There’s always someone willing to make you feel bad if your dog is afraid to do something.
But are they right? Maybe your dog doesn’t have to be fearless.
A Happy Dog
Few things will tug at a dog lover’s heart strings like video of a puppy mill rescue cowering in a corner.
Even dogs that had a better start in life may be fearful in new situations or around dogs or people if they weren’t gently exposed to them as puppies.
As you work with a fearful dog, you’ll probably meet folks who tell you to stop coddling your pup. I suspect they’re the same people who think tossing a child into the deep end of a swimming pool is the best way to teach them to swim.
Even if you know they’re jerks, it’s hard not to be affected by their words. And to sometimes wish your dog wasn’t so fearful.
What if we saw fearfulness in dogs as part of a spectrum of personality traits that makes them who they are instead of problems to be corrected?
I’m NOT saying that we shouldn’t work to help seriously fearful dogs feel more comfortable in this world. A dog can’t live a normal, healthy life if she can’t walk across a street without her tail tucked between her legs or erupts in defensive barking every time he meets a stranger.
But after addressing our dog’s worst fears, is it so bad to just manage their lives to keep them comfortable?
The Dog Who Hated To Be Alone
Honey had some fabulous playmates at our last marina. One was a sweet beagle mix who lived on a boat on the same dock.
There wasn’t a thing wrong with G. She loved everybody she met. She had great dog manners and a friendly play style. She listened well to her people and she rarely barked.
It wasn’t until her people tried to attend a party in the boater’s lounge that we discovered G’s only fear. She hated to be left alone.
As we left our boat, we heard G barking and saw her scrambling to get under the netting on the boat so she could jump off and find her people. Afraid she’d find herself in the water being swept away by the current, we found her people at the party.
For the rest of the evening, they took turns staying with G.
Later we heard about the many things G’s family had tried: behavioral modification, comforting scents, Thundershirts. But nothing made her happy except for having someone nearby.
Luckily, they had found an excellent in-home dog sitter for those times they just couldn’t have G with them. But for the most part, where her people went, G went too.
And living on a boat, that was an easy choice to make.
They had plenty of outdoor dining options. When you live on a boat and can enjoy the best scenery life has to offer, where else would you go?
While I know her people hated to know G was afraid when they left, they created a life that worked for all of them. And one that kept G happy.
People Aren’t Fearless
Are you fearless?
I bet not.
I’m certainly not.
I’m afraid of heights, small spaces, and cars. I’m not crazy about flying.
I cope with these fears if I have to. But much of the time, I work around them.
I don’t tour tall buildings for fun. I avoid caves and being buried alive. I got rid of my car years ago and only drive if I have to.
And flying? Well, you know I live on a boat, right?
I’ve never had anyone tell me I’m coddling myself because I avoid doing stuff I don’t enjoy. It’s our human right. Right?
So why do some people insist that dogs have to do everything we want them to do regardless of their own preferences or fears?
Dogs Who Choose
Insisting dogs do what we tell them to do at all times is an outdated notion.
It stems from the belief that our pets are only property. And it shows no understanding that they are sentient beings with desires of their own.
I often choose for Honey. After all, I have higher reasoning power. And I can.
But having a dog who chooses for herself strengthens our relationship. It respects her sentience and autonomy in certain areas.
If Honey doesn’t want to meet a dog, I tell the owner who claims their stalking dog is friendly, “No.”
If Honey wants to cuddle during rocky seas, I make room for her.
If Honey fears a moving grate on a sidewalk and there’s room to walk around it, we do.
Sometimes Honey doesn’t get to choose. Then I work with her to make a scary situation more comfortable for her.
It’s not so different from how I meditate while I’m waiting for my flight to take off. Or practice deep breathing to stay calm around cars.
So keep working with your dog to help her feel comfortable in scary situations. It’s good for both of you.
But once you get to a level where your dog’s anxieties are manageable for the life you expect her to live, relax. Figure out if you’ve met your goals for giving her a happy life. And enjoy your quirky anxious pup.
If I don’t have to become a hang glider just because some idiot thinks I shouldn’t be afraid of heights, maybe your dog is doing okay too.
Maybe being fearless isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After all, anxiety has been around for thousands of years keeping the human species from doing dangerous things. Maybe it’s not so bad for dogs either.
Your Turn: What is a reasonable amount of anxiety to manage with your dog? And when should you keep working to cure it?