Motivation. Everyone talks about it. Did you make a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym? There are blogs devoted to helping you stay motivated enough to actually do it. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning requires a level of motivation we may question whether we have or not. Some motivators are very powerful, while others lag behind, yet even if that is the case, they still manage to get us to behave. Lying in bed, snuggled warmly, comfortably and blissfully, under the blankets with a dog or two, when the temperatures are far below freezing is a huge motivator for maintaining my lying in bed behavior. But there are other motivators that will impact my behavior. The initial shock of a cold floor is tolerable because there’s morning coffee brewing and I should get to work. Sometimes I’m motivated by what I am going to get, and sometimes I’m motivated by what I’m going to avoid (caffeine or poverty as examples of the former and latter).
Fear is an important motivator. It may be the most important motivator animals, including us, have available to us to increase our life span. The chances of being killed accidentally climbs until after the age of 19 when it accounts for nearly half the number of deaths among humans aging 15-19. Young children do not have enough experience to accurately assess their environments and so behave in ways that put them at risk. Experimenting with forks and electrical outlets and toddling at the top of a flight of concrete stairs are a couple examples. Teenagers may not only be poor assessors of risk, they also may have keys to a car.
Every day I receive emails from people asking me what they should do to help their dog. It’s impossible for me to answer their question with any specificity or if I do, to not sound flippant (“My dog is scared of me, what should I do?” “Stop scaring them”). If their dog’s behavior is motivated by fear whether that means remaining shut down in a corner or lunging at anyone who walks into a room, they need to address the motivator. Options fall into two categories, decrease the motivator, i.e., the fear, and/or find a motivator that out competes the fear to get behaviors the owner prefers. How they should do this I can’t say for sure. What options are available to them for decreasing the fear and creating other motivators? The answers will vary depending on the dog (the dog has the final vote regarding what is or is not motivating) and what are the resources or environments available for creating alternate motivators.
Sometimes motivators are glaringly obvious. Fear is motivating a dog to cower or growl. Food is motivating a dog to stare and drool. Sometimes the motivators are misidentified or mislabeled, not so glaringly obvious to some. Behaviors motivated by fear are attributed instead to the motivation to move up in status in a relationship with an owner or other dog. Sometimes we can easily control the motivators, or the conditions which motivate, sometimes we can’t. We can control food, but we cannot control thunderstorms.
It’s a damn difficult thing to help many of our fearful dogs. I try to offer ideas and hope that a similar kind of brain that figured out how to create wifi can come up with ways to address a dog’s fearfulness. Those of you living or working with a fearful dog will need to assess the motivators which are driving the dog’s behavior, and don’t forget to have a look at your own while you’re at it.