If you looked at this photo and guessed that the Chuckster is not thrilled about being dressed up in a blond wig and forced to hold a sequined rose in his mouth you’d be right. The boy’s pinched expression and somewhat whale-eyed glare clearly express annoyance and stress.
If I’d been foolish enough to try this with the boy in the first months he was here, I’d have been in stitches. Literally. Today it just took a few seconds of firm, gentle insistence to get him to agree to it.
I do it because if I let Charlie take the easy no-stress route and stay in the deeply dysfunctional place he inhabited when he first came here, he’d still be a miserable, lonely, filthy, unsocialized little wretch. You see, the problem with comfort zones is that they’re such nice, safe, warm comfortable places that if we’re never pushed out of them, we just settle in and stay there. And when we’re allowed to indulge in that kind of intrinsically rewarding avoidance behavior our comfort zones don’t shrink – they get bigger.
Because of a severe lack of early socialization, when I first met him there were a lot more things that Charlie feared or otherwise didn’t like than things he liked (or was even willing to put up with). The boy had also inadvertently learned that he could use his evil, evil teeth to make things he didn’t like go away. When faced with any kind of new or even mildly stressful situation his default reaction was a screaming, spitting, biting tantrum. So it was my job to regularly, fairly – and yes, sometimes forcefully – push Charlie out of his comfort zone so he could develop the coping skills he hadn’t had a chance to acquire in the first months of life.
Basically, I need to act as his personal trainer. It was my job to design a safe and effective mental exercise program to help this dog reach his potential. And I couldn’t always be his buddy when I did it. A good personal trainer must be prepared to push her clients relentlessly.
A lot of people will try to convince you that incorporating any stress or aversiveness in handling or training a dog will make him vicious, fearful and/or neurotic. These people are wrong. Working with dogs like Charlie has convinced me that the idea that we should only share ‘positive’ interactions with our dogs is a deeply flawed one.
Despite what the main stream media tells you, stress is not an inherently negative or unnatural thing. Stress is a natural – and necessary - part of every life (seriously, even plant life). Stress drives evolution, it builds strength and it even enhances some forms of learning. Because stress is absolutely essential to life, the key to dealing with it successfully doesn’t lie in avoiding or ignoring it, it’s found in developing the strength to cope with it.
The brain’s stress coping mechanisms are a lot like muscles, you’ve got to use ‘em or you’ll lose ‘em. So in a direct analogy to resistance training, we can use mental training to increase an animal’s ability to deal with stress. The basis of this training consists of a program of controlled exposure to moderately stressful things that increases a dog’s ability to cope with stress. This is strikingly similar to the goal of resistance training which, according to the American Sports Medicine Institute, is to “gradually and progressively overload the musculoskeletal system so it gets stronger.”
If your dog needs a bit of personal coaching follow these rules:
- When possible give the dog some choice in how to approach the stressful situation. Don’t put the dog on a leash and drag him toward it. Instead, set up a situation where making some approach to the object results in a reward or a release of pressure and then show him how to earn it.
- If the dog has completely and absolutely made up his mind that he cannot approach that particular scary thing, don’t quit and reward his refusal, just move on to an easier thing.
- Keep the dog’s mind and body active during the exercise. Idle paws are the devil’s tools! If your dog is not fully engaged in the exercise those extra mental resources will be shuttled to stress responses and they’ll work against you.
- Increase the difficulty in steps. Watch the dog. His response will tell you how big to make those steps.
- Give the dog a short break to shake off the stress after each step. If he has a hard time shaking it off, make the next step smaller or easier. If he rebounds immediately, make it bigger or more difficult.
- Work in small bits at first. Increase time as your dog increases his mental resources.
- The last bit of the work you do will be the piece that the dog will remember most clearly, so it is very important to end the work on a successful note. Even if this is only a small success.
- Don’t overdo it. Once the dog’s confidence is aroused – end the session and give him a break to process what he just learned. This should be a time for calm, quiet reflection not rambunctious play.
- It is important to realize that if you are working with a genetically shy dog or one who had severe deficits in early socialization – you will need to continue these kinds of mental strength training exercises for the rest of your dog’s life. Maintenance training will be much less difficult and time-consuming than your initial training program, but your dog has to use these skills or he will lose them.
In my experience, when done well, this kind of program will result in geometric rather than arithmetic progress. So while you will probably need to begin by taking tiny steps you should begin to see significant changes as your dog’s resources are built up. Be aware of this and don’t fall into the rut of walking in baby steps throughout your training program.
After many months of regular structured mental resistance training young Charlie has progressed beyond baby steps and significantly increased his ability to cope with stress. He’s gone from a dog who pitched a major fit any time a new person came into our house to a dog who, with just a bit of help, now likes to hop into visitors’ laps to cuddle.
Pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone wasn’t always fun, and in the beginning it was very stressful for both of us. But every day he gets stronger. The boy still needs a bit more work, but this crazy, bitey little dog is learning to roll with life’s punches. And more importantly he’s also beginning to recognize the rewards that go along with those skills.