Many years ago, when I was a child, I was terrified of deep water.  Both my parents were concerned that I might drown if I fell accidentally into deep water.  I therefore had to learn to swim.

Dogs often have to face their fears:  bicycles, strangers, children, dogs, skateboards and so on.

Many treatment options (and acronyms) exist.  Boiled down to the basics, you can punish, reinforce, create associations and break them.

Many people feel that humane rehabilitation gives the dog choice.  The idea being that choice is empowering.  Limiting choice is somehow less effective and perhaps even less humane.

Wait one minute.  My parents did not give me any choice where it came to my fear of water.  I had to overcome it.  If I had been asked, “Do you want to learn to swim in the deep water?” I would probably have screamed “no” and ran.

Dogs don’t get to choose whether to participate in rehabilitation programs either.  It is entirely plausible that dogs would refuse to consent to rehabilitation.

Adult humans are different and they do get to choose.  For example, you can choose to face a fear of snakes or not.  It is your choice.

However, just as my parents decided that I must get over my fear of deep water, a dog’s owner decides if a dog will do rehabilitation exercises.  There is no choice here for the dog.

The human also chooses the techniques to be used on the dog.  Some programs claim it is best to let the dog choose when to approach and when to retreat.  Is this wise?

Let’s return to the lake for a moment.  I enjoyed playing in shallow water.  Going to the lake was fun and I ran enthusiastically toward the water.  I knew that I could leave the water at any time.  Which incidentally, did not make me like deep water.  I just avoided it.

It is very common for lakes to have areas that drop off sharply.  Should the sand break away beneath your feet, it can send you plummeting into deep water.  One minute you are happy.  The next you are in a fit of terror.  This is not necessarily a momentary setback.  Fear can quickly escalate and spread.  Shallow water becomes unpredictable and potentially unsafe.

The wiggle room between safe and dangerous is so small – one tiny step.  Giving choice to someone who cannot see the bigger picture may create threshold roulette.

Similarly, in dog training, a dog can be given the choice to approach scary things.  Much like the child that runs into the lake, the dog can get quite close to that line that separates okay from definitely not okay.  Reading body language is not going to help because the dog is legitimately okay until it is not.

These are the dogs that happily walk past other animals on walks, but lose control when unexpectedly sniffed.  It’s the animal that can happily nudge the hand of a child and walk away for a treat – only to blow up if the child fidgets or squeals.  Like sand crumbling beneath your feet in the lake, the dog learns that situations that previously were enjoyable are now unpredictable.

The notion that the dog should be in control is flawed.  Dogs cannot foresee problems and may not anticipate surprises.

That’s not to say a dog should never have choice.  If my dog startles when it sees a garden gnome, I am confident the gnome is not going to start dancing about.  I can give my dog more choice because the dog’s threshold isn’t sitting on a behavioural sandbar.

However, scary things such as other dogs, children, people, bicycles and skateboards are not fully predictable.  No matter the skill of the trainer, a decoy dog may bark unexpectedly.  Children fidget.  Adults fail to follow direction.  Skateboards may inadvertently flip and bang.  The closer the dog is to the precipice, the more likely you will find yourself playing threshold roulette.  When luck runs out, your only choice becomes restraining the dog or letting it flee.  Neither of those is desirable.

Different strategies aim for different thresholds.  For example, classical conditioning aims to keep the dog well below threshold.  Done correctly, the dog may even be unaware that rehabilitation is taking place.  There is plenty of wiggle room for errors.

By contrast, negative reinforcement aims to reward the dog by relieving discomfort or pain.  The dog is intentionally placed much closer to edge.  The closer the dog is to the edge, the more likely that you’re going to lose your roulette game.  Positive punishment lets the dog go over the edge, disciplining the dog after it has gone off the deep end.

I did overcome my fear of water.  My parents devised a most clever rehab program.  They took a life jacket and divided the foam core into strips.  I swam with this life jacket.  I had fun.  I felt safe.  I could not slip into deep water.

Little by little, as my ability to swim improved.  Unbeknownst to me they removed one strip of foam at a time.  Eventually, I was swimming with a life jacket that did not float.  When the time was right, I found out that the life jacket was useless.  I could swim and rather enjoyed it.

The point being that this program was:

  • Under threshold.
  • Stress free.
  • Aversive free.
  • Avoided threshold roulette.
  • I was given no choice.  In fact, I was blissfully unaware – as classical conditioning should be.

In the end, I learned to swim, overcame the fear and even took up scuba diving.

Taking away choice is not always a bad thing, especially if it avoids creating threshold roulette.  Taking away choice can be humane, effective and thoughtful.  Moreover, you may even find that the dog learns to love – rather than tolerate – the things it once feared.  The bigger concern is how do you keep a dog truly under threshold?