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 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.
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.
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.
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: