Sunday, February 5, 2012
The Dentist's Gift
I am a dentalphobe. For as long as I can remember, I have hated going to the dentist. I know, I know- everyone says that. But I mean it. The dentist terrifies me, so much so that once I left home after high school, I did not go to the dentist again for ten years. (Side note: this is a seriously bad plan that will likely end up requiring scary things like root canals, which will take three years to pay off. Thank god for sedation dentistry and Care Credit, that’s all I have to say.)
I have been going to the dentist regularly again, and despite the fact that my dentist is a fabulously kind and gentle man who makes every effort to help me feel comfortable, I’m still kind of scared. Even though he offers me anti-anxiety medications, this post is not about how wonderful drugs can be when dealing with fear. No, this post is about my dentist’s best quality: he tells me what he is going to do in advance.
The fear of the unknown is really the scariest part of the dentist for me. I know something unpleasant is going to happen, but I don’t know when. By telling me what he’s about to do, my dentist removes the startle factor. I’m not taken by surprise, and let’s face it: things are much scarier when you don’t expect them.
We really ought to extend this same kindness to our dogs. All of them would probably benefit from a little warning, but for the ones who are generally fearful or anxious, this is doubly important. These dogs already view the world as an unpredictable place. Scary things happen without warning all the time for them.
By warning our dogs before something scary happens, we can reduce the unpredictability of their lives. This has the added benefit of lowering the intensity of the trigger by removing the startle effect- that sudden rush of adrenaline that your body releases when confronted with a fear-inducing event.
Plus, by giving them some advance notice, they have the opportunity to make a choice on how to behave instead of simply reacting in panic. This is useful not only for teaching them appropriate responses, but it also gives them a sense of control. In turn, this leads to increased confidence, which further reduces their fear and anxiety.
Debbie Jacobs wrote about this recently in a blog post about putting distance seeking behavior on cue. Since fearful dogs often try to get away when humans move, she has found that telling them to move away in advance results in less stress for the dogs. This allows her to practice more effective behavior modification.
Another great tool for this is Look at That, introduced by trainer Leslie McDevitt in Control Unleashed. There are many benefits to playing Look at That, and one of them is the warning system it provides. When a handler sees a potential trigger before the dog does, she can cue him to Look! This helps prevent the dog from being taken by surprise, while simultaneously giving the dog information on how he should act.
I have taught my dog that certain words mean something unpleasant is going to happen so that she can prepare herself. The one I use the most is probably “up!” which means that I’m going to pick her up. Considering how short she is, a sudden lift into the air would be very scary if it happened without warning.
In this same vein, a trainer friend of mine has a dog who hates having his nails done, so she uses context clues (specifically, a sheet on the ground) to let him know when it’s going to happen. This prevents him from having to worry about a random clipper attack, and contains his general anxiety.
Although we should always do our best to protect our dogs, the world can be a scary place. Just as I couldn’t avoid going to the dentist forever, we’ll never be able to completely prevent scary things from happening to them. When I go to the dentist now, I know that he will help me through the experience by giving me warnings and allowing me to take breaks when needed. This lets me face my fears with courage. I still don’t love going, but it’s tolerable now. And honestly, I think my dentist is a pretty great guy for it.
Will you do the same for your dog?