My second oldest child, Cameron (we call her Poki), is terrified of the beach.  Not just scared, but heart palpitation, pee your pants, 5 year old with a  coronary scared.

Yes, that picture of the blond girl is real.  She wasn’t faking that fear.  The waves were coming in and she freaked out.  In fact, she’ll freak out when she sees the waves a full 100 or 200 feet away.

This poses a problem.  As I’ve recently written, we’ve recently moved to Costa Rica.  We live right near the beach.  I can hear the waves from the front yard and see the tree line where the waves begin from our property.

I realized that she is going to have to get over her fear of the ocean, at least on some level, as we go to the beach often.

It then hit me, I’ve helped hundreds of dogs conquer their fear, why not help my daughter using the same principles?

Now, I’m sure I’m about to receive a healthy dose of criticism and parental judgement.  You’re treating your daughter like a dog?!?!  What makes you think you can apply dog training principles to a child?  How cruel!

To those who are going to judge me…feel free.  As parents we get a little nuts from time to time in trying to help and educate our kids.  There isn’t a parent among us who hasn’t tried some stupid stuff to get our kids to see a different perspective, or to stop screaming, or to give us some peace, or to ‘for once in your life put away your clothes!’

I decided I needed to do something drastic if I was going to help her get over this fear so I did exactly what I’ve done with dogs in the past.  Hopefully you’ll be able to learn how you can help your dog with the lesson I learned by working with Poki.  So far, it seems to have worked and I can only imagine things will continue to improve.

I always preach to my dog training clients that fear comes from a ‘chaotic’ state of mind.  In a literal sense, the brain isn’t processing outside data the way it normally does and has allowed itself to briefly ‘atrophy’ into a state of chaos.

Now, if we can assume that the brain (of the dog or of Poki, take your pick) has gone into chaos we must then consider what is the opposite of chaos?  For if we know that chaos is not conducive to growth, what is the polar opposite that could, in theory, allow growth?

The opposite of chaos, in the natural world, is control.

When I’m working with dogs I run into a lot of fears:

  • Fear of going up or coming down stairs
  • Fear of jumping into a vehicle
  • Fear of slippery floors
  • Fear of swimming
  • Fear of loud noises

In nearly every one of these cases I’ve found that we can get quick and lasting results by placing the dog into a fearful setting but requiring control and structure within that setting.  What happens is that the dog is forced to focus on something productive (control, obedience, rules, etc.) rather than something destructive (their fear).

For example, a dog that won’t go up the stairs I simply put on the leash and oblige the dog to follow by my side.  He’ll flip and rant and rave and complain at the top of his lungs but I continue on.  In me pushing the dog beyond his fear threshold the brain has two choices it’s forced into; to adapt or to completely shut off.  Dog and people brains are pretty darn awesome.  I’ve only seen two dogs completely shut down in my entire career and that was a rare case and a story for another day.  Some brains will adapt quickly and others more slowly but all tend to adapt.

In the case of stairs, for example, I don’t think I’ve ever had to run a dog through this drill more than four or five times before he or she was completely fine going up or down stairs.  The same is true for swimming, slippery floors, etc.  It’s rare to have to run a dog through one of these drills more than a handful of times before they can now deal with their fear.

I’ve got a lot of detractors in this philosophy, though.

Not too long ago I was on a message board with other dog trainers from around the country.  The question was posed by a trainer who was having a hard time getting their client’s dog to navigate stairs.  They asked for help in the group.

The answers I saw shocked and repulsed me in regards to how little ‘professional dog trainers’ actually understand about dog behavior and learning.  The answers I saw included:

  • First you must take the dog to the vet to make sure he’s allowed to go up and down stairs.  Really!?!?  We need a vet trip to go up and down stairs?  What’s next, permission from the surgeon general to give your dog a treat?
  • Convoluted solutions involving harness apparatuses to lift the dog up and down the stairs.  This one really got me.  Instead of training the dog and helping the dog, we’ll simply give the owner a back-ache.
  • Complex training ideas involving treats, moving inches at a time, and an admitted 2-3 months of training.  I couldn’t believe this one.  How do trainers stay in business if their solutions for tiny problems require months of work?

When I presented my solution of ‘put the dog on a leash, walk up the stairs, when the dog doesn’t want to walk, keep going,’ I was summarily lambasted by the entire group for such a cruel idea.  It didn’t matter that I could outline why this works in the dog’s brain, how it had worked dozens of times, and how a more cruel fate for the dog was subjecting him to months of stress when this problem could have been solved in the amount of time it took to write down the question.

It was no use, though, the group was insistent that the only way to get a dog over a fear was stockpiles of treats and months of work.  I feel so bad for so many dogs out there.

Back to Poki.  I’ve helped so many dogs quickly get over their fear of swimming and floors and stairs, etc. that I figured this would have to work with my daughter as well.

I picked her up and we started walking.  She screamed a scream so blood curdling that, had the beach been nearly deserted, I’m sure the police would have arrived in due course to check on the murder.

I pushed on, though.  (Cue the disapproving look of judgmental parents)

This is the view from our yard. The far tree line is where the beach is.

We got out in the ocean and she started babbling about sharks, whales, octopuses and other sea creatures that were going to eat her.  She screamed about the waves dragging her out and turning her into a mermaid.  In my mind I knew that getting her into the situation was only half the battle.  I had to get her mind centered on something that can focus her.

In the case of dogs I always use obedience.  I condition the dog to focus on heeling, staying, coming when called, etc.  I’ve found that dogs don’t multitask so if they are focused on the task I’m giving them it doesn’t give them room to focus on their fear.

With Poki I threw her off balance by saying, “Poki, poki, poki, listen real quick.  What is 2+2?”  At first she slowed down a second from the odd question and said she wasn’t in the mood for math.  I persevered, though, and told her how important it was that she teach me what she’d learned about math.

As I started peppering her with math questions and other questions on topics she’s been studying I could feel her heart beat calm down, her breathing slow to normal, and her fear melt away.  It didn’t entirely melt away but I made sure that we left the water on a calm note (also an important dog training principle) and she was much calmer when we left.

The result.  Not 10 minutes later she asked to go into the water.  This time she cheerfully went in without being carried and voluntarily stood in thigh deep water while waves came in.  There was still hesitation and after a bit she decided she’d had enough but just two days after that she was asking if we could go down to the beach.

She’s not completely over her fear and we’re not signing her up for surf lessons yet.  But by obliging her mind to deal with a fear and then re-focusing the mind she made quick and vast improvements.

You can do the same thing with your dog.  Don’t take my advice on child-rearing, though, you’re on your own with that one.

Happy training.