Take Control to Feel Less Scared – Good for the Dog; Good for You

Does taking control of a situation make you feel less scared?

I don’t know about scientists. But sailors know it’s true. And so do dog trainers.

How Does a Dog Control a Kayak

Honey enjoys kayaking. But when the motion of the boat startles Honey, she responds. She stands up.

Honey the Golden Retriever rides in a kayak on Cayuga Lake.

Uh oh, the Captain has abandoned the ship. I’d better stand up.

It happens when we face into a wake or wave or when we bump over a log or rock in the shallows.

I’m not sure what she’s hoping to accomplish by standing. I think a few things go through her mind:

  • she can see better 
  • she’s less passive and takes more responsibility for her balance
  • if she had to, she could jump out of the boat.

The greater “control” she feels when standing is an illusion. But it’s an instinctive way of dealing with her mild fear.

I don’t think it’s an accident that effective training techniques give a dog a greater sense of control.

If trainers work to give dogs choices when they’re afraid, should we be doing the same thing for frightened people?

Fear on a Sail Boat

Very few people sail on our lake in October. What’s the meteorological term for typical conditions? Oh yeah, yucky.

The first season Mike and I learned to sail, we went out at the end of October. The sky got very dark, it started to rain, and the wind started gusting to around 25-30 miles per hour (40-48 kph).

The boat heeled to 40 degrees in the gusts. When that happens, things start flying around in the cabin and everyone aboard has to hold on tight.

A sailboat has a severe heel.

Yep, that’s definitely more heel than I’d feel comfortable with. (Not Pam & Mike; click image to learn more about the photographer.)

Mike’s a cool cucumber and he got us home without much help from me.

But there were two times I felt more comfortable. First, when I was braced in the companionway that led below. And second, when I was standing on the roof of the cabin clinging to the mast while I tried to figure out how to bring some sail down on a boat I knew little about.

Both positions gave me a feeling of more control. And standing on top of the boat gave me something to do—try to reef the sail and hang on for dear life.

But when I was clinging to the mast, that was the one time Mike looked scared. He wasn’t in control. And he had no way of knowing I was going nowhere because I was going to stay on that boat no matter what.

Ultimately, neither of us were in control.

But the illusion of control makes us feel less scared.

Gain Control to Feel Less Scared

One thing that frightens me more than falling into 40 degree water from a sailboat during a storm is dealing with computer code.

What if I screw up? And lose years of work?

Honey the Golden Retriever smiles in her Doggy Ride bike trailer.

I bet I’d feel more comfortable if you just taught me to drive.

I’m reluctant to ask for help from someone who knows more than I do. Why? Because if I learn how to solve a problem for myself, I’ll feel more in control. And less frightened when the next problem comes up.

I can’t control what happens on my computer. Not really. No more than Honey can make the kayak ride less bumpy by standing up.

But if I can convince myself I have a little more control, maybe it will give me more confidence to face the next problem.

And having enough courage to tackle new things is good for the dog. And good for people.

Your Turn: Does feeling a sense of control make you less fearful? How about your dog?
photo credit: BotheredByBees via photopin cc

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  1. I suppose Honey can balance better standing up. Code and me don’t get on as I don’t know a thing about using them and I am too chicken so I avoid it as much as possible. Have a marvellous Monday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. Sue at The Golden Life says:

    “All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage.” (From “We Bought A Zoo”.) I definitely agree — having at least the illusion of being in control of a situation does make me feel unafraid. But, I guarantee you those 20 seconds of insane courage will always make you happy with yourself and the result.

  3. Feeling in control does relax people and pets. Mom is always afraid of messing up something on the computer but she tackles it anyway and when it works and she has learned something she feels so much better. We dogs feel better too when we don’t feel trapped and we think we have control over what is going on.

  4. I think Honey is probably standing up because when she feels afraid, it helps her prepare to flee…”fight or flight.” When I’m anxious in a situation I find I’m looking for a way out first, before thinking about how to resolve the problem. I’m told that control is behind why I’m afraid to fly, however I have absolutely no desire to fly a plane either!

  5. I’m a control freak. Which is why I hate flying. If I could sit next to the pilot or even see what he was up to, I might fly more comfortably. Funny enough the train doesn’t bother me though. No idea why.

    For me if I’m doing something it’s better than sitting there doing nothing and waiting to see what happens. Either way, I’m still afraid but if I busy my mind, it helps take the edge off.

  6. I’m famous (or infamous) in my circle for always insisting on driving so I can control my own destiny. My car is a 5-speed so I have a feeling of controlling the car.

    I have other quirks too.

  7. Where I see it in Gizmo is when we meet up with new dogs…if he’s on leash he is far more defensive…off-leash he has more control is responds in a much friendlier manner…i relate that to my need to always drive and not ride with a friend…I can have issues with social anxiety and something about being able to leave in my own time and not get stuck waiting gives control and i relax

  8. I’m a bit of a control freak. (Don’t ask the hubs if he agrees with that “a bit of” part…)
    I also have a good share of fears (sailing in bad weather would definitely qualify!) and feel better when I have control over things. Having had our recent “ugly incident” at the beach, I’ve been having some anxious moments when we go back there now, but I’ve started taking my phone (used to leave it in the car) and knowing I have my phone and a way to video those jerks if we should be unlucky enough to run into them again makes me feel better.
    I also do all my own computer/book formatting stuff. Could hire someone, but… then I wouldn’t be in control…

  9. BOL! Scott & I, years ago took our beagle Sophie on a 5 mile canoe trip on AuTrain River, in Michigan’s U.P. Sophie was the best behaved being in the canoe that day! She lay down in the center and stayed still the whole time! No shaking or trembling at all. Scott on the other hand had a few “moments” ! I was in the back steering. heeheeheee…

  10. YES! I definitely have control issues. I feel like if I’m in control of a situation, it’s less likely that something will go wrong. Of course, that’s totally an illusion, I know. But I do think Peggy’s right, that Honey is gearing up for fight or flight. I’ve noticed that when something scares one of my guys, they go from a relaxed pose to a tense, ready-to-go stance, which usually entails standing up. I’m sure with enough practice, she’ll feel fully in control!

  11. Nice piece. I laughed at your meteorological term – yucky!

    That sounds horrifying – sailing in October. That would have freaked me out. I also like to feel I have some semblance of control. I don’t stand up in kayaks, but I do try to do all my research ahead of time. Unlike you, I have learned some code (enough to be dangerous) and all I want to do is learn more. Of course, I don’t have a self-hosted blog so any use of said code would be for fun and not for my blog. Now THAT would freak me out! :)

  12. Mom got lots of fears and I help her to relax. In regards to “standing” … I love and enjoy car rides, it is very relaxing to me. I alert mom of “something” I stand up immediately. Honey most likely is just providing you an alert sign. Standing up also provides a better balance for both of you. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

  13. I suppose, yes. I haven never really looked at it on a case-by-case basis but I am definitely more comfortable when I am in control. In the case of computer coding though, I would classify it less as needing control and more about learning something new to better myself…so I can do it on my own next time and understand what is going on. Po-TA-to, Po-TAH-to :)