How to desensitize a scary experience: Remember the story about Gracie’s reaction to the
very loud blaring radio music pouring out from the garage? Here’s what we did yesterday on Day 18 of Gracie’s new life.
As my son backs his car into the driveway, Gracie and I watch from the fenced back yard. A. gets out of his car, gathers his things, walks to the side gate, and waits. Gracie watches his progress and meets him on the other side. I open the side door to the garage, reach in and press the button that raises the garage door. Gracie’s ears perk up and she bounds over to where the yard and the garage share the same space – where she watches the garage door open. Not so scary as before. I swear I can feel Gracie analyzing this new data; almost as if she’s figuring out that what scared her so much before, on closer inspection, isn’t really scary.
My son retraces his steps back to the driveway and walks into the garage. Gracie is already putting 2 and 2 together in her mind, realizing that he’s going to come through the side door. Before A. opens the side door, he presses the button to close the garage door and all of those mechanical sounds start up again. This time, Gracie focuses on who she knows is on the other side of the side door, sporting a huge grin on her face and happily wagging her tail.
What I know for sure: Gracie likes to figure things out. This description (a combination of the American Kennel Club (AKC) American Staffordshire Terrier temperament with one breeder’s interpretation fits Gracie perfectly.) She is: “keenly alive to her surroundings” – a phrase that describes a lively, intelligent disposition that watches what is going on around her and misses nothing. Not only do Amstaffs watch, they interact – they are quite aware of and very responsive to their surroundings.” (Note: if you’re interested, you can search for Crusin’ Kennels dot com to read the rest of this breeder’s assessment of the American Staffordshire Terrier breed.)
Even if I hadn’t read this description, I learned from watching Gracie. On her second day with us, as she stood mentally cataloging things in the back yard, movement and color between the spaces of the wood slats of the privacy fence belonging to my neighbor caught her eye. What she could see (that she didn’t see the day before) was the orange jacket my neighbor had on. What Gracie paid close attention to was the back-and-forth movement of that jacket. This was something new; something that Gracie needed to mentally register. Unlike my Tessa, whose energy “thrums” fast like a hummingbird’s wings almost all the time, Gracie’s energy is quiet. She calmly lines her body up, much like I do when I’m on my yoga mat aligning every part of my body so that each part is stacked one upon the other. When she’s figured out what it is she’s looking at, she moves on to something else still with an economy of movement and silent contemplation.
The next day, as my neighbor once again moves about on her deck, Gracie glances over quickly then moves on to the next familiar thing.
What I know for sure: Each time Gracie has a scary encounter, she needs to be re-introduced to whatever set of circumstances scared her and set up for a positive second and/or third exposure so that she can assess things. So far, each time I’ve done this, Gracie gets beyond her fear. Or she tries. It is amazing and profoundly humbling to watch her. Just look at her now:
If you’ve got your own story about how you helped your dog not to be scared of something, I’d love to hear from you. Add your comment here on my blog or head on over to my Happy Dog Tails Facebook page to share your story.