Actually, it IS all that bad!

skier going over a cliffA common misconception among dog handlers and pet owners is that simply exposing a dog to something they don’t like or fear, and having nothing bad happen, the dog will learn that it’s ‘ok’. If we can just lure the dog over to us with a piece of cheese the dog is going to realize that they can approach us safely. Makes sense, and in some cases it might even be true. If a dog is mildly apprehensive about something, given the opportunity to investigate it they calm down. Here in the woods in the winter, tree stumps that have been there for ages look like hunched over black bears (at least they have to me!) after a snowfall silhouettes them against a backdrop of white. When one of the dogs discovers the intruder, they bark and parry an alarm, only to discover what I may have realized just seconds before they did, it’s a tree. Whew, that was a close one.

For many fearful dogs being exposed to something, even if it doesn’t hurt them, and even if they get a bit of cheese in the process, doesn’t make it better. If the negative emotional response the dog is experiencing is powerful enough, it will outweigh the lack of ‘nothing bad’ and the ‘something good’. When someone says they have tried using treats to help a dog around their triggers, and it hasn’t worked, it may be because the balance of this equation is off. And with fear based behaviors we need more than balance, we need to tip the scales in favor of good in a big way. Nothing bad happening is rarely enough.

I’d guess that most of the people who are afraid of snakes have never actually had one bite them or slither over them while they slept preparing to crush the life out of them. Indeed most of the stuff that we humans fear or stress out over have never happened to us either. Some of these fears serve a real purpose. Being afraid of heights makes sense if you’re walking on a trail with a precipitous drop on one side. This fear may encourage you to check your shoelaces to make sure they’re tied so you’re not likely to trip and plummet to your death or the intensive care unit. If it causes you to freeze and be unable to move, and you stand there with your eyes closed, even if someone coaxes you to move along, is cliff side walking likely to be on your next holiday must-do list?

One of the first trips I went on with my husband was a skiing adventure in the Tetons. He’s an avid telemark skier and I ‘barely hold my own’ on the slopes. At the time I not only lacked skills I lacked confidence in what abilities I had. We spent a long day, into dusk, skiing down from a pass, the entire time my heart was in my mouth and though I managed not to burst into tears, I was planning on how I was going to escape from this ‘vacation’ as soon as I got to the bottom. I never hurt myself, or took a bad fall, I was just scared. I did not downhill ski with my husband again for close to two decades.

What I did in that interim was take up cross country and skate skiing. My skills and confidence increased and as I learned to control my descents, I began to enjoy the downhills as much as the straightaways where I could get into the lovely rhythm of gliding on snow. I have since gone downhill skiing and though it is not my recreation of choice these days, that’s due more to the cost and crowds. But I do not trust that my husband will guide me to the lifts that will take me to trails that I will feel safe on (sorry dear). I ‘may’ be skilled enough to ski on more difficult trails, but I do not enjoy it.

The next time you get your fearful dog to do something or interact with someone they are afraid of and find yourself thinking, “There, that wasn’t all that bad was it?”, it may be that it was.


23 comments so far

  1. Kristine on

    Thanks for this post. The analogy you made hit really close to me as well. I have a great number of fears, skiing being just one of them. And forcing myself down the hill has yet to have helped this improve.

    I think the more we put ourselves in our dog’s place, the more we kind of get where they are coming from. We are more alike than most people think.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading & ‘liking’ Kristine. There are always snowshoes! And I agree, since we believe that we are special because of our ability to be empathetic, we should take advantage of that skill more often.

  2. Pat on

    Yes Kristine, we need to put ourselves in our dogs heads, have empathy and try to understand their fears. My current scared girl is perhaps the hardest one I’ve had and yet she is making progress. She doesn’t run under the bed each time we make eye contact and she even joins the rest of the pack in making sure I notice her when I’m handing out treats. She happily puts her feet on my leg, tail flying back and forth, waiting for her treat. She would rather I not touch her but then there are people I like okay but would prefer they not get touchy with me so I can appreciate her preferences. She doesn’t want me to pick her up although I have to several times a day, especially with the wet, snowy days, feet and bellies do have to be dried, snow packed between toes does need to be picked out. She seems to understand this is part of the playing in the now experience and she tolerates the experience. I constantly need to fight the urge to hurry with her, I want her to have her forever home so badly, and I know in my heart she is not to be hurried. I need to constantly remind myself of the tiny, shaking bundle hiding under my bed or the little dog that would grab up the treats I’d throw to her and carry them to another room before she would eat them. Now she eats them while starting adoringly into my eyes, feet on my knees. When I hold my hand out, tell her touch and she buries her little nose in my plam and then looks up at me, waiting for the treat that will follow I want to pick her up and hug her, she is a survivor! I am going to a seminar by Suzanne Clothier in the greater Cincinnati area and I can’t wait. I am so eager to learn more so that perhaps I can move my little charges along more quickly. I want them healthy, physically and mentally and all the time realizing there are something that may never happen for her, she may never ski down a Black Diamond but she might get to the point where she will approach those she trusts without someone or something that scares her more than jumping into my lap. She did that a couple days ago, my married son came into the room being his overgrown, loud self and Prima made a flying leap onto the sofa, feet in my lap. I was glad that she had developed enough trust that she could put her fear aside for safety’s sake. I guess my concern is, since trust is so slow in coming, is it going to blow her little mind when she is finally adopted, is this going to be a dog that needs to live with me forever? I love her and would not mind that but as I’ve said before, keeping a dog means I have one less spot for a little one that needs me.

