The year I was seven was the year I really learned to swim. I LOVE to swim. Up until that year, I had puddle ducked around the shallow end of the pool in the company of my mother, where I could touch the bottom, but the year I was seven, I learned to swim. Swimming was an important skill from my perspective. I am not sure why, but I was especially attracted to the deep end of the pool, where the water was over my head. Where I could not touch the bottom. Where the big kids got to swim. I wanted to be just like them, able to jump off the diving board, able to swim across the pool, all by my self.
I watch a lot of reactive dogs in my classes, and I have often though that being a reactive dog can be a little bit like being seven and wanting to be able to swim in the deep end of the pool. Many of these dogs seem to be magnetized towards the targets they are afraid of. They want to go say hi, but when they get close, they begin to worry and get overwhelmed. And then they get to the point where they cannot cope. And then they bark and lunge, or freeze and bolt, or sometimes they bite. These dogs seem to be attracted the very things that frighten them the most.
When these dogs are at home, they are often calm and easy going. When a stranger appears, or a dog, they go on alert. And they often walk right up to the target looking calm and confident. They are just like I was at seven in the swimming pool. I desperately wanted to swim in the deep end and I would start out confidently swimming where the water was not over my head. Then I would approach that magic rope that marked off where the water got suddenly deeper. Then I would tire and put my foot down. For a moment, there is hope that I could rest with my foot on the bottom of the pool, and then there is that sickening realization that I cannot touch and the water is over my head. One time I panicked and the life guard had to jump in and get me. And still, I wanted to swim in the deep end of the pool.
When a dog approaches the target of his fear, he is quite a bit like I was. He wants to go say hello, but when he gets there, he is overwhelmed and panics. Dogs who panic behave fairly predictably; they usually bark and lunge, or they may scoot away as though they touched something hot. If the target of their fear is a person who reaches out to them, they may actually bite. A portion of the dogs will freeze and stare with a deer in the headlights sort of look to him. All of the dogs who get into the deep end need what I got so long ago. They need swimming lessons.
In my case, panicking and being pulled from the water by a life guard was a turning point. I was banned from the deep end for two weeks, and during those two weeks, I spent time learning skills that would help me to be a better swimmer. I learned to fill my lungs and make myself into a floating balloon in the water. I learned that people in the deep end of the pool could stand on a ledge around the deep end that was not as deep as the rest of the pool. I learned to duck my head under the water and then push up against the water and to take a breath and go down again. I practiced swimming almost all the way across the pool and finally after two weeks of practicing I could swim all the way across the pool. And for two weeks, I wasn’t permitted to get overwhelmed by sneaking myself up to the rope that marked off the danger zone.
Working with a dog who is reactive is very much like teaching me to swim. They need a vacation from being overwhelmed and a chance to learn different and new skills. They need to learn that the target of their fear is not as frightening as they thought. They need to learn how to escape and swim to the ledge at the side of the pool. They need confident people who can help them to succeed and who won’t just toss them in to sink or swim. Slow careful exposure to the target helps the dog to practice the skills he is learning to be successful.
Most of all, not drowning the dog over and over again is the foundation for success when working with reactive dogs. For all the reactive dogs out there who are working on overcoming their fears, remembering to keep them from drowning is probably the most important part of what we do. And to all the reactive dogs who have passed through the Good Dog program, congratulations! You learned to swim in the deep end of the pool!