If training is the polish to bring out their Brilliance, where does comfort fit into the equation when desensitizing your Diamond in the Ruff?
I'm sitting here with my indoor critters, two dogs, two cats and two parrots, contemplating my morning sessions and planning for the rest of my work day. The perfect ARC for encouraging peaceful reflection.
I attended two cases this morning and as is most often the case, both clients had dogs with reactivity challenges.
When formulating a plan to move a dog through their fears and into a new reality of confidence and happy engagement, I always start with the most important part of the equation... The relationship between the dogs and their humans.
Teaching the owners how to encourage their dog with their voices, touch and responses to triggers of anxiety is always the first order of business. Contrary to popular notion, you cannot reinforce fear by comforting your dog when they feel fearful.
You only have to watch the response of a fearful dog when a touch from a loving owner accompanies systematic desensitization to know how integral a role comfort plays in a desensitization and counterconditioning plan.
In any scenario where threshold is properly maintained, the addition of comfort is not only acceptable but significantly reparative when attempting to mitigate stress and support a more positive association to the triggers of anxiety and fear.
In any of the classes that I hold where desensitization is required, you will find a comfy bath mat and more often than not, the dog laying on that mat, happily enjoying cuddles, comforting talk and even massage from their person... while being desensitized to other people and dogs in close, below threshold proximity.
In today's session, I was informed that a previous trainer had stated that removing any form of comfort was to encourage DEFERENCE and to discourage the reinforcement of fear.
Let's look at deference by definition; Deference. ... The noun deference, as well as the verb defer, means "to yield to someone's opinions or wishes out of respect for that person."
The reason given by another trainer to today's client for not comforting their dog during desensitization was - because they were apparently “conforming to a deference protocol” …
What occurred during the two sessions that the trainer attended was that the dog was pushed over threshold and that threshold break was maintained throughout nearly the entire session. The result was a very stressed dog and owner, not surprisingly, and here's why:
There are happy chemicals and hormones and unhappy chemicals and hormones, to put it plainly. When a dog reaches threshold, unhappy chemicals and hormones can wreak havoc on a dog's emotional state. Norepinephrine, cortisol and adrenaline start flying around and can take a considerable amount of time to dissipate.
Touching and comfort release oxytocin into the brain which in turn stimulates the release of happy hormones, dopamine and serotonin, almost immediately diminishing the level of anxiety your dog is feeling.
This is simple algebra. Deference is a natural occurrence in 99.9% of human/dog relationships (my long-held educated opinion). It has become a buzzword to which many fallacies are attached because creative licence has been taken by those who are limited in their understanding of natural dog/human relationship dynamics.
If our dogs instinctively look to us for answers and comfort, why would we withhold our reassurance?
Some food for thought😊
Colleen McCarvill Diamond in the Ruff Inc.