my aunt’s invitation to pick up her puppy, Riley, from his afternoon “enrichment” training class was a no-brainer. the thought of collecting a pup from school was too adorable to miss.
he’d earned his place there to work on socialization. because while the other puppies hang out doing dog stuff after lessons, Riley spends the time tucked in a corner, peeing from fear.
when we arrived, two trainers asked us to sit on folding chairs arranged in a circle. so yes, the meeting became an extended family parent-teacher conference. for a dog.
they explained how Riley’s fear of new experiences is interwoven with his lack of confidence. lots of stuff scares him—unexpected noises, the hairbrush for keeping his coat under control, and of course, curious peers.
the solution, predictably, was constant positive reinforcement (i.e., food!) during nerve-racking situations. to desensitize him to the hairbrush, they tapped it around his body at random. he earned a treat every time he stayed put while the brush moved. dozens of rewards later, he stayed still when the brush was held near his head. lessons learned: new objects aren’t scary! fear is fun and earns me a prize!
for reinforcement, they suggested exercises like tossing food when pots and pans accidently clatter to the kitchen floor, turning the shock into a celebration, not a calamity.
as i sat in the circle, i realized, Riley and i are so similar, our sentiments so linked and obvious, i felt tempted to call a time out and clarify we were talking about the dog and not me.
because although i don’t publicly pee from anxiety, the gist was familiar. deep down, i’m not the most confident person and i avoid new social situations.
i narrowed my eyes and thought, i see what you’re doing here, Universe. you’re acting cute. by making Riley my spirit animal twin, you’re cluing me in to a personal assignment in the guise of puppy behavioral news.
because even when i survive uncomfortable experiences, i don’t reward myself. instead of an inner monologue of: look at that! scary turned positive, new bizarreness became a treat! i tend toward, great. moving on…
i bet you do, too.
pessimists will note the bummer is two-fold: what are we supposed to do, chow down on bonbons every time we bypass a freak out? besides, as humans, our world is more complex.
on the other hand, we can become our own trainers. where we earn the chance to recondition our habitual responses and acknowledge our bravery for sticking it out in the human equivalents of creepy household objects, ringing telephones, and strangers who want to pet us.
if we can rewire ourselves to accept fear and uncertainty by paying attention to it in the moment—by tossing the treats as soon as the pots fall—we’ll relax and discover nothing too terrible happens.
try shrinking your worries to something as dull as an automated garage door opening. tell yourself there’s nothing to be afraid of in the midst of difficulty, that you’re handling it well. you might be surprised.
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