just mentioning it in case the sound of the air might end up spooking Molly as well.

      I don’t blame you wanting to go for the jogger instead!


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