Thoughts On Fear
Emme is hands down the best dog. She listens, she’s sweet, she’s polite, she ignores people who don’t initiate a greeting. I literally couldn’t ask for a better dog. I know how amazing she is. I know how solid her training is. I know all of that. But they didn’t. Not a single one of them knew.
Last week, Emme and I went for a hike that is frequently traveled. I had her leash on her since that is the responsible thing to do on a heavily trafficked trail. We were on our way out when I notice a couple coming down the trail. Well, I heard them before I noticed them really. I heard them shout, “Move your dog! Stop! Move your dog!”
At first, I was a little taken off guard and honestly offended. Why are they asking my amazing dog to move and being so loud and rude about it? Immediately, I take my focus off the trail and look at them. I saw fear. I saw people trying to hide behind each other. I saw panic. Quickly, I acknowledge their request and move Emme off to the side, got her focused on me, and allowed them to pass. I shook off my initial reaction and acknowledged that this couple did not know my dog. But clearly had a very strong emotional response about seeing my dog. Whether that came from a lack of socialization around dogs, a bad experience, a story told to them, or anything else that creates fear, I don’t know. But what I did know was that I could not insist on my rights at that moment. “My dog is friendly”, “Don’t worry”, “Share the trail”, “Get over it”, all things I could have said, right? I hope nobody reading this agrees that those would be appropriate responses.
They pass, and I see more members from their group up ahead. I stop unsure if they share this same fear, and then I see two young children run back up the trail. The one who stayed recommends that they move off the trail. I gladly suggest that Emme moves off the trail and stays still while she focuses on me and allows them to pass. They thanked me profusely as they passed. This clearly was a more comfortable option for them too.
We continue on and then I see another couple from their group coming our way. The person in front freezes, unable to speak or move, completely frozen in fear. I announce that we will move, but they continued to stand frozen. I ask if they are afraid of my dog? I see their head shake “yes”. I tell them again as we stand off the trail, “We will wait. I have her leash held short. She won’t move. She is friendly, and you are safe. We won’t move.” They hurriedly move past, and I hear a very relieved “thank you”.
I felt so proud of Emme, and so happy that we were hopefully able to provide them a positive experience with a dog. I began thinking about everything that just happened and how I felt about all of it. And then, I looked over my shoulder to my right. Up on the bank, lay a timber rattlesnake. It took me about .000005 seconds to see it and identify it
and react. I shortened Emme’s leash, and we ran as I yelled “rattlesnake!” Now, this snake has probably never bitten anyone, probably never sent anyone to the hospital, it didn’t rattle at me, it didn’t even move. And I didn’t care. I knew the best way to keep me and my dog safe was to stay away from it. Now, here we were reacting to fear and managing it the best way we knew how. My husband allowed me to stay at my preferred distance while he went back to take pictures because he has no fear of snakes as he is very well versed (socialized) in the world of snakes. He did not care for my reaction, though, as he felt it was over the top. He showed me just how calm this snake was and how it had no interest in us. I was able to regulate my fear by increasing my distance to a point where I felt safe while my husband provided a positive experience. But the worst thing that could have happened to me at that moment would have been for me to be nearby and told to “stay still” while allowing the snake to move. Nope! Big nope! It needs to stay over there while I have the option to run... anyone else have dots connecting yet?
This is exactly how the family felt passing my dog. Emme needed to hold still at a safe distance allowing them to move freely. And it is exactly the same thing for our dogs! My husband felt that my fear was irrational. I felt that their fear was irrational. But no matter how irrational we feel the fear is, it is still fear. Increase the distance to where they feel safe again, and if it is the right option, you may let them have a positive experience. But please be aware, had anyone else other than my husband (that I completely trust), asked me to wait up while they admired the snake, I would have continued walking back to the safety of my car. So, your dog must also feel safe with YOU in order for you to provide them with a positive experience. Retraining the brain to not fear a trigger is a systematic process that takes time and a whole lot of patience. Empathy is needed. And a lot of space.
Also, I want to add, there is nothing Emme could have done to ease that group’s fear. It was simply the absence of interaction that helped them. Each group that passed, though, had at least one person less afraid who reassured the others that it was ok. They trusted them. They didn’t trust me, the stranger. They didn’t trust my dog. They trusted the people that they had a relationship with to reassure them that it really was ok. They served as a buffer. For me, it was my husband that served as my buffer. Do you know what would have sped up the process of reconditioning everyone’s fear? If those buffers immediately handed us a million dollars and then repeated it every time the fearful stimulus presented itself. For dogs, a trusted human can be a buffer, and we can help speed up the process by pairing it with a high-value item after. Boiled chicken anyone? Thankfully, dogs don’t want to be millionaires. They just want to feel safe like everyone and everything else.