When I first met Hula, I couldn’t approach her. As I walked into her house, stepping foot on her turf, she barked and charged at me, hackles raised and teeth bared. I avoided eye contact and, per her owner’s instruction, entered the home. Hula stayed away from me entirely, loudly protesting my presence any time I moved, but always keeping at least 6 feet between us.
I had been invited over because Hula had bitten someone….again.
Hula had a history of aggression with strangers and the behavior was quickly escalating. If not dealt with immediately, her emotional and exasperated owner would be faced with some heart wrenching decisions.
I was Hula’s last hope. She just didn’t know it yet.
Together with her owners, we developed a plan to help Hula get over her extreme and persistent fear of strangers. A prescription of in-depth socialization in her environment was the initial plan of attack, with a combination of techniques including desensitization, counter-conditioning, and flooding to help her conquer her fears.
The first few sessions were intense for both owner and Hula. Teaching Hula I wasn’t there to hurt her was no easy feat and she held her ground with more fervor than any dog I’ve met in the decade I’ve been helping aggressive dogs. The road ahead was long and given her unwillingness to accept even one person in her home told us swift action would be necessary to minimize Hula’s stress – we were going to remove her from her environment and the care and security of her owners. Outside of her home, Hula would likely have a subdued response and, if anything, she’d learn to trust me much more quickly than she would in her own territory – after all, at my house, I was in charge of the food!
When Hula entered my home, she did so with wide eyes and tail tucked. This outwardly aggressive dog, who had several live bites under her belt, now turned into a scared puppy dog, completely overwhelmed by the new environment that lay in front of her. She promptly hid under the dining room table, vowing never to come out until her mom came to get her.
But her mom never came….
Over the course of a few days, Hula learned that I wasn’t some monster that wanted to torture and devour her. Neither were the basset hounds she found so terrifying her first day here. She learned that from me, she got walks, food, and lots of love. And the basset hounds – well, they were just tiny beached seals who had big voices, but who didn’t do much other than sleep and eat. Not so scary after all.
Once she was bonded sufficiently with me, it was time for her to meet new people. We solicited the help of a number of volunteers, each meeting Hula’s fear and aggression with love and persistence. Her aggressive response went from immediate to non-existent. Within 24 hours of her heavy socialization work, Hula was muzzle free and snuggling up to those adversaries she dreaded so vehemently.
In interacting with Hula, and in explaining her fears and insecurities to those volunteers brave enough to help with her training, an innumerable amount of life lessons and parallels to our own insecurities and fears were uncovered and exposed. The most profound by far I’d say is the tendency for dogs to build defensive responses to protect themselves against non-existent threats – defenses that will never allow them to experience the truly awesome things present in their everyday lives.
Hula is afraid of people. Not afraid actually….completely and utterly terrified. In truth however, people aren’t out to get her. Unbeknownst to Hula, people simply want to love, pet, and more often than not, treat her. Little does she know, people are actually really wonderful. If Hula accepted people, she could have so many more adventures. She could go to lunch with her mom, visit local restaurants, and even frequent fun places like the dog beach. Instead, Hula’s insecurity keeps her confined to the four walls of her condo, missing out on all of the fantastic things life has to offer.
The fear is in her head and isn’t rooted in truth. Sure she may have had a bad experience at one point in her life. But now, the chances for danger are low, if not completely non-existent. The fear now lives in her head and sadly, controls her life.
For Hula, without help, the defenses she has built will never allow her to overcome her fear. She’ll never be able to realize people aren’t so bad because, as she aggresses, barks, snaps and bites at them, they will take her cues and stay away. Her defenses are protecting her fear, preventing her from changing her perception, learning, growing, and evolving.
So often in our lives, we let fear cripple our forward momentum. Fear can keep us from taking chances, experiencing life, and truly living. Like Hula’s fear of strangers, many times, the fears that we’ve assigned value to in our own lives are irrational and aren’t rooted in fact or logic. We build defenses that prevent us from facing our fears and thus, rarely do we conquer them. When we don’t overcome our fears, instead allowing our defenses to protect them, they inevitably prevent us from growing, changing and evolving.
Whether you’re fears are obvious, such as a fear of spiders or snakes, or more convoluted such as fear of rejection or failure, I guarantee those fears, and the defenses you’ve established to protect them, will leave self preservation winning out over logic and will leave you stagnant, whether it be in your career, in your relationships, or in your day to day life. Don’t be like Hula and let your fears stop your forward progress. You might just be missing out on some incredible opportunities and all of the awesome things life has to offer.