I was 12 when I went on my first airplane trip alone to visit relatives in Hawaii. It wasn’t the best trip. The captain didn’t let me see the cockpit, which I was told I could do, and when got off the airplane I didn’t see anyone I recognized. Eventually the plane was empty and the waiting room cleared and I was alone. My aunt and uncle had forgotten I was arriving.
As the flight attendants were leaving the airplane, they saw me and gave me change for the pay phone so I could call my aunt and uncle to come get me, then waited with me until they arrived. I have no recollection of the airline or the names of the flight attendants, I only remember that when I needed help, nice people were there.
Stories like this have been repeated numerous times in my life; the person that found my checkbook and returned it to the bank, the person that saved from being crushed against the railing at a concert when two drunks started fighting, the truck driver that managed to stop his big rig when I blew a tire on the freeway and then stayed to help. In every circumstance, I needed help and someone was there to help.
When we talk about rescuing dogs, we are usually talking about rescuing them from life in a shelter, but how great would it be if our dogs could look back on their lives and remember other times they needed help and we were there. Times when they were stressed or scared or alone and we were there help them through it. We have opportunities for this kind of “rescue” every day.
Our dogs live in a modern world of electronic hums, weird sounds, strangers coming and going, UPS trucks that make the most annoying sounds when they stop, stray cats and dogs, and us crazy humans who are inconsistent with our rules and put weird equipment on our dogs. A lot of that, if not most of it, can be scary for a lot of dogs, and our tendency is to look at what the dog is afraid of and minimize it; to force the dog to move forward to confront the scary thing because we don’t think it’s scary. To put this in perspective, if you’re afraid of spiders that would be the equivalent to you seeing a spider, screaming, and someone picking it up and following you with it to make you confront it. Would that be helpful to you? What if someone yelled at you and pulled at your shirt collar in an attempt to make you stop being scared? Would that be helpful? I’m okay with spiders, but I guarantee you, nothing you could hit me with would be worth getting closer to a snake. Absolutely nothing.
When dogs freak out it’s usually because either the scary thing is entirely new and they don’t know how to react, or the thing is known and has some history of being not so pleasant and our dogs want to make the scary thing go away. Unfortunately, our dogs bodies react to stress the same way ours do, with increases in stress hormones that can lower the lifespan of the dog.
Studies have shown that the old wives’ tale that we shouldn’t comfort a fearful dog is false. We aren’t “reinforcing fear,” and if we think about it, if we were running from a crazy lady chasing us with a spider we might look for a bastion of safety with a nearby stranger. Hopefully the stranger could either make the crazy lady stop or get rid of the spider. That’s not “reinforcing fear,” that’s being helpful. We should encourage the idea that we are a safe haven, a spot to run to when things get scary. It’s certainly better for our dogs to run to us than away from us, especially during fireworks season.
So what is being helpful? In the moment, the safe haven idea is the first step. We want our dogs to run to us, or stay by us, in the presence of scary things. Reward them when they look at you or run to you, either by praise and pets or treats if you have them nearby. Really reward your dog if they turned to you or came to you in the presence of something scary. Recognizing fear in our dogs is sometimes difficult. Shrinking and hiding are easy to view as fear, but barking and lunging and spinning can also be fear. If you can lead your dog away, do it and make a mental note that this particular fear needs to be addressed with a professional. Remember, ongoing stress reduces the lifespans of our dogs.
If the situation isn’t something you can control like fireworks or thunder, minimize the scary sounds by closing doors, play music and give your dog a safe place to ride it out. That safe place can be next to you on the sofa, in a crate or, like my parents Border Collie, a nest of blankets in a closet. In any case, do something. Good leadership is controlling a scary situation as much as you can for the benefit of your dog. If you do this enough, you will create a treasured lifetime of helpful memories.