Facing their fears: Why "just getting used to it" rarely happens.
As humans, we have a misconception that if our companion is frightened by something, they just need to be exposed to it enough and realize nothing bad happens. As a result, they will learn that the stimulus is no longer scary. While well meaning, this way of thinking can have a lot of harmful effects. This phenomenon is called flooding, and it essentially means inundating the learner with a stimuli that causes a strong negative emotional response in hopes that they will adjust.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say that your dog is quite fearful of unfamiliar people. You know that the people trying to make friends with your pup are not out to harm him. In fact, each time a familiar person within their inner circle says hello, they pet him and he enjoys this, so surely he will begin to realize that since strangers also pet him and petting feels good from people he likes, strangers aren’t so bad and maybe he likes them too? Yet he continues to cower and avoid them.
The first thing we have to do is look at the perception of your dog. Instead of your dog being scared of a stranger and then realizing that the stranger is doing something that feels good, what’s likely happening is that your dog is frightened by the person and now that scary person is touching them, which is more direct and intense and therefore even scarier than before. They aren't enjoying it. When building associations, it’s important to know that the first thing to happen becomes a predictor of the second thing. For example, the leash gets picked up, then the dog gets to go on a walk. If your dog loves walks, they learn that leash = SUPER EXCITING STUFF! But, if your dog doesn't enjoy walks what does the leash predict? If we have a strong enough emotional response happening such as fear, their learning center struggles to make connections because it’s too busy trying to fight, flight, freeze or fidget. Assuming a dog will learn to love a scary person if they get petted by them because they enjoy petting from people they like is the equivalent of saying that because you were seen hugging a loved one once, you like hugs from anyone at any time. It means someone you don't like hugs you and this turns into instant best friend status, right?
We’re also inadvertently teaching that dog that scary people don’t give him space to feel safe.
Safety means your dog is physically safe from harm. Your dog in this situation is in fact safe. No one is going to actually hurt him. Security means your dog feels safe. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety, stress, or fear, then they don’t feel safe. From their perspective, they aren’t.
Think of something you’re fearful of that others aren’t. I say that because a great deal of people have what society considers an irrational fear. It might be spiders, snakes, rats, heights, tight spaces, needles, or a number of other things. Even though human beings have the cognitive capability to understand that their fear response may not be warranted or reasonable, it doesn’t change the panic, distress, or terror that being forced to face these things would bring about. Fear, at its core, is a biological necessity for the sake of survival. Of all of those things I just listed as common irrational fears, some of them are also things that can technically cause you real harm if the stars align. But statistically they're not likely to in most reasonable situations. If you encounter a perceived threat, your brain doesn't have time to decide whether or not it's worth responding strongly to. In a truly dangerous situation, you may not be able to afford seconds or minutes of deliberation, so your mind errs on the side of caution.
You could hold me down and put tarantulas on me and no amount of reasoning that I’m safe will change my fear. You could tell me all of the statistics you want. You could do that one hundred times and me never end up injured by them. But that method will never get me to feel safe with spiders on me. I might eventually learn I can’t change the outcome of this flooding and shut down. Maybe I’ll stop flailing or screaming or pleading and someone might think that means I’m no longer afraid. Unfortunately being in a state of shut down is even more tragic as it means that I’m trying to cope by shutting myself down emotionally as a means of self preservation.
Suppression can lead to some pretty awful emotional trauma and even cause behavior fallout such as an explosive recurrence of undesirable responses or much larger issues such as generalized anxiety or intensified problems with stress, fear, or aggression.
So the moral is flooding does not put out fires, but it can create them. It does not actually help your companion learn to cope with their fears or discomfort in a healthy way that leads to improved emotional health.
There are things you can do to address your pet’s fear responses, whether they are a cat, dog, bird or any other animal. If your companion is displaying fear or anxiety around certain stimuli (which can come out as avoidance, aggression, or many other things), first protect their emotional health and avoid putting them into situations that are going to send them into a stressed state, then reach out to a qualified behavior consultant who can help you put a plan into place to get them on their way to better behavior health.