Having an animal with fear or anxiety evokes a lot of emotions. We feel embarrassed by their behavior. We feel exhausted by having to manage their interactions. But I’d say above all most people tell me that they feel helpless; they want to help their pet and don’t know how. Or oftentimes they feel helpless because they don’t understand why their pet is anxious in the first place. A statement I hear fairly regularly is, “I don’t know why he’s so afraid. I’ve never hurt him.” Oof. There’s a lot of pain within that statement and it hits me in the feels every time I hear it.
There are a lot of factors that go into an individual’s behavior– including home environment– and that’s something that we’ll get into in a future post. Trust me when I say that there are a lot of anxiety-related topics on my calendar. For now, I want to address the above statement:
“I don’t know why he’s so afraid. I’ve never hurt him.”
Specifically, I want to talk about the concept of safety vs. security illustrated by this statement and how that should relate to how we work with our animals. Let’s start by defining these terms:
Safety: freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss (dictionary.com)
Security: freedom from care, anxiety, or doubt (also dictionary.com)
Both safety and security are necessary to an animal’s overall well-being. But they seem really similar, right? Absolutely. However, there’s a big distinction between the two. Safety refers to the physical well-being of an animal (humans included) whereas security refers to the mental or emotional well-being of an animal. While they’re similar they’re definitely not the same.
An animal can be physically safe but not feel secure and visa versa. For example, a cat walking on the balcony railing on the 30th floor is secure but not safe whereas a dog who is afraid of thunderstorms is safe but not secure. For this reason we can have an animal experiencing fear or anxiety who’s never been abused or hurt in his current home (or at all, ever). Being safe doesn’t automatically mean feeling safe.
So what does this mean in terms of working with our animals? It means that we need to consider both their physical and mental well-being and look at the situation from both our point of view as well as theirs. We have a fairly decent idea about physical safety but only our pet can tell us if they’re feeling secure. They do this through their body language. Let’s take the example of walking a fearful dog in a downtown area to demonstrate how to start doing this:
Scenario: A fearful/anxious dog walking in a downtown area.
- Is the pavement too hot for paw pads?
- Is there broken glass on the pavement?
- Is the dog straining against her collar and constricting air and blood flow?
- Is the dog’s harness restricting natural shoulder movement?
- Is the dog’s head collar causing quick, potentially painful neck movements (either from the dog pulling or from you pulling)?
- Is the dog a safe distance from cars and am I paying enough attention to where she is in relation to the street?
- If the leash broke, could I call my dog back to me before she went into traffic?
- Is the dog displaying subtle or obvious signs of fear when:
- She sees an adult across the street?
- We pass an adult on the sidewalk?
- She sees a dog across the street?
- We pass a dog on the sidewalk
- Cars pass by?
- Cars honk?
- Flags flap in the wind?
- Walking under construction scaffolding?
- If yes to any of the above, what body language signals are you seeing?
- If I put myself in the dog’s shoes, would I be overwhelmed by this situation if I were her?
Clearly there are a lot of safety and security considerations when we think through a situation! Generally speaking, it’s harder for people to come up with security considerations as it requires being able to read your animal’s body language. This is a skill just like any other and also something we’ll talk about more in-depth in a later post. In the meantime, head to iaabc.org for body language resources on different species.
Providing both safety and security is necessary for parenting a physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy pet. They don’t always go hand-in-hand but we can definitely start to consider both in our pet’s day-to-day life. If this topic interests you, we have a BIG announcement coming soon that includes a more in-depth analysis of both of these components of well-being. Stay tuned and sign up for our email list to be the first in the know!
- Take a look around your house and analyze both safety and security from your pet’s point of view. Get down to their level and crawl around if necessary!
- Check out the body language resources for several pet species at iaabc.org. Reading body language is key to gaining insight on your pet’s emotional state and how secure they’re feeling!
- When your pet is being “stubborn”, stop and analyze. Lack of security often looks like stubborn (looking at you cats who won’t go in the carrier or dogs who put on the brakes when they reach the vet clinic).
- Check out the ASPCA Poison Control site for poisonous plants, products, and foods for both dogs and cats. We should all know what potential toxins our pets come into contact with.