Feeling is Believing

During our daily woods walk I spied a piece of birch bark rolled up and lying on the snow. Nibbles also saw it and tentatively stretched his nose toward it for a sniff. I felt myself experience a small hit of adrenalin that often accompanies events that scare or startle me. Other than it being the same size and dimensions of a belly-up grey squirrel, and the brownish-orange colorations on the bark being sort of the same color as blood, it was most definitely a piece of birch bark. Nibbles hesitation to approach it registered in my mind and contributed to my response.

I am not afraid of squirrels, dead or alive, but the “yuck a dead thing” reaction happens regardless of how squeamish something might make me. It wasn’t that I thought it was a dead squirrel, I felt it was a dead squirrel, and there’s a difference. Had it been a dead squirrel I might have had cause for concern. Any animal that might have killed it should have eaten it or moved it off the trail. I would have to decide whether or not to let the dogs think it was Christmas. Did it die from a disease? But I didn’t have to entertain any of those questions because it was clearly a piece of birch bark.

Our brains, and our dogs’ brains, are set up so that information processed by the limbic system, the part of the brain that contains the amygdala, travels faster to the parts of our brain that think and ponder information, than happens in reverse. Had it been a dead squirrel, or something potentially dangerous to me, I was primed to react, even if that only means I would have jumped back and screamed.


How scary or upsetting something might be to us will impact the degree to which we have an emotional response. That emotional response will cause a physical response. Bodies respond to fear in different ways, they freeze, they flee or they fight. With training we get better at responding more thoughtfully when we are afraid, but it’s not easy and takes practice. Even professional actors can experience debilitating stage fright.

When a dog is repeatedly scared by the same thing, and is not given the opportunity, usually through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, to learn to think about it differently, they are likely to continue to feel the same way about it. It’s the feeling that is going to drive the behavior that you see. When we talk about thresholds to triggers we are referring to the level of concern that allows, or doesn’t, a dog to think about what it is they are dealing with. It is up to us to determine the conditions under which our dogs are more likely to learn new responses. Wanting your dog’s response to change is not enough.


9 comments so far

  1. sara on

    Oh yes, if only my brain could think before I react to seeing a mouse, because I make a spectacle of myself every time!

    This is great insight into what my scaredy dog goes through when he sees something scary ~ he reacts before he thinks. Luckily, with the help of zoloft, he gets his brain back pretty quick these days.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good of you to go to meds to help the process.

  2. Sam Tatters on

    Just like last night when I saw my other half look towards the floor as thought there was an eight-legged beastie running around. I took a lot of convincing that he was mistaken, including the promise that we’ll probably never get spiders in our new house…fear really is a nasty thing.

    • fearfuldogs on

      And interesting the things we end up being terrified of. My husband is creeped out by bats, whereas I find them endearing, even before Twilight made vampires into sex objects.

      • Sam Tatters on

        I have no strong feelings about bats, but I do think the photo that often is shared around Facebook of a pre-birth baby bat in the womb (I assume, or egg maybe?) is particularly cute.

  3. ellemtee on

    Very good insight, indeed. I udder from an anxiety disorder and PTSD and often experience what’s called ESR, or “Exaggerated Startle Response” when faced with my fear triggers. Your info is right on.

    My pooch was a stray. We saved him from a shelter. He can be the cutest little fella, but when he is around my husband (we think he might have been abused by a man), his first reaction is to growl. It’s sad, because my husband loves him, but can’t get close to him. With the help of your book, he is ever-so-slowly starting to come around a bit.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge, expertise and compassion for animals and their well being with us.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad that you have found the book to helpful. It’s a slow process for sure. It requires a lot of patience from the person who the dog is afraid of, and it never feels good to be the person the dog doesn’t feel comfortable with.

  4. Sandy on

    I do love appreciate your posts! Understanding more about the limbic System relationship with the behaviors we see are so helpful for us all. It’s one of the reasons I also love TTOUCH since it has such a calming effect on the nervous system and helps us to come back into our thinking brains. Your examples are so clear. Thanks for all the insights

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comments. Massage and Ttouch can be very helpful. Once a dog can be handled comfortably they are certainly things folks should try.

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