You’re getting ready to give a speech to a large, knowledgable, judgmental audience. Your palms are sweaty. Your heart is racing. The words you had planned to say are now escaping you. Your voice shakes. Your vision gets blurry.
This is fear. This is anxiety. This is stress. The cause is clear. You’re afraid of public speaking. It’s a pretty normal and understandable fear. Maybe your first speech didn’t go so well. Maybe you stumbled or got called out on an incorrect fact you stated. Being forced to give a speech time and time again probably won’t make it any easier for you. So why do so many people eventually get over this fear? Positive reinforcement. Money, praise, good reviews, an A+, applause. These are motivators. These will change the way you feel physiologically before you give a speech. Eventually, you’ll actually look forward to it, maybe even crave it.
The same goes for our dogs. If your dog is afraid of crowds, or the ocean, or other dogs, you can’t just expose him to those things again and again and expect the fear to disappear. Too often I see people forcing their dog to interact with something he is clearly afraid of in hopes that eventually he’ll realize it’s not so scary. He won’t. And you’re probably just making it worse.
Dogs are very mathematical thinkers. Once they’ve learned that an activity or experience is rewarding enough, they’ll start to feel better about it. Don’t forget to couple exposure with positive reinforcement. For your dog, that might be a quick game of tug, a piece of hot dog, the opportunity to jump on you.
Whatever the positive reinforcer, just make sure it’s what your dog actually wants. Many dogs get a pat on the head and a less than enthusiastic”good boy.” Most dogs don’t actually enjoy being reached over and touched, especially when they’re in a scary situation. And “good boy” is a secondary reinforcer – meaning it has to first be paired with a primary reinforcer before it can do any good. No dog is born knowing what “good boy” means. They learn to love hearing those words because it’s usually followed by a treat or some fun play time.
So, next time you’re trying to get your dog to feel better about something, don’t forget to pair that stimuli with something convincing, something amazing. That scary stimuli can be anything from a stranger entering your home, to the trash truck driving by, to dogs in their face. And remember, there’s no such thing as too much socialization.
Puppy tip: Puppies usually don’t mind being touched and held. Don’t take this for granted. They will grow out of it and become weary of being handled. When they’re young puppies, touch them all over. Pretend you’re a vet or a groomer and invade their space. But remember: mere exposure is not socialization. Before you start touching them, make sure they’re fully engaged in a chew bone or a stuffed kong. That way they’re learning to LOVE being handled in that way because it pays off immensely.