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You can comfort your dog.
You aren’t going to “reinforce” the fear.
In fact, I encourage you to help your dog when they are afraid.
Sometimes things are scary. It’s a part of life. In fact, a really, really, important part of life. It’s part of what’s kept species surviving until this point. We all feel fear, and the way we all handle and cope with it is a little different.
One of my favorite stories from my partner is a time when he was hiking in the Pacific Northwest. He hadn’t timed his descent very well, so he’s running down the mountain trying to beat the sun setting. He comes around a corner and comes face to face with a giant elk buck.
Now, how do you think you’d respond?
Me? I’d likely shriek. Maybe hit the deck in hysterics.
My partner? He put his fists up. Like he was about to fight. A GIANT ELK BUCK.
Is this rational? ABSOLUTELY NOT. But, when we are afraid, we aren’t in the space to react rationally. We are looking for survival. P.S. he made it out safe and sound without having to punch a buck.
Let’s be honest, had someone else been there, they wouldn’t be comforting Nathan. They would have been too busy reacting with their own survival instinct.
So let’s use a different example. Maybe one of mine. Maybe one that should come with a…
CONTENT WARNING: SPIDERS
I’m afraid of spiders. I’ve been bit by spiders with unfortunate consequences one too many times to want them near me. I don’t trust them. I’ll side-eye them as I slink out of a room. Yes, I know. NOT ALL SPIDERS will bite and are harmful. Rationally, I GET THAT. Does it help? No. Not really. Do you know what else isn’t helpful when you’re scared of something? “Oh, you’re fine!”, “they don’t bite!”, “ buck up!”.
When I lived in Florida, I really had to take some time to address my fear of spiders. They were everywhere. Especially since I worked outdoors. The first piece of advice I got was “check underneath things before you pick them up”. I felt neither safe nor secure.
My basic training plan included: researching the heck out of the native spider species. Which ones were venomous, which ones made cool webs, how could I identify the different species? This helped me to know which ones were the ones to ‘RUN AWAY!!!” from, and also, provided safe, controlled exposure to the sight of spiders.
Then, I learned neat facts about the different species. Could I find some cool tidbits of natural history, evolution, behavior that I could share with people when I saw them? I was trying to replace repulsion with appreciation. I still think fondly of the golden orb weavers and the spiny orb weavers.
And you know what was really helpful? People being supportive. People validating my fears and encouraging my behavior change journey.
Comfort can look like a lot of things.
For dogs, it can look like providing a barricade between the scary monster and your dog. It can look like providing them a way out. It can look like sitting and petting them. It can look like providing a safe space, or a lap to sit on.
Comforting our dogs can help them recognize they are safe, and to feel secure in their environment.
For us, it can look like humoring your friend when they start spouting facts about spider behavior in the middle of a walk. It can look like validating their fears. None of these things reinforced my fear. In fact, all those acts of “comfort” helped me progress and build a real, lasting appreciation for spiders.
Well, at least some spiders. It’s still a work in progress.
- Identify what your pup looks like when they need help. Are they barking and lunging? Running and shaking? Crying and pacing?
- How can you support your pet when they are struggling? Do they need a safe place to sit? Do they need a way to get away from the thing?
- If you worry that your pup’s fear or anxiety is impacting their quality of life, we are here to help you. We can support our pup when they are afraid, and turn the scary monster into the cookie monster. Contact us at [email protected].