When people talk about their fearful dogs I often hear the questions, how do I get him ‘passed his fears’ or ‘over his fears’? It’s as though fear is a location that a dog just needs to journey through. Although it makes a nice metaphor, the image of a path from a place of anxiety to one of confidence, I think it also leads people to envision forward movement. And if a dog is unwilling or incapable of making that movement on his own, all we need to do as his owners, is make him move. Afraid of; a flight of stairs, walking on a new surface, getting into the car, little kids? Here, let me help you by dragging you by the neck. Unfortunately for dogs, this can work for some, leaving trainers and owners to believe that it’s the route to take for getting a dog ‘passed’ his fear. Movement can help dogs in many ways but it doesn’t have to be forced marches.
I consider myself fortunate that I have not had a life which was filled with constant fear and dread. I find it hard to imagine what that must be like. Perhaps an inadequate substitute that I can imagine, is being cold, the kind of cold that keeps your muscles tensed and your breath short and rapid. When I’m cold like that, as it seems I have been a lot this winter, what I notice the most is the comfort of warmth. My shoulders relax, my chest loosens and I sigh audibly. It feels so good not to be cold. I don’t think I will ever get over or passed being cold.
Rather than trying to think of ways to get my dog over his fear I begin by thinking of how I can help him find relief from his fear. Often it’s management and the control of his triggers or his proximity to them, but it also includes giving him the training and skills to make safe and appropriate choices when he’s around a trigger. Sunny can find relief in moving away from people who scare him, or sitting and waiting for me to decide what our next move will be. After four years together I think that Sunny is able to predict that my next move is going to be one that provides him with relief, and doesn’t force him to get passed or over anything.