BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
There is only one good reason why my terrier would suddenly go from lounging on the carpet to suddenly leaping up and running under the sofa at break neck speed – the human sat on said sofa jumped up and ran fearfully to the living room door.
For the past 20 years, this particular arachnophobe has made sure to train her dogs to perform a very important duty. Terriers it would seem are far more talented in this role as opposed to larger dogs that struggle to successfully squeeze under sofas, armchairs or beds. 3 seconds later my pint sized tri-coloured saviour emerged with the beastie caged between two rows of teeth, and it was enormous. I don’t like to see any living thing on this earth hurt, or unnecessarily killed, but my phobia runs deep. I would actually prefer to throw a pint glass at a spider rather than catch it humanely. I’m very sorry for my weakness.
I have learnt from horrifying experience not to praise a dog too soon once they have caught a spider. My Labrador would become so excited at being a Good Boy! that he would forget to kill the beast and instead bring me his catch. This is all well and good for soft-mouthed gun dogs retrieving a pheasant, but not so good in my situation. On one occasion a concerned neighbour rang the doorbell to enquire after my wellbeing. Somewhat embarrassingly I had to explain I had been running all over the house screaming because my dog had been chasing me with a spider.
4 of the 8 large legs were wrapped around my Lab’s lower jaw, it was a horrifying sight, for me at least. I can only assume once spiders reach a particular size they either bite more painfully than smaller ones, or they taste far more disgusting.
My terrier meanwhile chews smaller spiders, yet rolls on the large ones. I don’t praise her at all while either technique is being employed, but she watches me intently, eager to earn her biscuit. She’ll roll again if I don’t utter the magical words, or give it an extra chew. Only when the thing is still, or in bits, do we both race to the kitchen for biscuits. My little dog will do anything for food.
On one such occasion, the spider was dead, and the thing was safely entombed in Henry the vacuum cleaner, so I went to the bathroom to wash my hands. As I pulled my sleeves up, a long piece of black cotton floated down from my arm and landed in the sink. With groin-rupturing speed I recoiled from the sink while simultaneously emitting a noise that really should have shattered the cabinet mirror.
Am I afraid of cotton?
Well I own two sewing machines and an over-stuffed sewing basket, and I have never found it necessary to train a dog to dispatch errant pieces of thread. So it’s highly unlikely there’s a cotton-phobia developing here. Most people will understand it was the circumstances leading up to the bathroom visit that caused me to scream and violently recoil from the sink. Most people will understand I reacted this way because I had the heebie-jeebies, and my stress levels were through the roof. I was quite literally on my toes and in flight mode.
Yet there have been hundreds of you, yes hundreds of people over the years that have told me some variation of the same story i.e. My horse has hacked past that gate everyday for the last 2 years, yet today he spooks at it? My horse has trotted past that jump block for the last 20 minutes then suddenly decided to shy away from it?
The responses from riders in these situations can be counted on one hand. Some of you will make a big deal of it, and spend the next five minutes making the horse go up to the block, sniff the block and walk past the block. Some of you will just complain to everyone in earshot that your horse is being naughty and must have planned the spook to get out of work, and some of you will not react to it at all, and silently continue whatever you were doing.
However I can guarantee that if your horse has passed that block or gate comfortably many times already, then the horse is no more afraid of that block or gate than I am of my sink or cotton. You can imagine my dismay then if my other arf then decided to march me into the bathroom in order for me to look at the cotton, sniff the cotton, touch the cotton and walk past the cotton! I would learn nothing in this situation, and my fear of spiders would remain.
Therefore try to think of what may have caused the horse to react from stress in the first place. Aim to bring some balance when riding or doing groundwork with the horse. Give the horse its head, release those reigns, stop those nagging heels, both of you should chill out for a minute, and take a breather. Observe what the professional rider does when he is schooling, observe what a professional horseman does at a demonstration, really observe what goes on. Whether the person is trying to teach the horse to load or park at a mounting block, every so often they circle away. They decrease the pressure and bring balance to the training. They would have a whole heap of trouble on their hands if those stress levels were left unchecked.
So when riding in the arena for 20 minutes and the horse becomes spooky, he isn’t trying to get out of work, he is not planning a spook. He is seeing lions, tigers, bears …even spiders because his stress levels are increasing and flight mode is kicking in. When I am calm and my head is in a good place, I see cotton in the sink, not 8 legged freaks.