It Doesn’t Matter If It’s Not Scary To You

A common misconception that dog owners have is that they, or other dogs, can show their fearful dog, that something is safe. While a dog that is merely inexperienced in a situation may take cues from other dogs regarding how it should feel about or behave around something new and scary, a fearful dog will not. I have watched climbers scale rock faces with the ease of a gecko, yet when roped in and fifty feet up myself, have been so frightened the only movement I was able to make was the uncontrollable shaking of my legs, regardless of how easy someone else made it look.

If we are with a person who is afraid of something, we recognize from their facial expressions, body language and what they tell us, the extent of their fear. It would be callous and insensitive to insist that someone afraid of snakes lets you drape your pet python over their shoulder. Forcing them to let you show them how harmless the snake is is not going to eliminate their fear and you’ll likely lose a friend in the process.

Dogs try in subtle and not so subtle ways to express their fear of things, yet this notion that by forcing them to ‘deal with it’ we are doing them a favor, is pervasive and potentially dangerous. Changing emotional responses to situations is difficult if not impossible. If it was easy to do there would be no Hollywood movies about angst filled family gatherings at the holidays. Our parents and relatives would not ‘push our buttons’ simply by making an off-hand comment or suggestion.

Your dog’s fear may seem silly or be frustrating to you, but that does not change the fact that it is very real and powerful for them. Understanding and accepting that your dog is scared, and this fear is not under their control, or yours, is an important step in learning how to help a fearful dog.

11 comments so far

  1. Nancy Freedman-Smith CPDT on

    Excellent post. I love the rock wall analogy. You are a darn great anologist! I do find that sometimes a confident dog (like my collie Finney) brings the good mojo and helps others relax a bit, but your right, it won’t help much with a true deep seated fear, only for the ones who need a just a little bit more to get their brave on.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Nancy. It is true that dogs can learn from other dogs, my own Finn (maybe it’s the name??) has been a great mentor for Sunny. But when it comes to Sunny’s phobias it doesn’t matter how much face licking he may do to John or new people, Sunny is having none of it. With all of the ‘suck it up and deal’ demos being shown on TV people lose sight of the fact that fear is a powerful little gremlin that doesn’t give up easily. Or ever, as the case may be 😦

      Most of us don’t intend to be mean to our fearful dogs, but it sure does look like it sometimes.

  2. Anne Rogers on

    This is one of the most difficult points to get across to people and many times a fearful dog is likely to be more tense with other dogs around, even if they are confident dogs. My dog is noise phobic and has a history of reactivity towrd other dogs which is extreme during thn=under, fireworks etc. even if around dogs he adores. Excellent post – will def be passing this on!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Anne. People understand what scared is when it comes to their own fears or experiences so I keep hoping we can use our big brains and understand how it’s not that different for our dogs. Hopes springs eternal!

  3. Laurie on

    I called upon my feelings about going to the dentist every time what I thought was a “silly” fear cropped up.

    Telling me to stop being a baby and that it doesn’t hurt does nothing for the fear. Just makes me feel stupid, misunderstood and mistrustful of confiding in people.

    An example is when I put on a new leash (14′ long, otherwise exactly the same in every way as her usual one). She belly crawled, peed, you name it and I was left totally bewildered.

    Still no clue why other than it was something new. Instead of pushing it or worrying about “why”, I simply accepted it.

    I immediately took it off but left it laying in plain view for weeks, played ball by it, fed her near it etc. Took some time, but now she’s ecstatic to see a leash no matter what it look like.

    Other dogs have helped Chewy a fair bit at the dog park in being willing to tackle new and scary things, like jumping into the water and getting her ball. (Labs were great role models for that.)

    But as others here have said, for her high level fears, dogs would not have been able to help with those. That took time, consistency, endless patience and lots and lots of practice, a little every day.

    The more I’ve earned her trust, the easier it has become to help her get her “brave on” (I love that description Nancy) and face new things.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Earning the trust of a scared dog is among the great feelings in life don’t you think?

  4. Kelly on

    This post is so true Debbie! I’ve been reading your blog for months now, and this is the first time I’ve posted. I recommend your site to everybody I talk to with fearful dogs, because it’s so valuable. This particular thread hopefully shows people that flooding does NOT work!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Kelly. I’ve found one of the biggest challenges is that there are trainers out there that insist that you are not doing all you can for your dog UNLESS you are flooding them. The idea that there is a ‘cure’ for fear is pervasive and tempting.

      I appreciate you sharing the website with folks.

  5. Lizzie on

    Debbie, I wonder could you tell me what the difference is between flooding and Ds? Is it not just a matter of the time scale, or am I completely misunderstanding the concept here?

    I ask because I was thinking about when I put Gracie under stress temporarily, for example when I take her out and she clearly would rather stay where she feels safe at home, am I ‘flooding’ her by insisting that she go, or am I hopefully helping her to one day be more comfortable with something she fears.

    Does this make any sense?

  6. Shady on

    Great post. I am fearful of a few things and my family is okay with it, but Ihate it when people come to visit and call my fears silly or think they can “fix” it….grrrrrr. I should make them all subscribe to your blog.

    Shady (8 yr old lab) & Melissa (Shady’s person)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, most people just don’t understand. But if THEY were afraid of something bet they wouldn’t call it silly.

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