In less than 48 hours, I will be facing one of my biggest fears: Chicken camp.
Yes, "chicken camp". Sounds funny, right? But most trainers know exactly what I'm talking about. Trainers who work with positive reinforcement are familiar with the practice of honing their clicker training skills using chickens as subjects. At chicken camp, teams of trainers get together to train chickens! Simple enough concept, and probably doesn't seem the least bit frightening to you.
Unless you're like me, and you have a bird phobia.
It may come as a big surprise to some of you to learn that many animal trainers I know actually have a fear of at least one kind of animal. Size or species doesn't matter. A fear is a fear. It may be founded by a negative past experience or it may be a phobia, which is an irrational fear that can't be explained.
That's what's going on with me: I have a phobia. I can easily be around birds that are immobile or just walking around on the ground, but the sound and sight of fluttering wings sends my mind and body into panic mode. My heart races, my vision narrows, I may hyperventilate, and I immediately focus on getting as far away as possible, as quickly as possible.
This type of fear can't be rationalized. It doesn't matter if you tell me, "It's okay. It's just a chicken. It can't hurt you." I am fully aware of this, on a rational level. But there is nothing rational about an anxiety attack. The wiring is a bit messed up; something misfires in my brain. I see or hear flapping wings, and uh-oh... hear comes the adrenaline. My mind believes I am in immediate danger and prepares my body for the "fight or flight" response.
I have been preparing myself for this weekend's chicken camp by using meditation to envision myself safe and happy in the presence of a (basically) flightless bird. I have been watching and admiring the many birds that visit my neighbour's bird feeder, familiarizing myself with their movements.
At camp, I will be in the company of fellow trainers who are also good friends and they are all aware of my phobia. I will work at my own pace, will set myself up for success by only doing what I know I can comfortably handle, and by building on these successes, I will overcome my fear for good.
I will be engaging in activity that I already enjoy and am skilled at. This will help to keep me focused more on the task, and less on the feathers. (I'm not afraid of being pecked... it's the wing movement that sets off the fear).
Working on overcoming my phobia will hopefully help me be a better trainer when it comes to helping dogs deal with their own fears.
Although "flooding" is a bona fide therapy (flooding involves saturating a subject with a situation that instills fear in them, in an attempt to force the subject to face their fears until it subsides), I am not a fan of its use. I prefer systematic desensitization: gradually dealing with a fear in small increments while always remaining below threshold and therefore never actually triggering a strong fear response. Building on small successes, and always letting the subject determine the pace.
I will not be thrown into a barn full of chickens running rampant, with the door firmly locked behind me. I will be in a controlled environment, I will get to decide how close I come to the chickens, and I will have the support of friends who are well-versed in the psychology of desensitization.
Also, I will treat myself to whatever the hell I want at the end of the day!
Remember this, the next time your dog cowers because of thunder. Or he barks and backs away from strangers. Or he salivates as you walk him to your car and refuses to jump in. Or he shakes at the sight of the nail clipper. All fears are valid, simply because they exist. If you want to help your dog work through a fear, avoid the use of flooding techniques, and instead find a qualified trainer or behaviour consultant who is knowledgeable and skilled at counter-conditioning and systematic densensitization.