Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Great Flood (of Stimulus)

Today our family had a chance to go to see a USF2000 race. My father-in-law works for the series owners and we were able to get VIP passes and watch the action from the pits. You would think that since one of Bug's all time favorite movies is Cars that this would be the best day of her life. Unfortunately Bug is also noise sensitive, so what should have been lots of fun for her turned out to be torturous.

The drive into the pits was lots of fun. The window were rolled up and the A/C was on. Grandpa met us and we got out of the car, which was parked next to where the cars line up to start the race. Two lines of cars starting their engines all at the same time. It wasn't so bad when they drove off and we couldn't see them any more and they were quieter because of the distance, but then we decided to watch the action from the grandstand.

Walking under the track was fun. Walking along the access road through a wooded area was cool, but as soon as we got to the grandstands the cars were passing by right next to us. Bug was not impressed and she wanted to go back to our car. Then she convinced herself that it would be quieter at the top of the grandstand so we took off.

I thought once we were away from the track and safe Bug would settle down, but instead Bug's anxiety increased lap after lap. She started to cover her ears as the cars passed, then as soon as she heard them coming around the other side of the track. Soon her hands weren't big enough to block out enough noise so she grabbed mine to cover her ears. She started getting upset whenever I'd remove my hands, even when there were no cars in sight. Instead of getting used to the noise, she got more and more upset the longer we were there. I think as her anxiety increased there just wasn't enough time for her to relax again before the cars came by and her anxiety spiked again. Because she was already worked up, her anxiety wound higher and higher until she was just a mass of nerves.

This made me think of noise sensitive dogs and how so often we do exactly the wrong thing with them. The temptation is to get them closer to the sound so they can see that the noise won't hurt them. Whether it's intentional or not, we flood the dogs with aversive stimuli (the scary thing). In some cases the dog will habituate or gradually get used to the scary thing, but more often than not that flood of stimuli will cause the dog to get more and more afraid of it for the same reason Bug did. The dogs don't have a chance to relax and clear their systems of the "fight or flight" adrenaline that has built up in their systems. On top of the fear, we've just proven to the dog that we humans can't be trusted to protect the dog from scary stuff. (Or that parents won't protect the frightened child.)

What is far better for both children and dogs in the presence of something scary like this is to find a spot where they are comfortable and then take a step back from there. Once they are completely comfortable at that level (officially called "sub threshold"), you can take a step forward - figuratively or literally depending on the situation. But the important thing is to let the one who is afraid give cues when it's time to move forward, not some timetable we've set up. After all, we're not the ones who's bodies are trying to tell us to take evasive action or we'll die, which is what happens in these situations. Fear isn't rational, it's an ancient survival technique.

In a dog's case using treats can be very useful to feeling comfortable at level A before moving to level B. Using food in emotional situations is frowned on for children and the difference is that humans will always be controlling a dog's food input (or should be), but a child will one day be an adult and they need to learn how to cope without relying on food as a crutch. This could be hypocritical, but honestly, I don't care. Treats work for dogs so I use them.

Play is a useful option for both fearful children and dogs. Havana and I have braved scary situations by using games of tug to get closer to or past the evil. Playing fetch in a safe area closer and closer to an aversive stimuli can also be effective. If I'd been prepared with Bug I'd have brought bubbles, a magnifying glass, her camera and other things that she enjoys doing outside and we'd have started exploring away from the track and wandered closer as Bug felt comfortable.

Basically my point is that contrary to some big name TV dog trainers and the old fashioned belief that a scared child just needs to "suck it up" or "be a man", slow and positive introduction moving at a comfortable pace set by the one who is afraid is a more surefire way to get the results you want. And it's less traumatic for all involved.