In July, my husband and I took our dog, Ada, on her first beach trip. I love the ocean, and I was beyond excited to see her splash and scamper and frolic in the water. But Ada, my high-strung huntress, was not as delighted by the big, loud, wet thing as her mama was. Nope nope nope… too much crashing, not enough staying-still-so-I-can-sniff-you-without-touching-you. She much preferred chasing sand crabs from tiny hole to tinier hole. In pursuit of these small, cranky ghosts, she darted about, dug vigorously, and smashed her face into the sand. But only dry sand. When we resumed walking, this was about as close as she would get to the water.
Bummer! So how should I have handled this situation? Some people would have me just drag her to the water: she’ll never get over her fears if I “coddle” her, right? The issue here (well, one of the issues) is that forcing her to experience the scary thing is not going to make her less afraid of it. It’s actually quite likely to make the scary thing seem even scarier. If you’re afraid of spiders, and I tie you up and dump 100 spiders on you, will you be less afraid than if you weren’t tied up? And say some of the spiders bite you and you have to go to the hospital – I just proved you right! Spiders are dangerous and you should most definitely be afraid of them. Same thing with the ocean, which I have just as little control over as I do spiders. If I drag Ada to the water and anything scary or painful happens – she gets water up her nose, a jellyfish stings her foot, a surprisingly large wave knocks us over – her skittishness could progress to an outright phobia.
“Okay, no dragging. But you can lure her to the water with treats, right?” So… I do like the food angle, but we’re not there yet. Luring is totally fine when we’re training something unemotional like “sit.” It’s different when fear is involved, though. For the luring to happen, I need to have a treat delicious enough that its Tasty Factor outweighs the Scary Factor of the ocean. But does the treat’s tastiness make the ocean less scary? No. My dog is only willing to take the risk for that preeeecious morsel. As soon as the tasty-to-scary balance shifts and she gets spooked, she’s outta there – still fearful, and less likely to follow if I attempt to lure her again. (And as before, if anything bad happens while we’re near the notoriously unpredictable water, she will then have evidence to support her fear.)
My goal was for Ada to become less fearful, more likely to touch the water every time we walked on the beach. To achieve my goal, I needed to teach her the ocean was both 1) safe, and 2) great news! And for her to learn the ocean was safe, she had to feel safe the whole time. That meant no coercion, no tricks, no pushing beyond her comfort level.
So I went at her pace. She got to decide how close she was to the wet stuff. No pressure. No manipulation. Her choice every time.
There were treats, of course. If she walked closer to the water than usual, “Yay! Here’s a cheese!” If she was remotely close to the water and something startled her, “Ooh, party time! Here’s bunches of cheeses! Isn’t the beach so fun! Good Girl!” And often for no reason at all, “You’re just cute, and you deserve cheese.”
There is an important distinction between the “Yay” and “Party Time” scenarios and the proposition of luring her to the water: when I presented the food. If luring, I would show her the treat up front, tempting her with it, and she would only move toward the water in order to get the food. This order of events could result in Ada learning “if mom shows me food, something scary is going to happen.” Instead, I only reached for my treats after events occurred. Either she was rewarded after making a choice I liked, or a startling event was followed by a party. In both cases, proximity to water resulted in yummies, which were key to boosting the ocean from “safe” to “great news!”
It all finally paid off. Our last beach walk on our last day of the trip, this happened:
Y’all, she was RUNNING through the water. After a week of going at her pace. But if I had pushed her too far too fast, I could have installed a greater fear that might have taken months or years to undo. If you care for an “Ada”, patience is your best friend. Can you arrange her trigger scenario so she chooses whether to participate? Can you forget your timeline and let her call the shots? Your dog will thank you, and she may even surprise you with a sudden triumph!