Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Dentist's Gift

I am a dentalphobe. For as long as I can remember, I have hated going to the dentist. I know, I know- everyone says that. But I mean it. The dentist terrifies me, so much so that once I left home after high school, I did not go to the dentist again for ten years. (Side note: this is a seriously bad plan that will likely end up requiring scary things like root canals, which will take three years to pay off. Thank god for sedation dentistry and Care Credit, that’s all I have to say.)

I have been going to the dentist regularly again, and despite the fact that my dentist is a fabulously kind and gentle man who makes every effort to help me feel comfortable, I’m still kind of scared. Even though he offers me anti-anxiety medications, this post is not about how wonderful drugs can be when dealing with fear. No, this post is about my dentist’s best quality: he tells me what he is going to do in advance.

The fear of the unknown is really the scariest part of the dentist for me. I know something unpleasant is going to happen, but I don’t know when. By telling me what he’s about to do, my dentist removes the startle factor. I’m not taken by surprise, and let’s face it: things are much scarier when you don’t expect them.

We really ought to extend this same kindness to our dogs. All of them would probably benefit from a little warning, but for the ones who are generally fearful or anxious, this is doubly important. These dogs already view the world as an unpredictable place. Scary things happen without warning all the time for them.

By warning our dogs before something scary happens, we can reduce the unpredictability of their lives. This has the added benefit of lowering the intensity of the trigger by removing the startle effect- that sudden rush of adrenaline that your body releases when confronted with a fear-inducing event.

Plus, by giving them some advance notice, they have the opportunity to make a choice on how to behave instead of simply reacting in panic. This is useful not only for teaching them appropriate responses, but it also gives them a sense of control. In turn, this leads to increased confidence, which further reduces their fear and anxiety.

Debbie Jacobs wrote about this recently in a blog post about putting distance seeking behavior on cue. Since fearful dogs often try to get away when humans move, she has found that telling them to move away in advance results in less stress for the dogs. This allows her to practice more effective behavior modification.

Another great tool for this is Look at That, introduced by trainer Leslie McDevitt in Control Unleashed. There are many benefits to playing Look at That, and one of them is the warning system it provides. When a handler sees a potential trigger before the dog does, she can cue him to Look! This helps prevent the dog from being taken by surprise, while simultaneously giving the dog information on how he should act.

I have taught my dog that certain words mean something unpleasant is going to happen so that she can prepare herself. The one I use the most is probably “up!” which means that I’m going to pick her up. Considering how short she is, a sudden lift into the air would be very scary if it happened without warning.

In this same vein, a trainer friend of mine has a dog who hates having his nails done, so she uses context clues (specifically, a sheet on the ground) to let him know when it’s going to happen. This prevents him from having to worry about a random clipper attack, and contains his general anxiety.

Although we should always do our best to protect our dogs, the world can be a scary place. Just as I couldn’t avoid going to the dentist forever, we’ll never be able to completely prevent scary things from happening to them. When I go to the dentist now, I know that he will help me through the experience by giving me warnings and allowing me to take breaks when needed. This lets me face my fears with courage. I still don’t love going, but it’s tolerable now. And honestly, I think my dentist is a pretty great guy for it.

Will you do the same for your dog?


  1. Okay, I'm a bit mean, I guess, because I don't give my dogs fair warning a lot of the time. But my favourite girl, Clover, I describe as having a 'sense of humour' - she does seem to understand the joke in me scaring her or the 'got your bum' or 'haha you can't see' games. She normally responds by going to get a ball to celebrate.

    My foster dogs, however, I talk to them a lot about what I'm doing, mostly because I don't trust them not to bite me. It's an act of self preservation. I probably too wordy about it, but I do find myself telling them what I'm going to do "I'm going to pick you up now" and "Can I please have a look at your teeth?" Obviously, it'd probably be a lot clearer to the dog to say "up!" and "teeth", but I more have a conversation about it... No one has bitten me yet, though!

    Reading this post, I remembered hearing from Paul McGreevy how they were teaching birds time... So the birds would receive a reward for waiting 5 seconds, or 30 seconds, or 3 minutes, between pecking a target. I've forgotten how long these birds could count up to, but it was pretty impressive! McGreevy correlated this to perhaps being about to teach birds that 'this will pass', especially to ease stress during transport... So that transport was almost a cue for 'good things will happen in x amount of time'.

  2. Tegan- just as not all humans are as freaky as I am about the dentist (I mean, come on- 10 years?), not all dogs are fearful. Perhaps your dogs simply do not need as many warnings?

    VERY interesting about McGreevy and the birds/time/transport. That's a really cool idea.

  3. Interesting idea! Seems like it would work for some dogs, and not for others, like you said in your comment. My gut feeling is that an overall panicky/anxious dog would benefit a lot from it, but a dog who doesn't anticipate and isn't proactively anxious might not get a lot out of it. It's not something I've implemented with Marge, who is definitely NOT the anticipating type (which is great for me, I think). What do you think?

    I'm the polar opposite of you, BTW -- give me the dentist any day, but if I had it my way, I would never go to the eye doctor again!!!!

  4. I tell my dogs quite a bit when something scary might be coming up when out and about. My older boy is dog-aggressive, if I wait until he spots the 'danger' he goes completely over threshold. Years of him being able to trust *me* to tell him what I see too, has made him much more confident. Not just in his reactions, but in his ability to let me handle a situation when we have a loose dog running up on us. (Which, since he's 75lbs of muslce, is a great help, because I'm no longer fighting to keep him safe, he's just letting me do it).

    And my younger dog has been skittish from day one. When her litter arrived at the rescue, it was rather evident. It was one of the many reasons I chose her, because I knew I'd be willing to work through her fears. Adolscence only seems to make them sharper, but like my older guy, if I can let her know in advance she's able to cope her way through it. She gets weirded out by strange people coming up on us while hiking, but all she needs is a "Good girl", from me for the most part, and she's cool.

    I think a lot of my reasoning for trying to help them see what's coming, stems a lot from reasons similiar to yours Crystal. Be it the dentist, the eye doctor, ear doctor... I need to know what's coming. I want to know what that pointy instrument is going to do and if it's going to hurt. lol I think it's only fair that my dogs get the same heads up when we're out and about.

    @Sam - It's the machine that blasts a puff of air in your eye, isn't it?

  5. Sam- I agree with your assessment that this would be much better suited to a dog who anticipates bad stuff. I'm going out on a limb here- I have nothing to back this up- but it seems to me that there's a big difference between a dog who is fearful and REACTS to scary stuff and a dog with anxiety who ANTICIPATES scary stuff. (Of course, I have no idea how much a dog can actually anticipate, cognitively speaking, but I believe they can to some degree.)

    Valerie- Yes! I definitely want my dog to learn that she can trust me to both both notice and will respond to scary things FOR HER, so she doesn't need to. I suspect that using warning systems with her contributes to a feeling of safety.


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