How do you feel looking at the photo above?
Some people think, beautiful landscape. Some people think, How terrifying! What if I fall? Or the dog falls! Look at the edge!
The difference between these two reactions is not just the actions of the brain, but rather the reactions of what our brain knows about the skills of our bodies. If you have good balance and hike a great deal, this looks like a lot of fun. You want to feel the grippy friction of your feet against the stone, and you want to lean into the steep slope to climb into those canyons, some so narrow you can imagine your feet perched on either side, your hands pressed against the walls for added traction.
For others this is a disaster waiting to happen. A fall here is terrifying. The walls look impossible steep, and the uneven ground is the thing of nightmares. For these people, even seeing Tagg perched on the edge of what looks like a steep descent into the canyon, fills them with concern, and they want to call out her to come away from the edge.
Balance not only affects how we feel about our bodies, but how we feel about our environment. These feelings aren't the result of general anxiety, or fear, but of learned knowledge about the capabilities of our bodies in a three-dimensional world. In a word: balance. There is the perception that you either have good balance or poor balance. But balance is the mechanics of strength, proprioception, and the vestibular system, and excluding disease, these can be trained and improved.
We can change our perception from one of fear to one of enjoyment of this landscape through changing our ability to balance.
Now, think of your dog. Born into a flat, paved world, and living in a flat, often paved landscape. The highest jump your dog may see is jumping onto the bed, the steepest slope may be the wheelchair ramp on the sidewalk. Even agility dogs are running on fixed planes, fixed widths, flat, well-groomed land, and obstacles that once learned, never change.
Having never been challenged by a complex three-dimensional space, our dogs suffer from fear because they know their body cannot do the things required to keep them safe. Unlike humans who rise and fall in society largely on intellect and luck, dogs live in a world of physicality. The stronger dog prevails. The faster dog survives. The dog better able to swerve and jump avoids the aggressor, and gets the squirrel.
For many of our dogs, the view above is not a very rare occurrence found after a five hour drive, but rather the very streets they walk every day. They know, that if push comes to shove and they are required to fight for their lives, they will lose, and they are terrified.
For young puppies, just starting off on their journeys, the solution to this is take them out into the world, encourage them to explore and use their bodies. This is part of early socialization, and if done properly, and continued throughout their lives, they will thrive, and see the world as a playground rather than a dangerous complex land filled with unsurmountable obstacles.
However, if we do not continue to challenge our dog's bodies, or if we get a dog who never experienced their bodies as a puppy should, taking them out to the woods or desert will not work.
We become naturally more conservative of our safety as we age. As kids we may have done things that as adults we would not dream of doing. This is because that early socialization period requires a low fear threshold and a desire for seeking novelty. As we age, these things become increasingly more difficult to do, because our brain changes. An adult will see the landscape above almost entirely different than a child would. Even the most courageous adult will see risks and dangers and take precautions that a child will blithely ignore.
Our dog's brains are wired the same way. Because of this we must introduce balance challenges differently to adult dogs. We must thread the needle between asking too much and too little. We must be mindful of how we ask, and how we listen to our dog's response to our questions. We must offer assistance without impairing risk awareness or autonomy. The dog must learn to win, and the only way to learn to win is to fear losing. Too much fear and your dog will freeze or panic, too little and the wins will be without meaning and the lessons will fail to achieve the goals we are looking for,
To help your fearful dog: Set up proprioception courses, and balance obstacles. Incrementally build up the challenge over time. Use food luring with caution and avoid social pressure until they are more confident. When the dog makes a mistake, and feels the consequences, be mindful of the dog's reaction (Hmmmm, vs Holy shit! I almost died!!!) and respond appropriately.
If you have any questions, reach out and we can help you design course and challenges, as well as help you learn your dog's body language cues so that you can modify challenge level on the fly.