When You’re As Scared As Your Dog

The panting, quivering, cowering—no one likes to see their dog feeling scared.

So we turn to tools to make them feel better. We buy Thundershirts and calming treats. We use training to build up their resilience to scary experiences before they’re terrified. And sometimes we just cuddle them and stroke them while telling them everything will be okay in the end.

But what if you’re as scared as your dog? How do you comfort her then?

Honey the golden retriever looks for her ball.

One time I couldn’t find my ball anywhere. Now that was scary!

Honey the Timid Golden Retriever

I first met Honey when she was three weeks old.

Then she was living with her mother in her breeder’s living room. She heard vacuum cleaners and other scary noises. She met children, old people, and men with scary beards and hats.

Once she came home with us, we exposed Honey to a range of experiences to make her a confident pup. As a result, she loves UPS drivers, other dogs, and hanging out in crowds.

But there are other things she’s not so sure about—agility equipment, ramps (especially when they’re lying flat on the ground), and swimming. Lately, she has exhibited her first signs of fear in a thunderstorm (at 4 years old).

We’ve come to learn that despite excellent socialization since birth, Honey is a timid girl. Most of the training I do with her is to build her confidence.

But who’s going to build mine?

Two Scared People on a Boat With a Dog

I don’t know why. But when I turned 45 years old, I thought it might be cool to live on a sailboat some day.

Honey the Golden Retriever tries to nap in the sailboat cockpit.

No, I’m not scared. I just like to cuddle on boats.

Of course I didn’t know the first thing about sailing. Or boating in general. Heck, I had only been on a sailboat once before in my life.

But I thought it would be good to learn something new. To stretch myself in new directions. To take a risk.

Three years later, we’re getting ready to take our first large sailboat out for a week’s cruise, completely solo. And we’re not going where most beginning sailors start out, the beautiful, warm water of the British Virgin Islands.

Nope, we’re headed to Canada. Where the water is freaking cold. There are thunderstorms at night. And we’ll be cruising through the mouth of the busiest shipping lanes of North America.

Oh, and did I mention all the rocks? Those dangerous rocks hiding under the murky water just waiting to jump out and bite a hole in a fiberglass boat?

But those damn nice Canadians are willing to share their boat with a couple of newbie sailors. And to allow them to bring their dog along for the trip. So Canada it is.

Mike at the wheel of the sailboat on Lake Ontario.

Mike reminds me that the scariest thing about sailing on Lake Ontario is the bugs. Note the fly swatter.

Act Brave, Let the Courage Come Later

I have experience with facing my fears.

I’ve gone from being Ally-Sheedy-in-the-Breakfast-Club-shy to an extrovert who makes her living talking to groups of people. I’m terrified of heights but I’ve ridden a zip line and several roller coasters. And I’ve freaked out on a heeling sailboat in heavy winds just to go back out sailing the next day.

The more times we do scary things and find it doesn’t kill us, the braver we get.

It works the same way for dogs.

Honey the golden retriever sits on the porch.

Who’d want to live on a boat when you have this perfectly nice porch?

With work, Honey has learned that it’s not the least bit scary to walk over those grates in the sidewalk. This past weekend, we walked atop a sea wall where she had to watch her footing and leap between gaps in the massive rocks. And practicing her favorite training tricks during the last major thunderstorm, calmed her down enough to sleep the rest of the night.

But this coming week will test all of us.

Honey will have to travel from a dock to a moving boat. And worse, from a moving boat to a moving-er dinghy. She’ll have to adjust to the leaning motion of the boat as it travels against the wind.

And we’ll have to trust our eyes, our charts, and our instruments to keep us from running aground. We’ll land a large boat on docks with the inevitable dock committee critiquing our every move (imagine parallel parking for the first time with a bunch of yahoos watching from the sidelines). And we’ll have to do everything without killing each other during the inevitable squabbles that happen when a husband and wife are working on a project where neither of them knows what they’re doing.

But most importantly, we’ll have to stuff back our fear to provide a calm and safe atmosphere for our dog.

Will we do it?

Stay tuned. And if you live in New York or Ontario, listen to the news for any stories of the Coast Guard pulling old people off a sinking boat with their dog.

Your Turn: Have you ever had to comfort your frightened dog when you were scared yourself? Any advice?

Check out the work we’ve done over the years to get Honey ready for the boat: 

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  1. Sounds like a great adventure is afoot. I have no doubt Honey will do just fine…and so will you! Enjoy your trip.

  2. Can you get settled on a boat? Because I think once everyone gets into some sort of comfort or routine, then everyone will feel calmer. Either way, I bet it will be a blast and I can’t wait for photos!

