"Sometimes I think the primary difference between how my dog and I experience fear is that he tends to be afraid when there is legitimate danger, while I have the capacity -- and the inclination -- to scare myself with my highly evolved mind in the absence of any real threat." - Thom Rutledge, Embracing Fear
While I love the insight behind this statement, I think dogs are not quite immune from our particular brand of fear. More and more often humans are guilty of inadvertently creating and/or reinforcing inappropriate fears in dogs. In other words, we can teach our dogs to be afraid in the absence of real threat. Whoops! I think this is partly because of the growing social empathy towards dogs -- the move, as a society, to treat pets as family members rather than tools or property. From that perspective, the embracement of pets as people is fantastic and heart-warming and well, frankly, long overdue. But there are some side-effects, like an increased risk for "doggie phobias" in otherwise well-kept pets.
My last blog post talked about techniques for reducing stress surrounding the grooming experience. This is a more general top-down view on what causes dogs stress and how we can take steps to ensure that our dogs are not experiencing unnecessary or excessive anxiety and stress. The only pets with no stress are the ones who are beyond all harm, so it's important to recognize that anxiety, fear, and stress are natural, useful emotions that all living, breathing, problem-solving beings face. However, prolonged stress without reasonable cause takes a huge toll on the quality and length of life for both pets and people. Stress is not a bad thing. It serves a very important purpose -- it helps us act and react in ways that help to keep us safe and healthy. But like anything else, it should be experienced in moderation!
So let's talk about how stress develops. Although dogs do not have the level of self-awareness or memory capacity that people do, they experience the world similarly in a lot of ways. Mentally, intellectually, they are a lot like young children. They observe, they react, they record outcomes of behavior, and their brains automatically adjust based on their past experiences. Hunger is a kind of stress -- it's the body calling out that it requires more fuel. If dogs are fed at the same time every day, their brains and bodies become attuned. They get hungry at that time of day. People also learn to recognize "feeding times" and our family schedules develop to first create and then take advantage of this kind of body/mind conditioning. Our brains are constantly trying to anticipate what's coming and how to react. The brains of dogs do the same.
Like hunger, fear and anxiety are stress reactions wherein the body releases hormones and prepares itself for action. The brain believes that something significant is going to happen and triggers the body to prepare. Pupils dilate, the heart speeds up, and a host of other processes kick in. The big difference between when that starts and stops in pets and in people is that we have self-awareness and the ability to rationalize. We can think to ourselves, "There's no reason to be afraid," take some deep breaths, calm ourselves, slow our heart rate, and basically call off the alert. (Some of us are better at this than others!) But unlike dogs, we can choose to desensitize ourselves, develop a plan to do that, and then carry out that plan. We can make a conscious decision to expose ourselves to the source of our fear over and over until our body doesn't react anymore.
But dogs don't put value judgements on their emotions the way we do. They don't have any sense of whether or not a fear is irrational or not. They simply react, evaluate the outcome, and adjust. In other words, they learn from experience, automatically and unselfconsciously. When dogs hear thunder, they might be naturally afraid because it is loud and threatening. But when nothing happens to them, eventually thunder stops affecting them. They will certainly take shelter from the rain, but the noise is no more threatening than grass or rocks.
But thunderstorms are a great example of when human interaction with pets commonly creates or exacerbates fears. Rather than allowing the desensitization process to happen naturally and contribute zero energy of our own to the experience, we tend to want to jump in and fix it. But when we bring our concern and our stress about our pet's anxiety into the mix, we often inadvertently reinforce the fear. Or worse, if we've had a dog in the past with thunder phobias, we might go on high alert during a storm and help create anxiety in a new dog! The thunder is scary because it does affect the environment -- it makes the people stressed out. Thus fear is reinforced and thunder will continue to trigger anxiety in the dog. Often times, the human stress and dog stress will continue to escalate and the fear will become extraordinarily powerful. In the wild, wolves and bears and chipmunks do not leap through windows in a frenzied panic attack during thunderstorms. But if we domesticated them and tied their survival sense to our state of mind, they very well might!
There are plenty of specific techniques out there -- recipes if you will -- that give step by step ways to relate to dogs in a way that will prevent escalation of phobias, so I won't get into that here. But don't try to reinvent the wheel -- learn from the mistakes and successes of others. A search for "dog phobia" or "operant conditioning" will give you lots of places to start. And then customize your approach to suit you and your pet's unique needs. Keep your observations neutral, cultivate your curiosity, and don't get lost in frustration! The key is to remember not to feed the drama. Take the drama away. Neutralize the situation. Then set out to teach your dog, one situation at a time, when it is and is not appropriate to be afraid. Your dog wants to look to you for leadership, wants to know and depend on your assessments, so the path to a more peaceful pooch is open and unblocked before you. It's a never-ending process, not a destination, but it's a highly rewarding journey!
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