The problem is that fear looks different to one person than to another. And to further complicate matters, each dog (or person) displays fear in a different way. It's no wonder that scared dogs get labeled as aggressive, stubborn, silly, or even dominant (a word we hate here at Smart Dog U).
People aren't good at reading fear in people, even, and heck, that's our own species!
This morning, I had to give blood. Not for any heroic blood-donation reason -- just because it was time for my routine "am I healthy" check.
I realize that no one loves needles, but I have a serious aversion. I've actually considered therapy to help with my unreasonable fear. Just thinking about the blood letting (as I call it, which, I know, doesn't help with my fear) causes fear and discomfort.
It's going to be bad even if it goes really well. I crossed my fingers, said a little prayer to the blood letting gods, and walked through the door. Unfortunately, as you can tell from the picture, things didn't go well. It went about as bad as it could go. And when there's underlying fear to begin with, it makes everything -- even the smoothest of experiences -- seem monumental.
Today was Nightmare on Laurie Street. I couldn't count the number of times the needle went in and out of my arm before the lady said "I'm sorry, we'll try the other arm."
"The OTHER arm?!" Sweet criminey, just kill me now. I don't think I even have another arm, do I?
Still laughing and chatting like an idiot (because that's what I do when I'm scared), I managed to find that other arm and offered it up to her. If it's possible, the procedures performed on other arm hurt worse than the first arm. I've only panicked two other times in my life (once when I was skydiving and the other when I thought a serial killer was in my house), but I could feel the edges of panic starting to tickle.
Which, I know, is ridiculous. Absolutely ridculous. I wasn't going to die from this. I wasn't even going to be in exruciating pain. It wasn't going to last all day. There wasn't going to be permanent scarring. I was being unreasonable. I get it.
However, that didn't change my physical reaction. My brain processes. My biochemistry.
When it was over, the blood letter actually said to me: "Careful, don't step in the blood on the floor." Oh sweet Sally, today's going down in my book as one of the biggest, baddest nightmares of my life.
What does this have to do with a scared dog?
So often, I hear people say "It's just so silly that he's afraid of people! All our friends are really friendly, they love dogs, and they just want to say 'Hi' to him. Why does he have to be so silly?"
Or sometimes it sounds like this: "He's afraid?! Really? So why does he go after people if he's so scared? Shouldn't he be running away from them?"
Occasionally it goes like this: "But I make sure the vet visit is fun for him. We always go to the dog park afterward so he knows the vet is a good place."
Ah, if it were only that easy.
If it were that easy, I would be donating blood at every chance. I wouldn't give a rip that I had to get stuck 12 times to draw a measly two vials of blood. I'd be checking my cholesterol every week!
It ain't that easy, believe me. I don't want to be afraid. I don't like the panic. I despise the discomfort.
As I was leaving the blood letting, I thought to myself: what WOULD be rewarding enough for me to go back and have that done every year? For me, it would either be money (no less than $50,000), a month in Tuscany (free, of course and with my dogs [traveling in the cabin, of course -- which would probably cost a whole lot more than $50,000]), or the superpower of eating anything I want and not gaining weight.
And that's it.
So for your fearful dog, here's my advice. Think long and hard about what your dog loves. Not just likes, but I mean really goes ga-ga over. If you don't think your dog should have people food, maybe people food is exactly what your dog would find rewarding enough in a bad situation. And not just any people food. I'm talking filet mignon. Or sardines. Or tripe. Don't jugdge your dog on his preferences, just get him what really matters.
Don't judge your dog on his fears. If he's scared of a table, then he's scared of the flippin' table! Don't discuss with him how silly that is. Just accept it. Tables are scary. Period. And go about the business of helping teach your dog that either the table is pretty darn rewarding OR teach him ways to cope with that scary table.
Know your dog's triggers. Maybe it's moving objects (joggers, strollers, motorcycles, etc.). Maybe it's noise (kids playing, thunderstorms, fireworks). It doesn't matter what the triggers are -- just know them.
Now that you know the triggers, avoid 'em! Don't take the "well, he's gotta get used to it sometime, might as well be now" approach. That would be like having someone forcibly take me into the blood letting room and holding me down during the entire blood letting.
Yeah, that will never work. I promise you. For me or for your dog. Abandon that line of thinking right now. It'll save you a lot of frustration and it'll save your dog a whole lot of fear and possible resentment toward you.
Back to me for a minute. I had a couple of really good blood letting experiences in the past. So much that I wasn't dreading today's as much as I normally do. This one bad experience has now set me back even farther than where I originally started. I might forgo this torture for five or ten years.
Never forget this: one setback can make the problem lots worse than where you started. It's up to you to protect your dog from the scary things even when he seems to be improving. You can do some real damage if you let your dog's fears realize themselves.
It's not worth it. Protect your dog.