    I can’t say I’ve ever had to comfort Moses or Alma while I’m also afraid. Sometimes during late night walks, someone will appear from a shadow or alley and startle Moses and he’ll bark at them, but they usually startle me, too, and then I’m thankful for the bark.

  3. Good luck on your new adventure.

  4. I hope you have a great time!

  5. Safe travels! Rita and I would both be too chicken to undertake such an adventure. I’m not much of a boat person!

    (Just so you know… the email notices I’ve gotten re: new posts have had “how to ruin your dog’s recall” as the subject line for the last few…)

  6. This blog is as close as i ever want to come to an adventure on water, but we do hope it is fun for you.

  7. It will definitely be an adventure. Mom likes to water ski behind a boat or take a cruise, but not a sailing fan, so I am safe, whew! You will have a great time and for sure learn a lot! Stay safe!

  8. I am SO EXCITED for you!! This is going to be a wonderful adventure. I can’t wait to hear all about it! You’ve been working so hard with Honey. I bet she’ll be a champ. Do dogs experience sea sickness? Maybe have some Pepcid or something on hand in case of an acid stomach? Thinking of you and your fun times ahead!

  9. I can’t wait to hear all about it. Sounds like an amazing adventure!! Safe travels :)

  10. You go team! As for me, I’ll sit here and read all about it. LOL

  11. Well, I don’t like thunderstorms any more than my dogs do. So we all retreat to the basement (which is finished) when one rolls in. I can stay calmer down there which makes it easier to reassure them.
    I hope you have a wonderful trip!! Can’t wait to hear all about it. I can fully understand how it can be exciting yet scary at the same time. What an adventure!

  12. Fake it until you make it, they say.

    There were several times when I was scared but in order to protect my dog I was able to channel the fear into anger towards the offender. After all, adrenaline is adrenaline, right? That worked in those circumstances.

    Once I was walking Jasmine when I though we might be getting a start of a tornado. I figured that the best policy was to run like hell. So that’s what we did.

    Most of the time I’m scared for their health. That one, I think, is the hardest to fake calm. I can sound and act calm. I don’t know if the dogs are buying it, though.

  13. Good luck, I am sure you will have the most amazing time!!

  14. I think for me, the scariest thing is when something unexpected freaks my dog out and I’m away from everything that I normally use to calm or distract her. Generally for me, if there’s a tense or scary situation, I go into autopilot and try to just keep things at an even keel until we get through it. Afterwards is when the stress hits me. And I guess that works for my dogs.

    I think you guys will do great on the boat and Honey will have a great time!

  15. Sounds like a fun adventure. I’ve never had any desire to spend long periods of time on a boat but I DO think it would be fun to travel to all the places boats can go to.

  16. First thing that comes to my mind, is calming yourselves down together. The more you reinforce for Honey that it will be OK, it will be reinforced for yourself. I don’t think it’s wrong to share your fear together. I guess what comes to mind is if you can hold Honey and talk to her it will help both of you calm down. You are taking on quite an adventure and I’m proud of you. You’ve done so much getting ready for this, I have a feeling you will do just fine.

    I don’t care for boats myself, except maybe a rowboat to go fishing. lol So what your doing is way out of my league. Don’t forget to have some fun Pamela! You only live once, so live it!!

  17. My guys aren’t afraid of much but thunderstorms and fireworks. The first we just ride out, and the latter we avoid.

    Sounds like quite an adventure you have planned. You gave me a good laugh about getting through the spousal squabbles! That would be the biggest challenge for us!

    As a young college student, I dated a guy whose family was big-time into sailing and had a 40 foot boat. We spent a lot of time out on the Chesapeake Bay and weathered many evening storms. Our longest stint was 10 days. There were lots of family squabbles with 5 of us on that boat! LOL! They even let me steer under motor and sail! Wow! We went up to Baltimore one time. Very intimidating cruising past all the oil tankers!

  18. Hope you have a great time, can’t wait to hear all about it

  19. Honey is trying so hard in the video. Love her wagging tail and big smile. Such a good little girl. Well, you’ve got me scared for you, who is going to comfort me? Heck, nothing like jumping in at the deep end for you guys. I hope everything goes to plan, you have the best time and come back with lots of blog fodder and photos :)

  20. Honey is ready! Leo is timid also, I watch for the signs and never force him to do anything with anyone. He trusts me so when he sees that I’m there and I reassure him that he’s okay – he’s showing signs of getting braver in certain situations.

  21. You guys will be great! I have no doubt you’ll handle everything marvelously and come back looking forward to the next time.