It is early afternoon, which means prime naptime for both dogs. I am going about my business when I hear a fly buzzing around me. I am one of those people that have a very low tolerance for noise. And a fly buzzing around is more than I can handle. I reach for the flyswatter and as I do, I happened to glance in the direction where Rio is laying down. She looks completely “unglued”. It takes me a few seconds to figure out what is going on with her. She is hunched over and her body is tight. So tight that it appears she is holding her breath. She is also looking away from me – as in the “if I don’t see you, you are not there.” She lip licks a few times – a displacement behavior correlated with stress.
Oh, I get it, the flyswatter that I am holding in my hand. I immediately leave the room and go to the kitchen to get the highest-value food I can think of. I find some cheese, which she loves. I am back in the living room where little in her demeanor has changed. I calmly hold the flyswatter and then I send a piece of cheese flying to her. She barely eats it. I try this a few more times, but now, I am not even moving the swatter, just leaving it on the coffee table where she can see it. After a few more pieces of cheese, Rio sheepishly – tail partway tucked hurries out of the living room and goes to lie down in her crate, which is in my office.
It is easy to draw the conclusion that Rio was abused with a flyswatter prior to me adopting her at the age of 5 months. The truth is that I will never know. Sometimes dogs are frightened or even hit by someone with items like a swatter- but not always. In any case, it does not matter much the “if” and “when” but the fact that she is super afraid of the flyswatter.
That evening as I am dispensing their precious pig’s ear, I slowly pick up the swatter and immediately lay it down back on the laundry room counter. I see that Rio has seen me pick up the item but her reaction is almost not one of concern because this was unexpected for her and mainly because she is much more interested in getting her chewy. I dispense her chewy and she runs happily as she does every evening with the chewy tight in her mouth.
I think it is not just the flyswatter that she fears but also most likely the raising of the item above the head.
This makes sense since the reason one pick up a swatter is to kill a fly- or at least I do. Most likely in one of those kill-the-fly instances Rio was startled by the loud noise the motion produced and now she has associated the noise –that came “out of nowhere” and with little warning with the visual of me picking up the swatter.
- Leave the swatter here and there so that the sight of it means nothing to Rio. Just in case the association of just seeing it produces in her some discomfort or stress.
- Continue with one trial (or a cold trial as it also referred to) of picking up the swatter just about 5” from where it lies and set it down promptly followed by some goodie that she enjoys. This I will do in different locations. I will also vary the height and time I am holding the swatter in my hand before laying it back down.
- Once I noticed that Rio thinks “nothing” of it, I will push her experience with the swatter to gently making noise with it while she can see me doing it. She will get a fabulous treat for this. What is called a “paring” in classical-conditioning parlance.
My goal is not only to make Rio comfortable with me using the flyswatter because my sanity is at stake here, but also to build resilience in her. One more fear “conquered” and as such, this will help in building a good foundation for bouncing back from life’s unexpected monkey-wrenches.
As much as possible I work with my dogs on their fears and concerns. Sometimes the process is very simple and it only requires me acting very matter of fact for them to get the idea that there is nothing the matter.
Other times the process is a bit lengthier such as the flyswatter or teaching a dog to enjoy getting a bath. I have no fantasies of a life without discomfort, pain or concern for (my) dogs, but as best I can I will try and make their lives as fear-free as possible because in my book this is at the core of caring for someone.