The new vet assistant’s behavior was setting my teeth on edge. Everyone else was aware of my foster dog’s extreme fears and had adjusted their behaviors for her comfort and receptivity to healing procedures. But this woman was determined to ignore the dog’s clear signals, my verbal information, and the notes in the file. She continued to invade the dog’s space and engage in threatening body language, all the while repeating, “That’s not scary.”
The dog — with lowered ears and head, whole body retreats, head turns, rapid lip licks, bulging facial tension, trembling, and soon commissures tightly drawn back with spatulate tongue panting — was practically screaming, “Yes, it is! It is very scary! Stop! Stop! Stop!”
My words became more terse and less polite to protect my dog. The woman insisted, “This isn’t scary. See? She just needs to get used to it.” With that, my personal trigger was pulled. The sleeping dragon who can be summoned with the incantation “Your actual feelings are invalid. What you should be feeling is . . . . ” was ready for war. I stepped out from behind the table toward the woman when finally the vet returned to the room before Ms. Nonviolence clocked the vet assistant.
When I work with adopters and foster homes, and somewhat less so with my own clients, a common obstacle is the human’s negation of the dog’s fear. Most of the time, a little education in canine body language allows the person to see the stress and fear signals they simply didn’t know to look for. But then, something odd happens. We humans have so much faith in our rational minds that when it doesn’t make sense to us why a dog is afraid of a certain object/situation/noise/movement/scent or we can’t track and measure the possible source of the dog’s fear, we say that the dog “shouldn’t” be afraid, that the dog is afraid “of nothing.” We can empathize with a small dog afraid of a large man leaning over him, but we have trouble accepting that a dog is afraid of something we can’t imagine as threatening. We discount the fear. We force them to “move through it” as if we were exposure therapists and flooding a nonconsenting dog weren’t as harmful as it is.
I’m afraid of cockroaches and I live in a place where huge roaches FLY out of the trees. (Palmetto bug = nothin’ but a roach, y’all) It’s not a phobia and I can understand the English language logic telling me I have nothing to fear from this particular cockroach that, I’m told, prefers to live outside. But no matter how many times you tell me in my own language that a flying monster with bristly legs skittering up inside my open pant leg (It has happened!) is not scary, I will still shriek and possibly even cry. If you ridicule me, insist that I “shouldn’t” be afraid, and put the insect on me so I’ll “get used to it,” I’ll be more scared, not less. And I certainly won’t be forming a bond of trust with you.
We can’t argue with another being’s emotion. The dog feels what she feels. Whether or not it makes sense to us, it makes survival sense to her. Whether or not we are trustworthy and do not intend to hurt her, she does not know this is true until we prove it. Over and over, again and again. Our responsibility is to lessen our dogs’ fears in every way we can — by removing the cause, proactively employing systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to transform the emotion of fear into a welcoming anticipation, and accepting their right to be afraid when they are afraid.
“That’s not scary to me. I accept that it is scary to you and I will do everything I can to make it less scary for you.”