I have seen it happen so often…very well intentioned people walking their dog through a crowded event thinking they are helping their favorite pet overcome fears by getting Fido used to being around lots of humans and other stimulus.
Their dog’s body language includes holding its tail down, has tense body muscles, and may be panting, excessively drooling, turning or backing away from people, or lunging on a tight leash, barking or growling (potentially escalating) at passersby who get too close. And many times owners jerk leashes or yell at their dogs when unpleasant behavior erupts.
Like I said, these often are very well intentioned people who think they are doing the right thing; however, what they don’t realize is that by putting their pet in a situation like that they can actually exacerbate the fear response of their dog.
Think about yourself for a moment and one of your worst fears. Let’s say you are terrified of rats, and, to help you, someone brought you into a closet and set loose hundreds of rats, locked the door, and didn’t open it until you stopped screaming or crying.
Can you imagine how much stress you would be enduring? How do you think that would help your fear of spiders when one drops in your lap unexpectedly when in another place? How do you think you will feel about the person who locked you into that closet?
This kind of behavioral modification strategy is known as flooding. Flooding is a form of training in which the animal is exposed to an aversive stimulus with no possibility of escape until the stimulus no longer arouses anxiety or fear. But the level of anxiety and discomfort it causes the animal in the process can actually serve to cause apathy, aggression, and heightened anxiety, as flooding forces the animal to adopt different copying mechanisms to ensure safety and survival.
Not to mention in the case of dogs in crowded places, when their caregiver suddenly jerks the leash or yells at their dog in the presence of that environment and aversive stimulus, the animal can learn from association that environments like that cause bad things to happen thus giving the animal even more reason to have heightened discomfort.
Learned helplessness is another term to be familiar with. It occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.
Systematic desensitization is a much more humane, more positive approach to not just overcoming fear, but also to teaching the animal to re-associate the fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting stimulus. (This process is called counter conditioning.) With systematic desensitization, you gradually expose the animal to what is scary to it and the criteria for advancing to the next step is your watching his calm behavior and only moving forward at a pace that does not elicit even the mildest of fear responses. The beauty of this is that the animal is always in total control. And empowerment builds confidence.
In a controlled environment, you can expose your dog to what is aversive at a distance where your dog can continue to be calm and pair the sight of the fear-eliciting stimulus with a positive consequence (whether that is distance, a high value treat, a tug or other game, or a combination of those things.) Gradually you can move closer to that stimulus as your dog can continue to show relaxed body muscles.
If you need help with this, please consult with a trainer who uses positive reinforcement based strategies.
And know that it is okay if your dog can not be with you in crowded places. Crowds aren’t for all humans either. There are plenty of other fun activities and experiences you can share with your pet.