FEARS (and trees!)

There are not a lot of things that “scare” me, but falling trees are one of the things that I worry about.  As I write this, I am sitting in a pitch dark room at 2am in the morning listening to the sound of roaring wind gusts outside.  We just had tornado producing storms with a lot of rain this afternoon and therefore the ground is saturated, making it very easy for trees to topple over with one strong gust of wind.

So what does my falling tree fear have to do with dog behavior?  Well, it is important to ask the question what produced my fear of falling trees in the first place.  The answer is simple.  For the last seven years, my husband and I have bought properties with lots of older mature trees on them and on all of these properties we have experienced storms that caused trees to fall and threaten to damage our house and/or other outbuildings or fencing.  In the last instance two years ago, we experienced a microburst that took down seven trees and nearly killed my horse.   So, my point…..my fear is based on past experience.

Very often, a dog’s fear is also based on past experience.  The only difference is that they cannot sit down with mom or dad and “talk it out.”  I recollected today how my five year old son (who was three and a half at the time) dealt with the microburst we had.  For six months after the event, which was very traumatic for him, he talked about the microburst to anyone who would listen!  He was very scared of storms for a good year after that but after talking out his fears, this afternoon he sat in the basement with me and the dogs and played with toys as we rode this storm out.

I read a wonderful book recently called EXTREME FEAR by Jeff Wise and it beautifully illustrates what chemically goes on in the brain when we become fearful.  Another difference between how we humans and dogs deal with fear is that a little knowledge with us can go a long way.  After reading EXTREME FEAR, when I would become afraid I would ponder the chemical reactions that were happening in my brain and because I realized it was all “normal” I actually “felt” LESS fearful!  Dogs do not have time to “ponder” a fear experience when they are in the midst of it.  They immediately slip into the different fear and arousal responses of fight, flight, freeze or fright.  It is very important and helpful to understand that the chemical changes going on in your dog’s brain when they are fearful are not physical changes that the dog has control over and as your dog’s number one advocate it is imperative to keep your dog safe and help them to deal with their fear in a positive way.  In cases of extreme fear or residual fear from a traumatic experience, calling in a professional to help with this process is key.  Addressing fearful behavior in dogs in a punitive way is a recipe for disaster.  Attempting to get inside your dog’s head to identify where the fear is coming from, whether from past experience or recent events, will help you to empathize and give your dog the patience he/she needs to overcome those fears.

Last point…..an opposite to fear…..trust.  As I finish up this blog post a day later, I am struck with the sad reality of devastated homes about four miles from where I live that were in fact struck by a single tornado.  That same tornado could have hit our property, but it didn’t.  Our trees are still intact and I have a little more trust now that we will again weather out whatever next storms come our way.  I think dogs are the same in that way.  Each positive experience brings with it a little more trust.  And more trust leads to less fear.

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Positively Expert: Cathy Bruce, CPDT

Cathy Bruce is a VSPDT and a CPDT and the owner of Canine Country Academy, LLC in Lawrenceville, GA. After a successful career as a Broadway singer/actress, she decided to pursue her love of dogs. As a dog trainer, she strives to educate owners on how to better communicate with their dogs using only positive methods.


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