Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What Are You Afraid Of?

What Are You Afraid Of?

By Abigail Curtis DVM

What are you afraid of?

Heart racing, sweaty palms, complete lack of ability to think or process information, the overwhelming desire to sprint in the opposite direction. This was me every time someone tried to have me vault OVER a railing without my feet touching it. They tried everything. Hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions practicing a similar vault where my foot would touch. Then the helpful “now just do it without your foot” which caused me to be unable to do even the simplest of tasks. Weeks and months passed by without success. To the point the thought of jumping a railing led to fear, anger, frustration, disappointment and crying. I desperately WANTED to jump the railing. But I was terrified.

Now, you may ask, why on earth was someone trying to get my to vault over a railing put there for the sole purpose of ensuring my safety?  Good question! On February 15, 2011, Karin Coyne and I started this new crazy sport called parkour.  Parkour is a physical discipline whereby practitioners utilize physical training to master their own movements by climbing, running, jumping and balancing over the obstacles in their environments.

For a brief video introduction to parkour, see here:



Karin and I had been using TAGteach for several years at our dog camp, but had never used it for for anything “sport” related.  When we started running into trouble with parkour skills, we decided to experiment on utilizing TAGteach to help. We used it for little things we were struggling to master such as roll form and handstands.  The more time we spent tagging, the better we got at it. Our timing (which was spot-on when clicking dogs) improved and the tag points became more natural.

I distinctly recall the day that I told Karin we were going to use TAGteach to “fix” my vault problem.  It was going to be TAGteach’s first real “test” in parkour. Neither of us knew if it was going to work, or if we had the skills necessary, but I was at my wits end with this issue and wanted it solved yesterday. And it did indeed work. Less than an hour later, I successfully jumped over a railing!

We had unlocked a new-to-us use for TAGteach!  I won’t be so bold to say that that first time using TAGteach in this way was smooth sailing.  There are quite a few things that, having used it many more times since this fateful day, I would go back and change. But one thing's for sure: TAGteach works amazingly well at conquering fear.

So, what have we learned?

1) Start with a point of comfort
Start where your learner is comfortable. Note: this may be different than the point of success. Your measurement of success is not actually can he/she perform xyz skill, it is can they do so comfortably? Try to be non-judgemental about where this point is. It is up to your learner to set it, regardless of where you think she should be at this stage. Err on the side of “too easy.” Your learner probably has a long history of this skill being impossible. A few easy tags won’t slow the process down nearly as much as overstepping here.

2) Watch (and read) your learner
Remember, your learner is your guide. When training dogs, we are quick to look for those signs of stress. Learn to see signs that you have asked too much of your learner: that deep breath, face scratch, hesitant nod, slumped shoulder, etc. When you see these, the best way forward is to go backward.

3) Break the skill down
While this relates to the actual teaching of the skill, often the most important thing to break down is the fear itself. It might be the height, the speed, the number of people watching, or any number of other variables. Figure out what that is, then figure out how to break it into pieces. This process might require a fair bit of creativity.

4) Build up a reinforcement history
You need your learner to trust you implicitly. This trust is established when you have reinforced your leaner over and over many times thus creating a deep reinforcement history.This is what is going to get you through those moments when you mess up and push too far. Be ready and able to admit that you messed up and need to figure out some other way. This will remove that stressor from your learner and enable her to concentrate on conquering her fear. And rarely, you can use that reinforcement history to help push your learner through the fear. Use this power with caution! It is more likely to backfire than be helpful!

5) Use a cousin tag point
A cousin tag point is one that causes what you want to happen, and gives the learner something to focus on instead of the barrier. In my case, my tag point was “feet past hands.” We had practiced this on a wall repeatedly so when we got to the railing, Karin was able to give me the “feet past hands” tag point. I knew exactly what this felt like and knew I could do it. What she wanted me to do was to jump over the railing, and she very easily could have given a tag point of “feet over bar” but in that scenario, I would be focusing on the scary element instead of just “feet past hands.”

Using TAGteach, I was able to vault over rails and begin to apply it in a variety of other fearful situations. It took quite a bit of trial and error to become useful, but hopefully you can use these tips to succeed with your students and their fears!

Originally posted on TAGteach blog.