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We don’t get to choose what a learner thinks is scary
My dog Maya is friendly, generally. She wants to meet other dogs, but she doesn’t always want to play and isn’t a good match for big groups. She will correct other dogs when she finds their behavior annoying and isn’t always quick to forgive, which is why she does best in a small group, where someone can monitor and help her. I would label her as dog-tolerant most days, and occasionally dog-selective when she’s tired or stressed. (To read up more about dog sociability, check out Allie’s blog about it.)
I was once walking her around my apartment complex. I had her on-leash, because THOSE ARE THE RULES, when she noticed a bunch of other dogs running around off-leash. I knew they would be there, so I had her on a long line, to prevent her from feeling trapped if a dog came up to see her. Several of the dogs came over to greet her, all play-bows and curved bodies. Maya reciprocated, whining with excitement. Then a mini-Aussie went to sniff her bum, and Maya flipped around excitedly to sniff the dog back. The mini-Aussie (let’s call her “Sadie”), was startled and began to trot away from Maya. Her head was down, nubby tail tucked, ears back, and the whites of her eyes showing. On top of that, she was actively avoiding Maya. I called Maya back, which she was too excited to respond to, so I used the leash to prevent her from continuing to chase the frightened dog.
“Oh, let her,” her mom said, referring to Maya’s rude greeting, “My dog needs to get used to it.”
“Maya can be a bit of a bully to shyer dogs, though, and I don’t want to encourage her.” I said, feeling sad for the little Aussie. “Plus, if I let Maya keep bothering Sadie, she can become more fearful, and feel like she needs to correct Maya, who may not take it well since she is on leash.”
“But I want her to play with other dogs,” she said.
What Sadie’s mom wanted was valid– It’s fun to have a friendly dog who likes being around other dogs and who you can take everywhere, but most dogs just aren’t that way.
By telling people her dog needed to just “get over it,” she was likely exposing her dog to lots and lots of situations in which she didn’t feel comfortable, and learning that people and other dogs don’t back off when she shows them how she feels.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone say something like that about their fearful or shy dog, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it sticks with me because it was SO obvious that her dog was afraid, and the answer was that she would just “get over it,” which is so, so, hurtful, and can often lead to other issues.
So, what’s your point?
My focus today is on fear in animals in general. Even if something is normal to us, even if something is COMPLETELY harmless, we cannot ignore it if our pet finds it absolutely horrifying. Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. Unless we essentially validate their fear, back off, and help them slowly get used to the “scary thing,” our animal is most likely going to continue to fear that thing. When fear isn’t properly addressed, it can lead to learned helplessness, reactivity, and even aggression.
Time after time, I see videos of animals on the internet, where people show off what their pet is seemingly illogically terrified of, by laughing as they panic about it over and over again. I’ll admit that I have sometimes laughed at these videos. It is humorous, from a human perspective, to see a cat lose its mind and panic after it turns around to see a cucumber placed behind it. But what I do not find amusing is that everyone else wants to do the same thing to their cats. Scaring animals isn’t funny. Cats and small dogs are seen as unpredictable jerks because of people forcing them into uncomfortable situations, ignoring their stress signals, and attempting to FORCE them to see that what they find terrifying is anything but.
Scarier to me is when well-meaning trainers dismiss an animal’s fear. A puppy is cowering, snapping, and biting at other puppies in a playgroup. “It’s okay, he’ll get over it.” A dog is sent to daycare to overcome its fear of other dogs and absolutely REFUSES to go in the kennel, so it is forced in. (This case is especially maddening for me because that dog is less likely to make progress on its fear of other dogs if she is stressed to be in the crate in the first place. See Trigger-stacking.) Or what about the dog who is forced to walk around Petco when it is obviously absolutely TERRIFIED of the tile floor? It’s true that all of these situations are actually safe. But the safety of the animal, as opposed to its perceived security, are different. An animal who is safe (ie, won’t be injured or endangered) but doesn’t feel secure (freedom from care, anxiety, or doubt) can develop behavior issues. See this post about Safety vs. security.
The point is, you do not get to choose what your pet thinks is scary.
Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. It seems like because we KNOW the thing isn’t really scary, that the animal is just being silly or stubborn.
It is our responsibility to take care of our pets. And making an animal do something repeatedly that it is uncomfortable with is likely to make things worse, rather than better. Remember that forcing an animal to interact with a scary thing is likely going to force them into fight/flight/freeze mode, so if you’re restraining your pet, and running away is not an option, you have essentially given your pet two options, FIGHT or FREEZE. No one wants to get attacked by their own pet(fight,) and forcing your animal into the freeze response can also lead to learned helplessness. So, is it really fine? Spoiler: no, it isn’t.
So What Should I do about it?
As I said, it’s natural to laugh when your cat is terrified of a sock he didn’t see there the last time he ran by you. So go ahead and laugh it off, but PLEASE don’t try to duplicate the experience to get a video of it or to entertain houseguests. Instead, let him run away, and later, try to help him see that new things aren’t scary.
This is a time-lapse video I made of a counter-conditioning session I did with my dog and cat and our hand-held vacuum. Do you see how my cat slowly becomes more comfortable around the vacuum? Do you see how my dog starts to stay by it, only going away when I toss away a treat? Do you also see the moment Sylphrena (the cat) decides that it’s too much and wanders off?
The vacuum is not going to physically hurt my pets, but they do not feel secure around it. It makes strange noises and sucks up hair and smells, which make them feel comfortable. So even though the vacuum is harmless, I can still work to help them feel secure.
So I set up learning experiences and help them feel better by pairing the scary thing with things they like (freeze-dried liver treats). But you can’t be doing this all the time. You need to give your learner a break, or you might witness the results of your trigger-stacking. (The more your animal is exposed to stressors in a short period of time, the more likely he is to over-react to any other stressors in his life).
You may also want to think about your own expectations. Sure, it’s great to have a confident dog or cat who isn’t afraid of random things or doesn’t try to bite when we force them into a kennel but remember to work smarter, not harder. So give your pet regular opportunities to interact with novel things in a pleasant, non-threatening way. Proper use of counter-conditioning and desensitization may take a long while, but it’s less likely to result in negative fallout.
Animals can be afraid of weird things, but often if we just take some time to help them, animals can learn to tolerate, and sometimes even enjoy things they were once fearful of, just like us. So be compassionate of your cat’s fear of the vacuum and your dog’s fear of the crate. It’s easier to have patience with their learning process if we do.
- Not sure how to tell if your pet is afraid? Learn more about body language.
- Don’t force your pet into situations that limit his ability to choose fight, flight, or freeze.
- Talk to your veterinarian about the anxious behavior of your pet, especially if it started suddenly.
- Work with a qualified trainer or behavior consultant to help your pet work through his fears. We’d love to help! Click here to see what we have available for pet parents.
- Check out our courses for pet professionals here.