Recently, something strange started to happen. My kids pointed it out to me—“Mama,” my oldest daughter said to me one day, laughing, “Cholula’s not just scared of the hallway to the kitchen, she’s scared of the stairs and the hall upstairs too.” “Yeah,” said my other daughter, “she’s scared of the whole house.” It was true. In direct contrast to continuing progress in her training outside, Cholula was getting stuck at various points all over the house, so stuck that she would whine from her various perches until one of us went and either walked with her past the frightening spot or called to her until she got so excited she could dash past the spot all skittery nails and splayed limbs. I wrote to Kevin Behan on his website and asked him about it. He responded (in short), the entire exchange is here—
I suspect you’re now dealing with the first instances of fear in her life as [she looks] to find a predator to justify the release of pent up energy. The bark will be really important to get her to release her fear. She’s processing fear outdoors (i.e. her improved abilities and behaviors outside represent a new ability to move through her fear) but still experiencing it, and so it needs to find an outlet and so [she] concocts a predator from innocuous stuff within a context from her past.
I’ve been continuing to work on the bark on command. This too is quite something to see—she will curl back her lips, gnash her teeth, shake her head, sneeze, emit a short growl—watching her these past weeks work to try to find the noise and not quite get it, I’ve realized that to ask her to bark on command is to ask her to give up everything she learned about life before she came to our house, when unhinged barking at real or imagined attackers was a primary means of stress release, while silence and subduedness in the face of her owner was how she avoided trouble. Although, of course, she didn’t actually avoid trouble with these coping strategies—in fact, she became trouble, ending up in the shelter twice and then attacking a dog outside my house shortly after I brought her home.
Her newly neurotic behavior has mostly faded in the weeks since I wrote Kevin. Cholula is back to her old way of being now, with only the one hallway between the dining room and kitchen still bothering her. It is quite something to see her trot up to it, come to a sudden, foreleg-splayed stop, turn around and tiptoe backwards through it, lifting each leg higher than necessary as if pulling her paws out of something sticky. While Kevin gave me some tips to help her through it, I think her neuroticism in the house subsided largely because we are at something of a new plateau. That is, when she first mastered her calm sit/stay, when she started reliably sneezing on command, with her corresponding increased ability to handle and even play with dogs we meet out and about, she was living in the outside world in a mode past her comfort zone, and it freaked her out. As Kevin wrote above, it freaked her out so much that she manufactured bogeymen all over the house to take out her fear on. Now, we have been doing these things long enough that we have established a new comfort zone. And so she’s back to her one old fear in the house and the rest of the house has returned to innocuousness. For now. Until we make another leap. I’m still working towards that real bark.
Working with Cholula’s fear has helped me understand how I get caught in my own. I know her feeling, of moving forward in one area only to find that other, previously easy tasks have become seemingly insurmountable. Take my website redesign. I’d been wanting to redesign my website for a long time, and because I don’t have many technical skills or much time, I’d decided I should hire someone to do it. Both committing the money to it and finding the right person were hurdles that kept me from moving on this for a long time. But recently, through a combination of readiness and chance (a post for another time) I got it redesigned. The redesign is almost everything I hoped for. But I found myself obsessing over minor details that bothered me and, even worse, feeling on the one hand filled with new content-related ideas for the site and on the other hand, having a new difficulty finding the time to create any content at all for the site. Following through on my own commitment to improve the look of the site pushed me out of my comfort zone and sent me into my own neurotic panic. And part of coming out of it is accepting that, like Cholula, I don’t have to—and maybe I can’t—make the whole transformation at once. I can pause at this new plateau, and practice, and trust that eventually, I’ll be ready take the next step.