This is a copy of the original article I wrote in Jun 2018.
Beanie, my lurcher, has serious reservations around being handled. He’s invariably “well-behaved” when I’m not there. If it’s not clear to you why this is not necessarily a good thing as it wasn’t to me back then, read up on the safe haven effect owners have on dogs, shut down dogs and learned helplessness. However, being the novice but benevolent owner that I was, I didn’t want to hurt him by not knowing what I was doing. So I trusted the pros. I used to believe it when people who gave him a bath, cut his nails, peered at his teeth, checked his temperature, gave him an injection… *insert any handling procedure here* said that he “was absolutely fine”.
But just once I heard him yelp when someone I trusted picked up his paw, at which point this person didn’t let go because it would supposedly teach him that he could “just get out of stuff by screaming”, that “he was pulling a fast one because I was there” and that “he’d eventually get used to it… they all do”. It didn’t seem as benevolent anymore as I had believed it to be.
When I eventually gave Beanie the choice of whether or not he’d like his paws handled and examined using the bucket game, it took us months for him to fully consent. See here and here to learn what the bucket game is and how to use it to empower an animal to opt in for husbandry procedures. Now one might argue I brought out the worst in my dog but I’d rather believe that I gave him the confidence that his opinion matters too. I realised that I am my dog’s best advocate. I am now very particular that nobody (man)handles him unless either he is in serious danger or is about to endanger another party, setting aside the point that he shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place.
Now if I had a penny for every time someone advised me to regularly touch his paws, grab his collar, take him to the scary backroom at the vets, lure him into the water for a swim, let men pet him to show him that it’s all no big deal, I doubt I’d need to work anymore. Given the choice between staying at the reception alone or walking with me to the scary back room, Beanie will walk to the back room. Given the choice between watching me wander off deep into open water and following me, Beanie will follow me. But will he choose to do either of those things if, say, a cloned version of me could stay in the reception or on shore?
Can this ‘common sense’ advice guarantee that he will be cured of his fear of men if 1000 strange men touched him on the head between now and next year?
Here’s a story from my childhood to answer that question.
Socialisation gone wrong
I grew up in India. In my old school, us kids learnt to swim when we were six. The school had a spectacular open pool that started out 3 feet deep on one side and the floor gradually slipped away until it was 7 feet deep on the other side. You could smell the Chlorine and hear lapping water metres away from the entire outdoor building. I cannot forget that smell or that sound, and I can still feel the clammy floor under my feet. Now why do I remember that?
I liked getting in the pool, especially since we walked barefeet from my class on scorching sand in 40 degrees heat. I liked holding those yellow floating pads as I waddled from one end to the other with my best friend and the water reaching my shoulders. I liked holding onto the edge of the pool and throwing every ounce of power I had in my little legs to paddle like a lunatic and create the biggest splash around me. I hated water in my ears but I liked dipping my head into the water and following those dancing lights and shadows on the pool floor as the equatorial sun filtered through on those sweltering hot days.
But I had to have an ear operation when I was six and a half. It meant that I couldn’t get into chlorinated water for almost a year. I sat in the bleachers and watched my friends learn to swim. By the time I was able to rejoin the classes, all my friends were swimming from one short side to the other at a pool depth of 5 feet without the floating board. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.
There was no difference between me and that dog we all know who didn’t get to meet other dogs in her socialisation period and was now standing at the edge of the dog park with a well-meaning parent.
Treatment strategies: flooding or counterconditioning?
Now my teachers had two choices. The first was to spend some time catching me up from where I’d left off and showing me that it was no big deal… at my pace. The second was to, in very real terms, throw me in the deep end where the other kids already were and were having a whale of a time. They chose the latter. I’d get used to it. They all did.
Except I didn’t.
All the kids loved running and jumping into the pool as far as they could from the shore. This was the highlight of every swimming lesson. They’d screech with delight, leap like a gazelle, land with an almighty splash, disappear for a second under the current, reappear at the other side, clamber out and sneakily run back to get another leap before it was time to change back into uniform.
I hated it. I was petrified. I’d join the line with the kids — all my friends too— but I’d slither back and let every kid go before me. I showed every possible sign of avoidance at my disposal, except I wasn’t allowed to leave. Eventually there was nobody left in the queue. All the kids would be watching. I’d run to the edge. And stop. At this point, my teacher would push me in. He did this every single time. Surely it was a matter of time before I learnt that it wasn’t a big deal! Why wouldn’t I when I could see that it was so much fun for everyone else?
A phobia for life
I skived. I’d write fictitious notes about imaginary colds from my mother excusing me from swimming class. I’d casually forget my swimwear at home. My parents tried to help. They bought me the most expensive swimwear a kid could possibly get. I had two Speedo caps to make sure not one drop of water could enter my ears. I had custom-fitted airtight goggles. My friends envied my swimming gear.
Retrospectively, it was not unlike sending a petrified dog to the backroom of the vets for a cuddle to show him that nothing would happen and giving him the best possible diamond-studded collar on the market to make the point.
I’d wake up on Wednesday mornings with a pit in my stomach, dreading my swimming classes later that afternoon. I learnt nothing in school during the day. My snazzy swimwear made me feel worse. How could I possibly be such a wimp when my parents went the extra mile to help me?
But did this method work for other kids? Yeah. Were there kids who figured out how to swim when the teacher pushed them into the 5 foot pool? Yes! Did it work for me? No.
I am now thirty years old. I have 25 patents and patent applications in my name. I have won nationwide awards for my contributions to industry. I am coherent and more or less socially well-adjusted. But I am petrified of swimming. The smell of chlorinated water makes my stomach churn and I am six again. That is the definition of a negative conditioned emotional response, or a -CER for short. That’s what Beanie had every day he sat up excitedly in the car only to realise that he was looking at the doors of the vet clinic.
I have taken myself to swimming classes since but it never happened. I start swimming because I physically now know how to but my legs sink behind me and the water rises above my eyes. It’s not an environment where I feel good anymore.
Why does this matter?
It isn’t anthropomorphisation to see the parallels here between my fears and my dog’s fears. I’m hoping that by sharing my relatable story, someone reading this will see the flaw in the way we sometimes treat our scared dogs. What could have been three to six months of one-to-one coaching and a lifelong passion to enjoy a holiday in the Bahamas has been turned into a lifelong phobia of the swimming pool by misled teachers who genuinely believed I’d “get used to it”.
I’m not saying flooding and blind courage never works. It’s easy and it does work. But it’s a dangerous gamble to take. And a completely unjustified one when there is a much more guaranteed way using proper desensitisation and counter-conditioning at or under threshold.
Let’s respect our dogs’ feelings much like that six year old girl at the swimming pool would have liked her feelings respected too.