This is the second post of a 6-part series. If you haven't read the first one, you can find it here. This post discusses the first of 5 meta-lessons that form the basis of the training I've done with my youngest dog Wyrm.
I will protect his physical, and emotional health.
Or, I will minimize the effect fear has on his life.
One of the biggest drivers of problematic behavior is fear. Experiencing fear is part of being alive, and I will never be able to entirely eliminate it. What I can do, however, is minimize the frequency and intensity of the fear my dog experiences through life. I accomplish this by ensuring that any potentially fear-inducing or threatening stimuli is introduced in a gradual and controlled way, and by making it quite clear to him that he can rely on me to protect him. This is the true role of the concept of the“Alpha” that is so misunderstood by so many people. The leader protects the pack. If I want my dog to see me as a leader, he needs to believe that I will not only protect him from external threats, but to demonstrate my leadership in ways that do not cause him to fear me.
The way I instill this lesson is by being aware of how Wyrm sees the world, and by being cognizant of things that may appear threatening, even if I know they are not. Our human world is full of things that may seem scary to our dogs, and we need to be careful about how we expose them to this things. Sometimes doing this forces me to choose between “protecting” him from something that is not actually physically threatening (but is scary to him), and avoiding the embarrassment or awkwardness of providing that protection. I always try to do the former, as my dog’s trust in me and his emotional stability are way more important to me than whatever others may think about me.
Teaching this lesson also means that if something scary or dangerous presents itself in an uncontrolled manner, I will put myself between Wyrm and the threat, and do whatever I have to to protect him. That can range from verbally telling someone to give him some space, to physically intervening when other dogs behave aggressively towards him. I’m aware that I err on the side of overprotection, but having seen so many dogs develop lifelong fears stemming from a single event, it seems like the best course of action.
It’s extremely important to note that though I protect Wyrm from things that cause him to experience fear, that it only one part of the process. When I become aware that Wyrm is experiencing fear, I don’t continue to shield him from it forever, I teach him to manage and overcome the fear. Protection doesn’t mean preventing your dog from interacting everything that may be scary, it means noticing where your dog is hesitant or fearful and using a gradual desensitization and counterconditioning strategy for those things so that they are no longer scary.
The consequences of effectively conveying this message to Wyrm have been giving him an extremely happy, adventurous disposition. He believes the world isn’t so scary, that when scary things do happen, I’m going to keep him safe. He also has learned that fear isn’t a serious permanent condition, there’s a way past it, and I will always show him the way.