This is Mordecai, a little poodle mix that is here for training. During a trip to a large and busy home improvement center, he got spooked by the noise of a flat cart that contained some heavy items.
We found our own flat cart and took Mordecai for a ride. The standard that we set was, “sit and remain sitting.” At first, he was uncomfortable. But, with time, he got used to the sound of the wheels and the movement.
Finally, I asked a customer who happened into our isle with another flat cart, if he would move it past the cart upon which Mordecai was sitting.
This isn’t an example of mere “desensitization,” because we didn’t simply immerse the dog into an environment of that which he found stressful. Mordecai had already been trained to sit and remain sitting. Therefore, the exercise was actually one of “sit – no matter what.” It is an exercise in obedience, not hope that somehow the dog will get over what frightening him.
We cannot remove fear. Why would we? It is a very valuable quality. It keeps us safe from harm. However, when the fear isn’t justified because it isn’t paired to a genuine threat, then a social animal (like dog or human) can look up to the higher ranking one (pack leader or parent) for information about acceptable behavior. A Service Dog cannot wig out when he experiences irrelevant sounds, sights or scents. It’s the handler’s job to teach him how to behave in any particular situation.
Once he was on the cart, Mordecai was asked to sit. When he chose to disregard that command, he received a collar check for non-compliance. Fear was never part of the equation. The handler responded to the dog’s actions, not his feelings. After all, can we really know how a dog is feeling? When using this method the handler cannot acknowledge the dog’s “monster.” By focusing on a dog’s behavior, exclusively, the message becomes very clear: there isn’t really a monster, therefore sit and remain sitting as you have learned through practice in many other situations. Same consequences for non-compliance apply. Dogs can understand that. It’s not complicated.