Overcoming Fear of the Plastic Bag

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.

5 thoughts on “Overcoming Fear of the Plastic Bag

  1. Thanks for writing this, Kevin – it always seemed crazy to me to hear people parroting bad training ideas about not comforting your dog when he’s afraid. Really nice example using horses;) I had a dapple grey Arabian once who spooked at the cat’s shadow, and sometimes at nothing I could see…she was a bit of a headcase…but getting her accustomed to shadows in that corner was a matter of positive reinforcement, high value treats, soothing voice, patience, never getting unseated when she bolted or spun around, and conditioning her to pay attention to her work and not random things in her environment. Yes, we would never dream of using force on horses (bad trainers did, though)

    • Thanks Mary. Spooking is a common behavior in horses simply because of their generally poor eyesight. And yes, even on animals as large as elephants we see trainers using force to make them comply with their wishes. But somehow it always seems easier to people to use force on animals that we can easily overcome without too much danger to ourselves. Funny how we can often find more scientific & gentle methods when the animal can overpower us.

  2. I think it depends on the fear, doesn’t it? With the bag you are able to start far away, crinkle, wave, then move it closer as the animal accepts it. I’ve done this with rescue dogs with fears of hoses and brooms and bottles. However, a lot of the doggy fears are not something we can control. Thunder and fireworks spring to mind. You can’t control the frequency or volume of those noises (and audio recordings of them just isn’t the same.) In those cases isn’t it better to give the terrified dog a safe place to hide and not force them to come out and endure the noise in an effort to desensitize? Maybe it depends where you live. I’m in L.A. – fewer thunderstorms, more fireworks and the fireworks will stop when they run out of them.

    • Kat,

      I am not for forcing the dog at all. There are some fears and phobias that take an awful lot of planning and preparation in order to help desensitize; thunderstorms are one such fear. Allowing the dog a safe place to ride out the storm is one part of helping them change their response to it. The point I was trying to make was that we sometimes think about forcing an animal to face things just because we can, and criticize those who don’t use force as coddling the animal and reinforcing the fear. However, when it comes to larger animals we can’t force so easily, we don’t seem to hold the same prejudices.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Amen. I have seen teh plastic bag test used with horses before. I say again – why is force the first option people choose?

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