Shaping Confidence in Ourselves and Our Dogs

On 10.17.18 I wrote the following in my journal:

“I feel bad that I’ve let Rio get this bad. Anyway we’ll be able to tackle this. Every struggle makes us stronger. Every challenge makes me a better trainer, but sometimes that’s hard to see when you are in the midst of it.”

Floors are hot lava!

Rio is still a little afraid of walking on the floor in the kitchen. Yesterday, after we got back from our vacation trip, Kavir and I were in the bedroom and I could hear Rio in the kitchen drinking from the water bowl, then he turned around and started barking. I knew immediately he was afraid to walk back out of the kitchen. I had to go rescue him. Yesterday, I could laugh it off and go rescue him pretty easily. Apparently it is less scary if he is walking towards me so all I had to do was stand in front of him and encourage him forward. It hasn’t happened again since, but I’m sure he will have a few more regression moments, especially if anyone in the house gets upset (which never happens anymore, of course. I don’t ever get upset about anything, right?). Today he has been happily chasing stuffed kongs across the kitchen, following me as I walk through, freely going from his bed to the water bowl, and walking across the yoga mat and through the gate out of the kitchen. But I know better than to declare a victory just yet. We’ll continue with our confidence work for sometime and at some point, I’ll pick up the yoga mat (or maybe we’ll have to get something a little more aesthetically pleasing to keep everyone in the household happy).

But the whole experience got me thinking about fear. I thought about fear a lot.

There were a couple experiences I think were related to Rio’s fear of slipping on the floors. It’ impossible to say for sure, of course, but the following probably contributed:

  1. I was impatient and I gave him a shove when he wouldn’t move forward. He was both in my way and barking because he heard someone at the door with a package. Curse my impatience! I am always hard on myself when I find myself unable to be “clickerly” due to my own emotional states.
  2. Roscoe shoved him while they were playing in the kitchen, causing Rio to slip and then curl up his toes so he continued to slip as Roscoe continued to push him across the floor until I could step in and interrupt them. No more playing in the kitchen.
  3. Rio and Roscoe both moved past the axle on the aluminum trailer in the yard, so that it tilted. Then Roscoe hopped off and it tilted back. Rio just hit the ground cowering.

Kavir pointed out that Rio has also been in two car accidents in his past, which may also be related to his fear of surfaces moving on him suddenly. Anyway, we can’t know for sure why he is now afraid of the floor, but we don’t necessarily need to know, we can just take it from here and help him learn to walk confidently once more.

It became the most obvious in the mornings, Rio hesitated to step over the bottom bar of the gate into the kitchen. It was subtle, at first and I could easily coax him, but as the days went on, he started getting more and more scared, curling up his toes. Curling your toes might help if you were walking in mud, but when you are walking on linoleum with claws, it just makes things worse. Since ignoring the problem wasn’t working (what?!), I started putting blankets and yoga mats down for him to walk on. This helped and he started to improve again. At one point, Kavir and I were both feeling frustrated, probably largely due to something else going on in life, I can’t remember, but Kavir declared that Rio was just being a baby, “I’m picking up this yoga mat, he is just going to have to deal with it.” I didn’t argue, even though I kick myself now. A few more days of Rio “just dealing with it” and he was worse than ever, curling his toes and slipping more and more frequently, getting more and more scared. At his worst, he went to the rug by the door in the living room and refused to move from his island of safety. I was annoyed. I was busy. I didn’t have time for this. But obviously I needed to step in and help him get his confidence back.

Yoga Mat Island of Safety.

I tried to explain it to Kavir and also help myself empathize with Rio. I think Kavir believed (along with many others) that because nothing bad was happening when Rio walked on the floors he would eventually realize it’s okay and just stop being afraid (habituation – it can happen, but so can flooding). I reasoned that every time Rio walks on the floor and is scared, he feels justified in being scared. It’s like me with horror movies. I have an irrational fear of horror movies. Nothing bad ever happens to me when I’m watching horror movies, but they scare me. Each time I am scared, it just reinforces the fact that they are scary. The same thing was happening with Rio. He was afraid to walk on the floor, so he curled his toes, which made him slip. When he slipped, even though nothing really bad happened, he was scared, which justified that the floors were scary to walk on. Thus the floors became hot lava to Rio – unsafe. What we needed to do was to keep him from getting scared, then slowly build his confidence back up in bits and pieces.

So the yoga mats and blankets went back down. We did exercises to get him moving around the house into different rooms – find it games, treat chases, training games, all things he enjoyed and was good at – these tasks (which already had a great reinforcement history) took his mind off of walking on the scary floors. When we weren’t doing training tasks, I kept the floors mostly covered. I also kept Roscoe and Rio mostly separated to make sure Roscoe would bump into Rio when he was walking. Slowly the rooms became less scary again, and I was able to pick up some of the mats, blankets, and (at its worst) cardboard I had laid down for him to walk on.

We’ve had a few days of regression here and there, but I’m better equipped to deal with it and we can pretty quickly get back to the point we left off. I have yet to take the yoga mat out of the kitchen. We’re not quite there yet. There is also still a blanket across the threshold from bedroom to hallway, but I’m not convinced that one is still necessary. Maybe we’ll experiment with picking it up soon.

We’ve learned from the experience though and there are definitely some things left to ponder. Fear and thresholds are tricky things. The “comfort zone” is no place to stay forever, but when you push yourself too far, damage can be done. Fear is a hard thing from which to recover – it takes time and patience. Be patient with yourself and with your dogs. It’s little steps – shaping again, always shaping. We are shaping our own behavior, our dogs behavior, and little by little, we are shaping our world.

Frolicking outside? No trouble at all!


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