  3. kenzohw on

    This is also exactly what happened with Viva. A treat had no interest at all when she saw or met somebody/thing she was afraid of. For us training with BAT was the breakthrough. We are now making small baby steps into a less fearfull life.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yay! Giving dogs what they want/need is a great approach.

  4. Deborah Flick on

    I have long since learned to just avoid those things that frighten me or make me “too” uncomfortable. In a few instances, for my own benefit and quality of life, I’ve “learned” to accept others. Tolerate, is a better word. Frankly this is no big deal since there aren’t so many of these things to be debilitating. I don’t like to be immersed in water over my head, so I don’t go swimming. Truth be told, I’d rather not be immersed in water, period. Showers are fine by me. My feet slipping and sliding away from me totally freaks me out, so I don’t ice or roller skate. I have a touch of acrophobia so I avoid heights under certain kinds of conditions–like climbing open staircases in impossibly tall medieval bell towers, and driving over mountain passes. I’m okay in the passenger seat, but behind the wheel? Not so much. So, why not cut Sadie the same slack? I’m working on this and getting a little better every day,

    • fearfuldogs on

      If you ever decide that getting up that impossibly tall medieval staircase will improve the quality of your life, let me know. I’ll be happy to stand at the bottom and shout up words of encouragement 😉

  5. Mary Hunter on

    ““There, that wasn’t all that bad was it?”, it may be that it was.”

    Really great post and really great points!

    Too often in the training world there’s this attitude that food makes everything better….

    Which is not always true!

    Food can make things better.
    Or, food can build tolerance but not true acceptance.
    Or, food can fail to make things better.
    Or, food can make things worse.

    But, I wish trainers would realize that it’s important how you train, rather than just throwing food at the problem.


  6. Sam on

    According to behavioral psychologists that I’ve spoken to, the only way that exposure techniques reduce fear is if you expose the person/animal to their fear to the point that they are no longer trying to avoid or escape it (think exposure therapy of having someone ride an elevator until they’re no longer afraid of riding an elevator). They don’t describe it as learned helplessness, but instead a sort of eventual extinction of the meaning of the stimulus as something to be feared. And there’s NO telling how long that takes.

    I find that horribly inhumane and stressful, at least for use in non-human animals (for which there is no cognitive/talk therapy element), which is why counterconditioning and desensitization work a heck of a lot better for me and my dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Experiments were done on dogs in which they were immobilized in boxes filled with grain and flooded. It worked as you describe but not practical or realistic for pet owners.

      I have started a post in which I refer to cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ll have to get onto it since you brought it up!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Just to add to my comment. The flooding works because of a physiological ‘burn out’ of sorts of the fear response mechanism in the brain/body.

      • Sam on

        Yeah, isn’t it terrible? CC and DS are just so much kinder and, in my opinion, more practical. “Burning out” of a psychological mechanism just doesn’t seem like something I’d want to toy around with. Even when it’s used in humans, it makes me uneasy.

        I’ll look forward to your post about cognitive behavioral therapy!

  7. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Another great post! These things make so much sense when you write about them. Thank you!

  8. Lizzie on

    I agree with Mary, food does not always ‘make things better’ for fearful dogs. I can only speak of my experience with Gracie, and yes food did help her to overcome her fear towards me in the early days, but that was in a controlled environment in my home, and IMO as time has gone by treats have become so commonplace to her that they appear to be of no value when she has to face her fears in the outside world. In fact she is and always has just shut down and been unable to take food even if she had wanted to.

    I now understand both the physical and emotional reasons for this behaviour, which is why I do my utmost NOT to put her in situations that I know she can’t cope with. As I’ve learnt from Debbie, not all dogs have the skills to deal with so called normality and it’s my job to know just how much Gracie can cope with and organise her life accordingly.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have to remind myself sometimes to change treats. I see a difference in sunny’s response when the value of treats increases significantly for him. I try to use his favorite (canned cheese) for high impact events- vet visits for example. I have a video on showing sunny’s reaction to a neighbor who gave him Vienna sausages.

      If he was too freaked out the food probably wouldn’t matter, but when he’s on the fence about something, higher quality treats give him a bit of a push.

  9. honeysjourney on

    As usual, a great post. I need to work on being fearful of washing the dishes, example of reverse conditioning.

    I think, at least in Honey’s and my relationship, treats are the door opener to start the building process. As you so aptly posted previously, sometimes not treating when one is expected, more dopamine flows.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks George. You’re on your own with the dishes.

      I’m not sure about the ‘not treating when expected’ causing more dopamine. If I wrote that or it could be interpreted that way I need to change it.

      What we know is that when a reward is better than expected (that would include not expecting one at all) more dopamine is released.

  10. honeysjourney on

    I must apologize, you didn’t say that more dopamine is released it was said by Dr. Robert Sapolsky in the lecture you linked us to entitled The Uniqueness of Humans link here

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks George, I’m going to have to listen to that! Again.

  11. According to Gus on

    I’m so glad I discovered your blog after Monday’s post. Gus is a fearful dog and I’m afraid we’ve taken all the wrong paths to correct it. I’m excited to read your posts and gather new information. We have a long road ahead of us.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nice to meet you too! Be sure to visit for even more info about how to help out Gus. BTW I think aqua is his color.

  12. Cheryl and Kirby on

    I found your blog off the blogger challenge, and I’m so glad I did. Kirby is fearful of other dogs, and right now we are trying some counter conditioning techniques. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m looking forward to reading more on your blog.

    Cheryl and Kirby

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nice to meet you. If you haven’t had a chance to visit you might find more information to help you out. Check out the book list. The book Control Unleashed is worth a read.

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