In November 2017, we rescued a dog from a SPA shelter home in France, but Lucky was actually born on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean sea, where there are many stray dogs.
Lucky spent her first four months on the streets. When she was picked up by the shelter, she was alone. She had no mother, brothers or sisters with her. After a few weeks in the shelter, she was taken to the airport and flown across the Atlantic as cargo. After another four weeks in quarantine, she was finally transported to the SPA dog rescue shelter home in France where we met her.
Lucky had never known stability or affection.
At seven months old, we were happy to give Lucky a stable home and lots of love. On the first night at home, Lucky quickly accepted the attention and love we gave her. Lucky snuggled up between my wife and me on the sofa. It was wonderful.
We switched the TV on as we usually did on those dark November evenings. Suddenly, Lucky leapt from the sofa, barking ferociously toward the TV. The hair on the back of her neck and along her spine stood erect. We shut off the TV and Lucky ran to hide under my desk.
We switched on the TV again. Lucky came tearing toward it, snapping and barking at the loud, moving images. Then we heard thumping on the wall we share with our neighbour. And Lucky barked even louder. Our neighbour wasn’t happy with us.
“I must go round and explain the situation to our neighbour”, I said to my wife.
I knocked on our neighbour’s door. And Viviane opened her door.
“I’m so sorry that my dog is barking. We’ve just rescued her from the shelter, and she’s terrified of our TV”, I said.
As I apologised for the noise that evening, her usually fine, pretty facial features bloated with anger. Viviane then shouted at me in French.
I couldn’t understand much French at the time, but I recognised “ferme la !” I knew she was telling me to shut my dog up.
My wife arrived and spoke with Viviane in French. She told us that she moved into the building because no one had a dog… or a baby! She wanted to live in silence. She told us to put a muzzle on Lucky or use a collar that electrocutes a dog when they bark. She also told us that if Lucky didn’t stop barking, she would call the police. Lucky hadn’t even been home one night!
When we returned to our apartment my wife cried and my tears weren’t far behind hers. There was no way we would return Lucky to the shelter. And we certainly weren’t going to muzzle or electrocute her.
We needed a plan.
I’ve lived and worked with dogs for most of my life. I know a few methods people use to introduce dogs to new objects and experiences – flooding, desensitisation and counter-conditioning. I knew that the flooding approach doesn’t work and I didn’t want to stress her further by forcing her to be around the noisy TV. I would be patient and combine very gradual desensitisation and counter-conditioning using her favourite treats, freshly steamed turkey.
I mapped out a process:
- Picture only (no sound) on for 30 seconds, then five minutes, an hour, all afternoon. Whenever Lucky didn’t react to the silent moving pictures I gave her a treat.
- Sound only (no picture). Again, 30 seconds, then five minutes, an hour, all afternoon. And more turkey to transform her fear into a ‘looking forward to’ response.
- Finally, combine noise and image and built up the length of time until I could leave the TV on with sound all day. And plenty more turkey.
After two weeks of gradually introducing the TV to Lucky along with treats, she no longer barked at it. We could even watch a film projected on the wall at 2.5 metres across, with blasting surround sound.
However, when we switched on the vacuum cleaner, Lucky responded with the same fierce intensity that she did with the TV.
And the same with the ironing board, and when people passed our apartment on their way upstairs, and when people pulled their wheelie bins along the street. She was deeply fearful of anything she was unfamiliar with. The people world terrified her.
So I returned to my plan.
I broke each thing she feared into tiny bits of info, just as I did with the TV. Each small step was not too much to overwhelm and not too little that she wouldn’t experience something new. It was a delicate balance, and sometimes I gave her too much to handle. So, I took a step back and started again. And it worked. A year a half later Lucky is now less fearful of things she doesn’t know.
I use the same process when I work on projects.
Very often I used to say, “I’m going to create my website this weekend” or “I’m going to write an article”. I now realise that I was essentially flooding myself by imagining the final product – the website or the article. I’m then overwhelmed by its size or complexity.
Consequently, I rarely even get started on the project.
But, final products (e.g. website, article, e-course) don’t materialise out of anywhere. There are always steps to take, simple steps.
The next time you have something challenging to do, break it into tiny achievable steps. As you complete these, you’ll build momentum. If you find that you’re struggling with one of these small steps, see if you can break it down further.
Each time I get overwhelmed by a task, I remember Lucky barking at our TV and the tiny steps I used to help her overcome her fear, and avoid our neighbour’s wrath.