Saturday, February 4, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+5: The Pause Between Breaths

I feel like I'm misleading you guys; I feel like you probably think that I'm spending a lot more time with Abe than I actually am. I've spent a lot of time describing how I illicit confidence and human interaction from Abe, but the truth is that I am spending much less than half an hour each day directly working with him.

Doesn't sound like much, does it?

The other twenty-three and a half hours of the day, Abe is doing one of two things: he's either crated while I work or hang out with my own dogs, or he's in the same room as we humans, but we're ignoring him. This time spent "being ignored" is actually an extremely important part of Abe's rehabilitation. While we're ignoring him, Abe is learning what people are like in their natural environment (a house) and how he fits into that picture. At first, Abe was very concerned about what we were doing, but over time he has relaxed and for the most part is comfortable with our basic routine. This process - this reduction in anxiety to a trigger because of repeated exposure - is called "desensitization," and it's crucial to Abe's recovery and future as a pet dog.

Desensitization is closely related to another process called "flooding." Flooding is the dark side of desensitization, and it is to be avoided at all costs. Flooding is taking the arachnophobic person and closing them in a coffin full of spiders until they stop screaming. As you can imagine, there is a great deal of fallout with flooding. It increases anxiety, inhibits learning, and often increases aggression. I won't say that I never use flooding; it is a tool in my tool box. But in a decade of formal dog training as a teacher, I can count on less than one hand the number of dogs I have used it with. And I would certainly never use it with an unstable dog like Abe.

Which sounds all fancy and nice to say, but walking the line between desensitization and flooding with a shut down, shy dog like Abe is tricky. Unfortunately, some flooding may be unavoidable - he is too full of fear. My goal, then, is to reduce the amount of flooding that happens as much as possible. This is why Abe had access to only a couple of rooms to begin with. It's why he hasn't met any humans except me and my husband. It's why we haven't introduced the other dogs or the full back yard yet. The smaller we make Abe's world to begin with, the more room he has to feel secure where he is.

How do I know we're doing more desensitization than flooding? Abe is making great progress. He is, unless we move suddenly or loudly, comfortable interacting with us. He has gone from two rooms to the full top floor of the house and still feels safe. He can eat meals and take treats. He can learn new behaviors. And he can enjoy new experiences.

Like his first nap in the sun.

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