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Facing your Fears: Training People and Their Pups

Updated: Apr 19

Last night I sat down to read a chapter in this book my friend had gotten me written by Pema Chodron - 'When Things Fall Apart'. The first chapter talks about having an intimate relationship with fear. It also tied closely with a YouTube video I saw on anxiety. We are inherently built to run away from trouble. To avoid conflict. It is our genetic predisposition for self-preservation. Our response to a threatening stimulus conjures our sympathetic nervous system. This is the fight or flight response. Fighting can lead to potential injury, so we run away. We hide. We freeze. If we feel cornered, trapped, without escape, then our only other option for self-preservation is to fight.

In Therapy in a Nutshell, she also mentions that there is a normal amount of anxiety, and then anxiety disorders. When you have an anxiety disorder it leads to the inability for you to cope with normal day-to-day stresses. You may not be able to go to work, get out of bed, your relationship or friendships may suffer, and this anxiety can go hand-in-hand with fear. Anxiety is the anticipation that something bad is going to happen. If you are fearful, or are afraid of something, then you become anxious when you are going to come face-to-face with your fears.

Similarly, some dogs are afraid of the veterinary clinic, and when the dog is in the car and the car turns down the street where the veterinary clinic is, the dog will start to exhibit anxious behaviours. This may be subtle, like lip licking, or very obvious, whining, panting or pacing. There may even be a gastrointestinal response with this anxiety, such as vomiting or diarrhea. This anxiety is the fear that something bad is going to happen - like getting a needle.

So how do we, and our dogs, face our fears? Start with small increments. Here's another example. Your dog hates having its nails trimmed (you should work with them when they are a puppy, but let's say you have a rescued adult dog). Every day for a few seconds, sit with your dog, with some treats, and touch the paws. Once they no longer take their paw away from you while eating the treat, increase the duration of holding the paw. Then bring in a nail trimmer for them to see, sniff, and eat treats. Then the nail trimmers touch the paw - without trimming. Are you seeing where I am going with this? Bringing them to the groomers or veterinary clinic for their nails, does not reduce their fear and anxiety over nail trims (unless you work with a fear free groomer). Approaching their fears in small increments of both time and ensuring that they do not panic, as this will reverse all the training you have accomplished up to that point.

Anxious children grow up to be anxious adults. Epigenetics is super interesting to me. I briefly mentioned this in a previous post about the HPA axis, and how maternal stress can influence the growing fetus, in utero. Lately I have been watching some of Dr. Gabor Mate's interviews on trauma in childhood, and it is how we raise our children that influences their ability to mature and cope in the world. Children who grow up with parents who are supportive and present, while also allowing the child to experience its emotions so that they can learn to handle their emotions in a supportive environment, are better adapted to the stress of adult life. Children who are punished for their tantrums, or scolded for crying or being angry, do not have their emotions validated. The child who is angry about not being able to have dessert before dinner should be allowed to be angry. If you suppress their emotions, it builds fear and a break in that relationship. Just as it does with you suppress a puppy's natural instincts.

Anxious puppies will also grow up to be anxious adults. Similar to children born to mothers who underwent significant stress during pregnancy, puppies born to 'puppy mill' mothers also demonstrate high levels of anxiety. This is where puppy parents are super important! These pet parents replace the puppy's mother, by providing them a safe place to grow. To allow them to express their natural puppy behaviours of curiosity and play, while learning to be good family members, without fear of scolding. But pet parents need to learn to work with their puppies. People need to understand that you can shape your puppy's behaviour by being more like a loving mother than a 'dominant' leader.

For new puppies, we try to set the stage early on with the first visit. Some puppies are already confident, and not fearful. These pups readily interact with any human in play, taking treats and pets from many people. As I mentioned earlier, some puppies are anxious and fearful which has increased during COVID. The puppy who is shy or fearful, will still be curious, but you need to earn their trust before they will allow you to do things to them. One puppy I had these past few COVID months, on her first visit showed up in a cat carrier, but she was a large German Shepherd puppy, already too big for the cat carrier. She was sooo scared on her first visit she did not want to come out of her carrier - very similar to a lot of the feline patients who feel more secure inside their box. The second visit she was on leash, and the staff left her in a kennel while I was talking on the phone with the owner. Instead of dragging her out of the kennel for her exam, I got some puppy wet food, and I crawled into the kennel with her. I examined her, vaccinated her, trimmed her nails and placed her microchip all while she sat in my lap - it only worked because she trusted me. She came in for another visit recently for a general check up. Nothing invasive, just came for a quick assessment and got some treats, eventually settling on a blanket we placed on the exam room floor while we looked at her cat brother.

After a few vaccine visits, we get them to be more confident and less fearful. If you work in a high volume veterinary practice, you probably don't have the time to do this in your 15 or 20 minute visit. Such a shame! Fear-free veterinary visits should always be the goal. The time you invest in reducing the puppy's fear will actually save you time in the long run. Then educating the dog owner what can happen when the pup is fearful and anxious. Puppies then grow up to be adult dogs with fear and anxiety. If they feel trapped, these dogs may bite. We hear owners saying that they would never bite anyone, and then they do. Partly because the people around them were not equipped with the time or resources to pick up on the signs that the dog was exhibiting.

Prior to our COVID-19 restrictions of fewer visits, I would encourage dog owners to bring their dogs, just come to the clinic, get weighed, and get some treats, then leave. Very simple. As long as your pup can stay below the physiological threshold of entering fight or flight activation. If the pup panics as soon as you turn down the street to the veterinary clinic, you may consider switching things up. Park the car down the street, and get out for a walk. Lots of treats. If your pup is still good and "below threshold" - i.e. not panicking about the veterinary clinic. Then get into the car and go back home. Eventually that street corner becomes a positive location. The next step is maybe the parking lot for a training session. Then maybe a staff members comes out to greet with treats in the parking lot. Eventually the parking lot is a positive place to visit and so on. Owners need to work with their fearful dogs every single day. The veterinarian can only play a small part in this, especially if they only see your dog every few years. You can start by learning more on how to recognize fear in your pup here.

Stay tuned as I explore and write more on fear and anxiety in people and their pets!


For more on pet training and behaviour you can head to this section.

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