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.
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.
- Make the leash go slack for on-leash greetings.
- Allow your dog to walk away from something he fears before reaching a threshold.
- Teach your dog that a crate is a safe space.
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.
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?
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.