Falling in the Pond

yellow lab in a pond full of lily pads

Often when we look at or make plans for behavior modification with our dogs the focus is on management and gradual exposure to stressors that allow the dog to practice alternate coping skills below threshold working to change the dog’s response to stressors on both external and internal levels. And while that is entirely crucial to a behavior change plan and process, what about when all heck breaks loose and you fall in the pond?

2 black retrievers wade in a creek

I babysit two of my young nieces a day a week. I love being their aunt and enjoy exploring, creating, learning, and adventuring with them. The other day the girls, Tom and I decided to talk a walk up the street to the little pond and nature trail. We’ve done it a few times this fall, it’s gone well, I knew it was within our wheelhouse. Which is pretty big, because just last year my now 3 year old niece would get very upset if she got dirty. We all (her parents, me, other family) have been working to gradually build her comfort and coping skills surrounding dirt, water, mud and other input.

On the back part of this nature trail, there is a swampy marsh and then small inlet stream that feeds the pond. To cross this inlet stream are a series of rocks. The last few times we’ve been there, we stopped at the stream not attempting to cross. This time I thought, let’s try it. Was it a very well formed, well planned out thought? My attempting to cross a rocky path with the younger kid strapped to my back, the 3yr old in my arms and Tom leading the way? Um, definitely not. But we did it, we crossed the stream, it was a success! Great! We made it to the other side!

springer spaniel stands in a pond with green leaves framing path to the water

We then tossed leaves in the stream, and the kids played until it was time to return back. I’m sure you all have figured out what happened as we attempted to cross back over the stream – we all fell in. I slipped, misstepped, and down we went. The 3 year old and I were soaked, covered in mud and water. Thankfully the backpack carrier prevented the other child from falling in too.

Needless to say there was near instant crying and reaction. Much of which stemmed from the startle of the event. So what do you do when such occurs? When you fell in the pond, your dog (or kid) is now over threshold and hysterical, when the flight or flight response has kicked in, and you still have to walk a quarter plus mile home? You practice recovery. Because life happens. And sometimes life happens because you get over confident or didn’t really think the plan through as I did, and sometimes life happens because the weather turned, or the neighbor’s dog got lose, or the dog in front of you in the run order is a screamer, or that kid on a bike came out of nowhere, or any other myriad of things beyond your control just went down.

So we fell, and we practiced recovery.  I generally work to be a trusted source for my dogs and my nieces, so when we fell in the pond I relied on our relationship history and the coping skills I knew she’d been practicing in more structured sub threshold situations. I got up, made a silly joke about being all wet as I lifted her out of the pond and also validating her fear, “Whoopsie we fell in! I know, that was scary.” Once we were safely on the bank of the stream, we had a moment of comfort and hug, then assessed the physical, was she injured, was I injured, was the toddler injured, was Tom ok, where were we wet and muddy. So we 1. Got to safety, 2. Validated and started meeting emotional needs, then 3. Assessed physical state.  Often times I find, with our dogs, folks want to skip that 2nd, very important step, but validating and meeting emotional needs before worrying about the physical I find can make a huge difference in many situations.

After I was sure we weren’t broken, or bleeding and were just wet, startled and “Wanted to go home!” We shifted to recovery. Working to minimize this becoming a big event, or one recalled with much adverse connotation, working to calm the fight/flight response. As we walked through the trail back to the sidewalk, we redirected to what we’d seen and learned on our walk. Each response to her concerns about being wet and muddy were validated then redirected. “You’re right your pants are wet, and yes we did fall in the pond. What did you find that was yellow today? Do you think you can show me the red bush again? What else do you like that is red?” Because this is how I respond to countless other scenarios in other context with the kids the practice could be implemented here too.

Just as we reached the sidewalk, there were a number of mud puddles. Which my niece learned this spring and summer she actually enjoys playing in. She pointed them out, but hesitated when I asked if she wanted to play in them, saying she’d get muddy.  I pointed out, “We’re already wet and muddy, let’s play!” And I jumped in. She followed suit. Playing in the puddles was the final piece she needed to shift her view of the events from averse to fun (as is so often the case with our dogs too). We walked home silly, making up songs, and giggling, changed our clothes and the day went on.

Hours later when her mum (my sister) arrived to pick the kids up, my niece excitedly told her, “We fell in the pond! We slipped on the rocks!” Then recounted her fun day.

Now, without the work that’s been done over the past two plus years on increasing her coping skills, building relationship, and gradually desensitizing and building tolerance for mud, wet, dirt and the like, the over threshold event of us falling in the pond, even with the recovery steps, would likely not have successfully shifted fully to happy, excited. Which is why management, coping skill practice, and systematic desensitization are key elements to a behavior change plan. But one also has to plan in the inevitable realities of life happening. Of falling in the pond.

And when life happens, you practice recovery.

6 thoughts on “Falling in the Pond

    1. With dogs we try to gradually increase tolerance for exposures while additionally teaching alternate coping skills to hopefully enable the dog to then change both the response and the feeling when the previously scary or unpleasant event happen. But of course life doesn’t always go according to plan, and in those cases having skills to recover are necessary.

      1. I agree that a gradual exposure is good. Horses vary one from one another in that some are very tolerant but others panic easily and as prey animals their flight response is very strong. Trusting their rider helps them a lot.

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