Back in the 1980s, I was an aircraft mechanic for three years. Then I spent two years as a quality assurance inspector where I would inspect other aircraft mechanics.
I was always worried about falling off whenever I walked along the tops of fuselages. I had trouble breathing whenever I had to work inside cramped fuel tanks. Whenever I walked the flight line, I was always worried about getting sucked into an intake.
And the scariest thing of all was working on an aircraft while it was in afterburner.
Although I was scared, I never ran away from work. Actually I volunteered for a lot of jobs - even came in early sometimes in order to get more work. If I was going to be an aircraft mechanic, by golly I was going to be a good one! Before I finally found a less scary job, I had won several awards - including Maintenance Professional of the Year.
Five years of constant exposure and almost 30 years later, I'm still afraid of heights and closed spaces. If I have a house project that requires climbing any higher than the third rung of a ladder, I call a handy person.
Are there people out there (unlike me) who get better after being forced to face their fears? I'm sure there are. But even the ones who get better are very stressed until they get better.
When a parent wants to teach a child how to swim, what is the best way to go about it? Should the parent just throw the kid into the deep end of the pool? The child might learn to swim quickly (but the child will be terrified for a few seconds). Or the child might develop an unnatural fear of water (because of the trauma) or the child might learn to never trust his/her parents.
A better way to learn to swim is to start splashing around in the shallow end. Then maybe getting the face wet. Then maybe going underwater for a second. Then maybe floating with the help of some floaties and so on. This method takes longer, but it's more effective and less traumatizing.
Some people try to fix their scared dogs by forcing them to "face their fears". Sometimes, this might work (not often). Most of the time it does not. Sometimes it makes the dogs worse. Sometimes it can turn timid dogs into aggressive dogs. On the few occasions when it does work, the dog is very stressed until it works. So for example, you might get a dog who gets over her/his fear of children through constant exposure to children. But the stress might start causing indoor urination or digestive issues.
My Murphy is a good example of how forcing a dog to into scary situations will make a dog worse instead of better.
Murphy was a urban feral puppy who was captured and went to live in a large, busy, crowded, noisy shelter. He lived their for 8 years.
This shelter had high volunteer and employee turnover, had large numbers of visitors daily - some of them unattended screaming kids running through the kennels. The workers tossed metal bowls around, played loud music etc..
So for 8 years, Murphy had continuous exposure to all different types of people - races, ages, genders, etc..and different types of strange noises.
If forcing a dog to get *used* to something worked, then my Murphy should be one of the most stable, well-adjusted dogs out there. Instead, Murphy is "sensitized" - he isn't interested in meeting new people; he is afraid of disembodied sounds (so the TV and radio can bother him); quick movements make him uncomfortable; and he is terrified of children
More to to come on forcing dogs to face their fears
See more in Suzanne' Clothier's video below
Also see the problems associating with trying to Fix A Scared Dog
And see our other posts on Shy Dogs
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