Sometimes our dogs develop fears or aversions to things that seem benign. After all, your average dog isn’t really a threat to a dog-reactive dog, so why do they react so strongly? It’s likely due to a number of different factors such as genetics, ontogenetic events, poor socialisation and past trauma.
Considering the fact that these triggers don’t pose an actual threat, there is a temptation to just expose our dogs to these stimuli and let them “get over it”. After all, if nothing bad happens, that should teach our dogs not to be worried, right? Right?
Exposing our dogs to the things that frighten them, at a level that frightens them, is called flooding. Many TV personalities make a show of flooding dogs and showing (cleverly edited) footage of the dog not reacting to a stimulus.
The problem with this is you’re throwing the dog in a situation they can’t escape, which can result in one of two bad consequences. One, the dog may show signs of extreme reactivity or aggression in its desperation to escape (which could result in your own injury). Two the dog will totally shut down to its environment (learned helplessness). Either way, your dog’s emotions aren’t changing for the better and you’re making yourself less trustworthy to your dog in the process. All in all: that’s piss poor dogmanship.
Just because you know that something won’t physically harm your dog, that doesn’t mean your dog knows that. In fact, it’s highly likely that your dog will be harmed from the experience EMOTIONALLY.
It’s the same for human phobias. Just because a phobia may seem irrational, doesn’t mean it’s easy to overcome. I know from personal experience.
As a child I was deathly afraid of cicadas. Whether it was the idea of them tangling in my (very long) hair, or the fact that they vibrated so hard when caught- I didn’t want a bar of them. I knew cicadas weren’t dangerous and I knew (logically) that they couldn’t harm me. It didn’t stop the fear.
Some members of my family took it upon themselves to ‘cure’ me of this phobia. So one night when I was lying in my bedroom, they threw a cicada in and held the door so I couldn’t escape. They flooded me with the stimulus.
Can you guess what happened?
I threw myself at the door in my desperation to escape. Eventually, after some consistent screaming, banging and crying, one family member took pity on me and let me out. I refused to return to the room for the remainder of the night.
Was I cured? Absolutely not! I learned from that experience that I couldn’t trust my family and was more vigilant in case anyone tried any more ‘remedies’ (they did- it never helped).
So, if your dog is exhibiting signs of anxiety or fear towards a stimulus, even if it seems totally crazy- respect it. Help them overcome it using methods such as desensitisation/counter conditioning, ideally supervised by a professional at first. Most importantly, tackle this issue WITH your dog as a united front. You’ll experience more success and a stronger bond with your dog if you cultivate trust as opposed to a ‘I know what’s best’ approach.
Be your dog’s advocate.