Anyone that has worked with horses knows that a plastic bag on a windy day can be sheer terror to them. It’s as if Godzilla has just appeared in front of them wearing a goalie mask and holding a chain saw. In order to help the horse deal with death incarnate, we do something very strange to some, we try to soothe and comfort the horse in the presence this horror.
Working well below the threshold at which the horse will bolt and run, we introduce the bag and or the noise it makes and soothe the horse with our voice, hands, and food. Slowly over time, we work up to the point that the horse accepts the bag being rubbed all over its body, making the crackling sound of death with no reaction from the horse.
I’ve used this method with countless horses in my life; using my deep voice to coo soothing words and my hands to convey my assurance that everything is going to be alright. In all the time I’ve done this I’ve never had anyone tell me that comforting a horse when it’s afraid will only make it more afraid and confirm its fear legitimate.
Yet when it comes to fearful dogs, we see this notion often. Many believe that comforting a fearful dog is coddling in nature and reinforcing the fear. So why doesn’t this argument hold for the horse? The simple answer is that we can’t physically hold a horse that doesn’t want to be held.
We aren’t physically able to restrain a horse that is truly afraid, from employing fight or flight; at least not without serious risk to our health and the health of the horse. So we use the behavioral science available to us to cooperatively help the larger stronger animal, overcome its fear.
Yet comforting and desensitization are not deemed appropriate for a dog simply because we have the size and strength to force the dog to face something it fears? Doesn’t really pass the sniff test does it?
Offering comfort, reassurance, and reward to a dog that is facing something it fears isn’t capitulating to the fear or the dog, its solid science that is of benefit and is good for the soul of all animals involved.