Why Punishing Fear Doesn't Work

Posted by Nancy Tucker ("The Normal Dog" Blog – June 3, 2011)

Many of you are already aware of our newest housemate, Jazzy.  We sprung her from the local shelter and are working on some of her minor issues while we look for a new home for her.

The first problem we noticed with Jazzy was her inability to walk nicely on leash.  She pulled like a tank!  She is 63 lbs of stocky strength.  When she pulls, you follow.  I began working on that immediately, and discovered she is a fast learner.  She can walk nicely, under the right circumstances. But man oh man, if she so much as spots a dog, she erupts into all kinds of barking, lunging, pulling, and spinning.

I know enough about Jazzy's behaviour now to be able to ascertain that the root of her reactivity is anxiety.  So my plan is to make Jazzy less anxious about certain events, like the presence of another dog.  This is a long-term plan; a project that involves lots of patience, lots of planning ahead, and lots of time.

I was asked recently why I didn't just "make" Jazzy stop.  Stop barking, stop lunging, stop acting up.  Just stop it.  Sit.  Be quiet.  Enough already.  Tssssst.  Tsssssst.  

Well, that is an option.  I could make it extremely unpleasant for her to behave this way.  There are a variety of methods I could use, and an even larger variety of equipment that can make the job easier.  Choke, prong, shock, spray, back-sided kick.  Yep.  I can get her to knock it off alright.

But I wouldn't be solving the problem.  In fact, I'd probably make it worse in the long run (which is what I suspect may have happened to her in the first place).  Jazzy's reaction is an emotional one.  You don't "correct" emotion with a threat.  Behaviour, sure (although it's really not my style).  But not the reason for the behaviour. The emotion is always there, which means the potential for the behaviour remains as well.

Picture yourself horrified of snakes.  You HATE them.  The sight of one makes you scream and jump up and down.  As your friend, this behaviour of yours annoys and embarrasses me, so I stick a taser gun to your neck every time you act up this way.  You scream, I zap.  You try to move, I zap. This might force you to act quiet when you see a snake, but you're still deathly afraid.  I've taught you absolutely nothing.  

Well, that's not true.  I've taught you that you can't trust your best friend, the one person in the world that you should be able to count on...  I'm now unpredictable and dangerous; I've taught you to hate snakes even more, because now every time you see one, you get zapped!  I've taught you to completely loathe going for walks with me, because the possibility of getting zapped always looms over you (so you also try to get as far away from me as possible while we walk).

This scenario is actually much more dangerous than before.  What do you think you'd do if I allowed the snake to come too close to you?  I am, after all, holding you on a leash and in complete control of your movements.  You're standing there quietly, not saying a word and not moving, so the snake has no idea you'd like for it to leave you alone.  On one side, you've got your biggest fear approaching you quickly.  On the other, you've got me holding a taser gun to your neck, and you know I'll use it.  It's a lose-lose situation for you, so you'll probably opt for just about ANYTHING that will get you out of the situation, including perhaps attacking the snake when it's within reach, or turning your attack on me to get me to let you go. There is no room for rational thinking when you're panicked. 

Really, the only way to move forward with this problem is to change the emotion.  Change the emotion, and the behaviour will follow.  If every time you spotted a snake from a distance, you received some kind of reward (here's 20 bucks!) AND you could count on your best friend to get you out of the situation pronto, a couple of things would happen:  You'd begin to tolerate or even look forward to seeing a snake, and your trust in me would grow, solidifying our bond. 

This is what I'm doing for Jazzy.  I want Jazzy's perception of the situation to change.  I want her to know that her behaviour is unnecessary (it's possible she's barking and lunging just to tell the other dog "Get away! Get away! Get away!".... maybe because she's afraid of the dog itself, or maybe because she has learned that something unpleasant is about to happen, like a leash snap, which only happens when a dog is in view, so she's doing her best to make the dog go away).

I want her to spot a dog, think "Yay, that means a treat's coming!", and to know that I will make sure she remains at a safe distance.  Later, I'll start delivering the treat when we're just a smidge closer to the other dog.  Then closer.... closer..... closer.....  but always far enough away that Jazzy doesn't feel the need to react.  She tells me how close we can get.  I don't get to decide that.

If you really want to understand how this process works, think of a fear you have.  Everyone has at least one. Think of something that you avoid at all costs.  Now decide that you're going to overcome this fear.  You'll quickly discover two very important things:  First, you'll need a partner; someone you can trust implicitly to help you reach your goal.  Someone patient and non-judgmental who's got your back.  And you'll discover that it takes time.  As much time as you need. You.  Not your partner.  Not anyone else. You. 

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