"The art of the sailor is to leave nothing to chance." -Annie Van de Wiele
If you know me, you know I’m a sailor. Much of my leash wrangling skills, and emphasis on safety protocols, come from sailing. But you don’t have to live-aboard with dogs like I have to understand that sailing makes for great animal-care metaphors. Harnessing nature (like animals) is tricky business, in any context.
We all want smooth sailing: when we take our dogs on outdoor adventures, when we welcome guests into our homes, and on neighborhood leash-walks. Yet we often get so caught up in the postcard idea of what smooth sailing looks like that we forget how much preparation it takes to be a good skipper.
If you and your dog are going to sail together, we need to first build a boat without leaks. A leaky boat isn’t going to go very far, and may even be dangerous to take out of the harbor.
Building a water-tight ship
Trainers and dog behavior consultants call this management. You are engineering your dog’s environment for success:
Prevent rehearsal of any undesirable behavior
Prevent exposure to triggers that stress your dog
For my leash-reactive dog guardians, this might mean avoiding other dogs completely at first. Not just on leash-walks – though I often give permission to skip neighborhood leash walks altogether if there are alternatives for exercise like yard-play, dog parks or sniffaris on a long line.
Covering front windows in your home, ideally with translucent window film, is good management. Crating your dog on car rides (and covering the crate with an old bed sheet) can be good management. Noticing a dog up ahead and proactively moving away (try the treat magnet maneuver) is good management.
For my separation anxiety cases, management means temporarily suspending absences, building your dog’s village of support and utilizing any combination of: daycare, dog-walkers, family and friends, bringing your dog to work with you, working from home, roommates or neighbors.
For my fearful dogs, management means avoiding the place, sounds, situation and/or person(s) that trigger your dog’s fear response.
I'd rather be sailing
Building a water-tight ship is not easy. It requires resources, sacrifices and creativity. And the whole time you’re patching up leaks you’re looking to the horizon and wishing you were on the high seas.
And this is why I receive push-back from guardians. I get it, management is not fun like training your dog to do tricks is fun.
But, when done right, management can be pretty magical. For many dogs, it can actually be the entirety of the solution. Why? My guess is that because it results in (1) lowered stress levels and (2) prevention of generalization.
When your dog is stressed, there are hormonal and physiologic changes that occur in their brain and body. These changes (which your dog has no control over) affect their ability to learn, even outside the context of the stressor.
We also know that stress is cumulative and chronic stress is dangerous. If your dog isn’t able to return to a baseline level of homeostasis, their tolerance for even mild stressors may decrease significantly (this is colloquially known as trigger stacking). Over-exposure to stressors, the opposite of management, is called flooding. It does not help your dog to throw them into the deep-end with the sharks.
This is why half-measures at management may create setbacks in your dog's progress. Essentially, if you try to sail, even on a mild day, you’ll find yourself constantly bailing out your boat. The stress has leaked in, like water, and it takes time to get it out. Time that you’d rather be using to trim your sails or enjoying the view.
Understand that, as laborious as good management is at first ("What? I have change my home decor?"), it is often easier than the behavior modification processes of desensitization and counterconditioning.
The perfect storm
Management is actually essential for desensitization, and will make your recovery program more efficient. I’ll give you an example with my own dog, Z.Z. Right at the close of his socialization window (12 weeks), we encountered a Perfect Storm: a specific sound I had neglected to expose him to, as well as an undiagnosed ear infection, both totally unexpected and concurrent.
We were in our favorite forest, romping and running, sniffing and playing with every willing creature we encountered when, suddenly POP-POP-POP! A guttural, growling vrooooom. Another POP-POP-POP! An ear-busting, thumping roar. It was the first motorcycle of Spring.
And then, a second later, he fled. It was the kind of blind fear that makes my heart fall to my knees. He would not stop running, and we were many yards from our car. He ignored other dogs, his friends, hikers, everyone, including me. When we reached the parking lot, he was still inconsolable. Had I not had him on a long-line for safety, I’m pretty sure he would have run into traffic in his tunnel vision, risking his very life. I loaded him up, with some effort, into the car. He refused snacks, panting and wild-eyed with hypervigilance.
Crap. I knew what this meant. A vet visit, a consultation with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, and a very big project for me.
But first, we stopped our special hikes altogether.
Turning back to safe harbor
We stopped going to the forest where he’d first heard the loud revving and popping of that motorcycle, a machine I’ve since come to view as a horrendous monster as well.
It felt, temporarily, like I was giving up. I’m a behavior consultant and trainer, an expert. I work fear cases all the time, many hundreds of dogs. And yet I felt resistance come up within me.
Was it hard for me to accept that I’d need to manage Z.Z.’s exposure? Yes. We’d loved that forest trail. I loved that forest trail. It had previously been a mystical place: friends, wet pine oil wafting through the air, all kinds of chirps and caws and songs from the variety of local and visiting birds. To say I felt devastated wouldn’t be an overstatement. I wanted to wave that magical trainer wand and poof! Z.Z. would “just get over it.”
I had to trust the process of recovery. I had to honor my dog’s emotions. I had to start with management. So we found other places to go for a while. Places Z.Z. felt safe, where I was sure there’d be no motorcycles.
Some months after that first terrifying experience, Z.Z.’s fear response hadn’t been triggered at all in weeks. His good days started to far outweigh his bad days, and I knew because I’d been tracking this data. All this while, I’d been rebuilding our boat, patching and plugging all the leaks and lowering Z.Z.’s stress levels however and whenever I could. Safety first.
And eventually, we were ready to set sail again. A few things I was sure of before we leashed up for the walk:
I felt well-rested and relaxed myself
I had the time to go at Z.Z.’s pace, whatever that might be
I was ready to turn back at the first sign of discomfort
I let go of all my expectations
We leashed up, went out the door and I let Z.Z. lead me. He sniffed and pranced down the block, he peed on a few trees, we were suddenly mere feet away from the very busy road! He zig-zagged a bit, but I wasn’t looking for a perfect heel, I wanted ZZ to feel safe exploring, gathering information through his ears, eyes and nose. So we ambled along. There were stops and starts. It was summer, which means traffic, and up ahead a Harley-Davidson was puttering a bit. I watched Z.Z.’s body language in what felt like slow-motion.
Tail was up, in his neutral-for-a-Spitz-type position. His mouth was slightly open and his eyes remained soft and almond-shaped. His muscles were relaxed and his gait, prancy. He was eating food! And then, he made it.
Not just past the Harley, the whole way to the forest. Every time he looked at me with his bright blue eyes and slightly open-mouth smile, I smiled back, “You’re amazing, Z!” He politely took a few freeze-dried minnows. “Look at you go!” He looked ahead and then back at me, as if to say, “Come on, Mama!” Were we now encouraging each other? Maybe. A few people passed, commenting on his fluffy coat. He sat to signal to me that he wanted to greet a gardener carrying a bucket of weeds, and the gardener gave him back and chin scritches as Z.Z. leaned into his legs. He was fearless.
Recovery from fear (as well as frustration, rage and other negative emotional states) is a process. It’s a long and arduous voyage, which sometimes means return to harbor. I fully believe that by giving Z.Z. time to feel safe, via management, we were able to embark again. And this time, in flying colors.
Have a fearful, reactive or anxious dog? Let me guide your journey. Get in touch for a private consultation.