I think I could get almost unanimous consensus from dog owners that we don’t want our dogs to be afraid.
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.
Think I would find another lab or tech next time
Laurie Luck says
Definitely, Jerry. Definitely. 🙁
Can you bring your service dog in training next time to calm you
Pamela | Something Wagging This Way Comes says
Wonderful post. And so true that it can be hard to read every dog’s fear signals.
I had a foster dog recently whose fear I severely underestimated. It wasn’t until she maniacally barked at a visiting friend that I understood just how traumatized she was.
Luckily we were already working with a trainer who taught me some techniques to give her a safe place to be when she felt threatened.
I felt terrible that I allowed her to be in a position of so much fear because I didn’t read the signs. But it’s one of the reasons I strongly urge everyone to develop a relationship with a good trainer.
After all, we never know what we don’t know. 🙂
BTW, I have a dentist fear similar to yours of giving blood. I once went over 10 years without a check up. (Luckily I have the immune system of an Amazon). I told the hygienist of my fear and she determined to stop every five seconds to make sure I was ok. All I wanted her to do was work as quickly as possible so i could get out of that awful room.
I’m sure all you wanted was a skilled phlebotomist who worked fast enough that you didn’t know what hit you. 🙂
Laurie Luck says
Yes, I thought about bringing Schooner for this, but didn’t. Oh, how I wish I had.
I had Tango with me many years ago when he was still in the service dog program. I was at a routine doctor visit and the doctor found a suspicious freckle. She wanted to take it off right there. I was completely unprepared! She had me lay on the table while she injected three needles into my back (!) and then cut out whatever freckle looked odd. Tango made that experience survivable for me. I laid the table, face down and talked to him and petted him the entire time.
Not sure how I would have gotten through it otherwise.
IF I ever have to get blood taken again, I’ll definitely take the service dog in training.
Laurie Luck says
Pamela: I, too, avoided the dentist for about a decade. I’m with you sister! 🙂 Strangely enough, I can handle needles in my mouth without any problem. I think it’s because I can’t see them and the dentist applies the topical numbing gel beforehand.
Glad to hear you were able to help your foster dog — some dogs displays of fear are obvious, and others — not so much. Don’t beat yourself up too much — you know better now, and you’re doing better. That’s all we can do. And that’s pretty good! 🙂
Pup fan says
Well said – I’m always in favor of taking off the judgy pants. Whatever the fear is, it’s valid and real to the dog (or to the person) and judging them for that does no good!
Hm. Do you think maybe the owner’s fears and reactions might play into the dog’s fears? I’m just thinking about my dogs and how they’re not afraid of anything. I’m typically not either. Wondering how we play off of each other.
Laurie Luck says
So very true. Both my husband and my dad have to problems giving blood for these tests. I hate it. I wish I had their lack of fear and stress about it! 🙂
Laurie Luck says
Dogs can definitely pick up on the fears of their people. Some dogs, though, are fearful even though their people are not. I’ve had a couple of dogs who are/were fearful. Both of them displayed their fear in vastly different ways. One was afraid of people: he lunged, snarled, and would bite if he had the chance. I’m the most social, extraverted person out there. So he didn’t get his fears from me.
Lily, my sweet black Labrador, is scared of dogs when she’s on leash. Again, she didn’t get this one from me, dog-lover of all dog-lovers. I do think my calm demeanor around other dogs helps her, though. Just not enough to allay ALL her fears. 😉
Thanks for stopping by! It was great meeting you at BlogPaws. And let me tell you: the dogs LOVE your company’s stuff! Yummy!
Great blog! I have a dog who has several fears which can seem completely random. For instance, she’s afraid of shadows and dark objects. But you know what? I’m terrified of spiders, while she is completely fearless in the face of the 8 legged freaks. So who am I to judge? 🙂
I love the analogy you chose. We all have fears and everyone deals with them differently. Old school thinking says, face your fears and get over them. That rarely works. It generally make the fear worst. My dog is afraid of brooms but not the vacuum cleaner. When I take out the broom she retreats to her crate which is her safe place. I have no idea why she is afraid of the broom but I respect her fear. Otherwise not much else bothers her. Thank you for putting this issue in a very concise manner.
quite sure you know your’s is physiologically different than normal anxiety or phobia’s. wish you the best. i have a fearful rescue who is doing well with comfort and training. thanks.
on to you, drink a lot of water the day before and float into the blood drawing center. 2. Ask for a pediatric Nurse or at least a pediatric needle. My Mom is a cancer survivor and a very difficult blood draw. The center knows this and makes sure the pediatric is on when she has to come in. They also apply hot compresses before they try and get blood.
The article is right on too. thanks
What if you can’t control the triggers? When I take my lab puppy on training walks she does great unless she hears a dog barking in the distance. Then she bolts- ears back, pulling out of her harness or collar, and howling- toward home or the car and is inconsolable, regardless of treat, until she gets ‘home’. Its unrealistic for me to find somewhere to walk her that is 1+ miles away from any other dog.
She’s making so much progress with your training techniques, I just worry that she’ll be doing the same bolting when she gets to be over 60 lbs. Thanks in advance.
Laurie Luck says
Great question, SteinwayLC. When your dog has fears so significant that she pulls out of her collar and bolts back to the car, it might be time to find a qualified veterinary behaviorist to get some help for your dog. With fears that significant, training alone isn’t usually enough to completely solve the problem. Check out the list of veterinary behaviorists here: http://www.dacvb.org/about/member-directory/. Most of these veterinarians will do a phone consult with your veterinarian if you’re too far away from them to see the veterinary behaviorist in person.