You may have seen the annual UK survival reality TV game show, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’, where 12 celebrities live together in a jungle environment for a number of weeks.
The contestants in past years before Covid had to endure ‘Bushtucker Trials’ to earn their food.
A young woman was locked in a tank of snakes. She is terrified of snakes. A man who’s not a good swimmer was shut in a dark tunnel leading to a deep tank with scary water critters. Others are buried in a dark tomb with rats and insects dropping all around them. They scream and shout.
These people do this through choice.
They know exactly when the terror will start and when it will end. They have a get-out card. If the terrified contestant shouts “I’M A CELEBRITY – GET ME OUT OF HERE!” he or she will be rescued immediately. There is a team of medics on hand, just in case.
They know that however much they hate the ordeal, they are safe. It will come to an end.
Imagine how it must be for a dog that is terrified of the outside world, like Marco.
After some weeks in kennels he has a wonderful new home. But, as soon as he leaves the sanctuary of the house and garden he is terrified.
The gate opens and a world of horror is beyond.
Vehicles – small, large, fast, slow, noisy, smelly – roar past. He lunges and barks, attack being the best form of defense.
In the open he is on high alert all the time. He barks at wind in the trees, at birds flying overhead and at distant lights. Bikes and joggers rush by without warning.
Unlike the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ contestants, poor Marco has no way of knowing that he is, in reality, safe.
It’s an educated guess that, in order for him to be like this, during the first three and a half years of his life he will have had little exposure, if any, to the world outside a house and garden.
All good dog owners need to give their dogs walks, right?
Like the conscientious dog owners they are, they wanted to do the very best for their gorgeous but troubled new dog. They had been taking him out for walks from the day they brought him home four weeks previously.
Outside the garden gate is, to him, hell. It’s one endless Bushtrucker Trial.
Unlike the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ contestants, Marco doesn’t have choice. He can’t know that in reality he is safe. He can’t know that the ordeal will only last a set length of time and then it will end.
Marco has has no ‘I’M A TERRIFIED DOG – GET ME OUT OF HERE!” option.
See this: What fear does to the body – dog or human.
With a dog so obviously fearful of the outside world, it’s common for a rescue to suggest to new owners that the dog isn’t taken out at all for three weeks.
People find this hard and often ignore the advice.
Just imagine the enormity of being trapped in a totally new world over which you have no control.
First a dog has his new immediate surroundings to get used to – house, garden and people. As if this isn’t enough, he’s then taken out into a world of what must seem like mayhem to a dog that hadn’t been walked.
No animal, or human, willingly goes somewhere he believes he could come to harm. Keeping fit and exercise is a complete irrelevance compared to feeling safe.
They will now work slowly, always keeping in mind Marco’s comfort threshold. He’s fine in the house. He’s fine in the garden. When the gate opens he panics.
He transforms into a lunging, pulling and barking beast.
The gate is where his panic starts, so that is where the work begins.
They then need to get him okay with the traffic on the busy road outside. He has to pass by this before going anywhere else.
Desensitising and counter-conditioning.
With Marco on a long, loose lead they will open the gate and find his threshold distance – where he is aware of the passing traffic but can cope; it could be right away down the garden. As the vehicles pass and Marco is watching them, they will rain chicken on him. If he won’t eat, he is still over threshold. He will have the freedom and choice to retreat further.
With lots of short sessions, with vehicles at a safe distances heralding food, over time his threshold will get closer to the road.
His humans will be winning back the trust they will have lost. They will gain his trust if they allow him to choose what he is ready for, and when.
If with his body language he shows uneasiness, they will make things better.
If by barking he shouts, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”, they will do just that. They will get him out of there.