This is a short piece on desensitizing vs saturating (flooding) to help a dog (or child) get over fears. It was printed over a year ago in Northern Virginia Today.
At the time I am posting this, my daughter is almost 11. Careful work over time helped her overcome various fears instead of the old school “Suck it up and deal with it!” mentality many have.
I was watching the interactions of a child of about seven and his parents at a theme park’s Halloween season. The boy was past terrified and an emotional wreck. He was a ball of quivering snot as they hauled him through scare zones and haunted houses. His parents felt he had to deal with it. They were having fun so they made the poor child endure what was nothing but torture for him. Even with actors toning it down when they saw how scared he was, it was no help. The boy was being flooded with scary things. I saw him several times that night. Eventually he shut down, gave up: eyes dead, following his parents like a little robot. I was saddened by what I saw this child’s parents putting him through.
Now, a certain little girl had grown up following her big brother (5 1/2 years older) around the same theme park. She actually took her first steps there, trying to chase him as he went to a roller coaster. Eventually, big brother began wanting to stay later during the haunting season and test the scary Halloween stuff to see if he was ready to explore more. Little sister wanted to keep up – but was not ready at age four for the really scary things. So Daddy would go off with big brother and Mommy started to work to help the girl learn to have fun instead of being terrified. At first, they just hung outside the outdoor scare zones and observed. Mommy would ask characters to come to gently interact with the little one. One actress took the child under her wing. Every weekend for the entire season (sometimes twice in a weekend the family would go), this ghoul provided an emotional safe zone the child could go to if needed. If she was not there, another creepy would take her place. With parental permission, the actress would take the child into the mists and interact with other ghouls. The following year, the child said she was ready to enter the scary indoor areas – with the help of the ghoul who was still there and who would be there for a total of four seasons. If something became too scary, the child would get out and seek out her safety-ghoul.
Eventually the child developed a liking for the vampire haunt. Every weekend while big brother and Daddy did the whole park, the little girl and Mommy would do the vampire haunt over and over. The vampire crew and security staff began to recognize her and worked hard to make it fun while others were being scared. They would give her vampire escorts without Mommy. She grew to enjoy the fun of the Halloween events at the theme park. Now at age ten, my daughter will help other scared children out. She will offer to go through the vampire zone with them and their parents in order to make it fun. She will have the vamps tone it down and make it as fun as possible.
Now, how does this apply to pets? Saturation vs. Desensitization and Counter Conditioning are methods used to help pets overcome fears.
Saturation is exposing to a high level of stimulus and hoping the animal gets over it. This is risky. We run a risk of the animal shutting down and later exploding when faced with a stressing situation. Rehabilitating dogs trained to get over fears with saturation methods is difficult because they were always under higher levels of stress. Saturation is not a healthy way to help any animal – even humans – overcome fears. The first child was saturated. Think about the things you are most afraid of and being shoved into it with no escape. What would this do to you?
Desensitizing and Counter Conditioning is exposing the target of our work to SMALL doses of the stressor and then working to change the emotional response. It is a healthier approach. Progress is made only when the target of the work shows she is ready. If fears arise again, the work is backed up. Yes it takes time, but if you stick to a good program, it is all worth it in the end.
Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, a published author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.