Friday, April 3, 2015

Fear, Part 4: Choice Is Magic

One of the lessons that has taken me longest to learn in working with fearful dogs is that pushing forward moves things backwards. Seems like a nonsensical statement but when it comes to any animal experiencing generalized fear within an environment, the very best thing to do is to wait and let the animal choose to come to you.
Newly rescued Chima is pretty worried about Troy here but she is learning that he won't reach out to grab at her so she's willing to come closer and check him out. 

This can be maddening when you have a brand new foster dog who is nervously trembling across the room from you and you want to let them know that you will take care of them, but I promise you waiting things out and letting the dog choose to come to you will exponentially speed up how quickly they trust you.

I'm not saying you can't do things to help them along. Set up the environment and positive "consequences" so that choosing to check you out or explore the room pays off. They are scared and terrified and sometimes even leaning forward to sniff the floor in front of them is going to be a brave triumph. Moving forward might be reinforced by the fact that you've previously placed some super delicious bits of meat around their bed and it becomes a reinforcing behavior to move around and explore. As they get braver, you could reinforce them looking towards you by gently tossing a piece of treat across the room and then looking away. As one of my heroes in the behavior analysis field, Dr. Susan Friedman says "control the environment not the animal." That means you need to be putting your energy into setting up your dog's environment so they have the best chance of succeeding.

Dr. Friedman also talks about choice being a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers do not need to be learned - they are just part of what makes animals tick and we react to those reinforcers without needing to understand that "wow, that is a good thing."  Food, water, shelter are all things that we know to seek out and are primary reinforcers. But did you know the ability to act and make choices and have a sense of control over one's life is also one of those things that is naturally reinforcing to us mammals? So empower that timid foster dog. Grabbing them and giving them a hug will teach them that you are someone to be worried about and avoided. Sitting back and watching from afar as they come to a decision to approach you, or even just look over at you, teaches them that you are safe and are going to respect their desire for some space.

Again, I am not saying to do nothing. But what you will be doing is being calm, quiet, and watching carefully for ways you can set up great positive outcomes that make the behavior you want to see (in this case moving around and being willing to approach people) worth performing.

If you hold back your excitement and let the animal make the choice to get to know you, instead of forcing that on the animal by picking them up for a cuddle, I promise you, you will earn a different kind of trust. They will understand that you will let them take things at a pace that feels safe to them and that kind of respect for an animal will only strengthen the trust needed for a strong relationship to grow.

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