I have a fear of spiders, and it’s a very real fear. For some people it’s heights or flying. For some dogs it’s people in High Viz vests, people with walking canes or other dogs.
If you walked up to me and dropped a tarantula in my hand I would probably, scream and simultaneously throw it in the air and then stamp about like I was doing the Highland Fling, in the least graceful manner imaginable. I would then feel an enormous amount of resentment toward the person who did it, followed by a horrible feeling of guilt for having probably injured, if not killed, a creature that really meant me no harm.
Now, let’s re-run that scenario again, only this time, as you drop the spider into my hand you’re going to tell me that it’s ok, your tarantula is friendly. I’m sorry to tell you but the poor arachnid is going to meet the same sorry end in exactly the same way.
Continually dropping spiders on me is not going to cure my fear of spiders, even if they are friendly. I’m likely to suffer from constant anxiety worrying about where the next spider is going to come from. That constant stress on my body is also likely to cause me physical illness, with stress being put on my heart and other organs. However, if you let me see a spider on your hand at a distance of say 4 meters and every time you produce it I get something nice, you could probably close that gap over time until eventually you can stand next to me with it. I ain’t ever going to hold that thing but maybe I could just about cope with it being in reasonably close proximity. But, remember you have to build up to it gradually, if you try to skip ahead, I’m going to freak out and the trust is lost and you’re going to have to go back to where you started, maybe even further.
If you are not scared of spiders, then you probably think this scenario is just ridiculous and you may have trouble identifying with my feelings. Most “first world” humans are lucky enough to not experience real fear very often in their life. By “real fear” I mean the kind that kick starts that lizard brain, freeze, flight or fight response. The kind you might get if you were a victim of a personal attack. What would you do in that situation? Freeze in terror, try to run as fast as you could to get away or if you couldn’t, kick and punch and claw at your attacker. This would be a truly awful experience to endure and I hope you never have to experience it, but how do you think you would feel after such an attack? Would you ever leave the house again – you may not want to, but you’d probably have to. What kind of life would you live trapped in house all day every day. Would you walk the same route again or would you avoid it? Would you be wary of strangers, always on your guard? Would you freak out or bolt if someone tapped you on the shoulder from behind?
Now try and imagine being a dog who is scared of dogs, maybe you were attacked by another dog, maybe you just didn’t get to see other dogs enough when you were little so now they seem really frightening. You still love a nice walk and can cope with other dogs if they keep a certain distance away in the same way I could cope with a spider being held at a distance but if they run up to you OMG! That lizard brain is going to kick in and because you’re on a lead you can’t run away, so you either freeze or more likely lunge and bark and bite and hope that dog will go away. Oh, and by the way, any counter-conditioning work my owner was doing - you know, that getting closer with the spider and ‘giving me something nice’ thing - is out the window and we’re back to a bigger distance again.
Shall we try that again only this time the owner of the other dog shouts ahead “It’s ok, my dog is friendly”...yea that doesn’t really matter, does it?
So, the next time someone, asks you to call your dog, don’t behave like they’ve just told you that your dog is ugly or poorly behaved. It is not a personal insult. Think about what fear feels like and be compassionate – call your dog and lead up.