Fear in humans and animals is an incredibly powerful force, affecting our brains, the levels of chemicals in our blood streams and our health.
Fear also feeds into violence as perception of likely threats increases, willingness to embrace 'others' or novelty decreases, and self-preservation becomes a foremost concern.
Why is this relevant to our dogs? Because much of the research done on fear and the physiological and physical fallout of prolonged fear has been done on animals, and so what we are seeing in our news feeds and in the world in the face of huge uncertainty is a mechanism of our species facing a huge threat in the form of uncertainty (physical, and financial) as well as isolation (increased 'siloing' of political views (how many people have you booted from your social media networks in the past few months vs the past few years?) increased social distance and isolation due to inability to gather, etc) as well as disruption of normal schedules and behaviors. All of this disruption has led to a cumulative angst that has led to hardened political stances, anger in the streets (and calls for a crack down on protesters), and seemly the world splitting apart at the seams.
We all feel it.
I bring this up for two reasons, first to hopefully help people realize that fear is a powerful force even in a 'thinking' animal, and it rather than our outsized brains, controls much of the narrative we are seeing and feeling right now, and to hopefully begin to explore how this emotional state affects our dogs.
I speak a lot about how uncertainty affects our dogs, and how this uncertainty can lead to a slew of behaviors running from obvious anxiety to hyper-enthusiasm. We are always living in an uncertain world, but even in the face of natural randomness there are behaviors and experiences that tether us to reality. Many of those are missing in our current climate, and their loss, though they may seem trivial in the face of larger worries, may be what we most keenly miss. Because, in an uncertain world we must have certainty and habit to feel in control and grounded - lacking that, we feel untethered and adrift.
Our dog's certainty arises from many things: feeding times, walks, training sessions, consequences for behavior, and the like. And our ability to help our dogs clarify those moments of certainty will assist our dogs in feeling safe and in control.
Understanding that even we "superior" animals can be rocked enough by fear to make decisions based upon it rather than our vast cognitive skills may be hard for many to realize - we enjoy a belief in our actions being rational and fully under our control, and as such when we see actions in other animals (and people) we also assume that they too are functioning on a cognitive rather than chemical level. Sadly, science (and the huge worldwide experiment of fear and uncertainty that we are experiencing right now) belies that belief.
Often, when we discuss fear, we think about the sudden appearance of a frightening thing (snake, spider, etc..). We understand that in an emergency situation the brain needs to defer to hardwiring and instinct to get us out of a jam - we think about Flight, Fight, and Freeze.
Anxiety is the fear of the unknown. It is based not on a concrete threat, rather it is based on the possibility of future threats. Some of these are adaptive and make sense (your dog is afraid of the part of your walk where they got attacked by another dog, or your dog being afraid of the kitchen after accidentally being stepped on there). These kind of anxieties make sense to us, and we are often very compassionate with our dogs when they are faced with these kinds of fears.
It is the generalized anxiety of unknown unknowns that we humans sometimes struggle to understand. Coaxing an anxiety riddled dog through an unseen world of benign horrors is exhausting and challenging.
But, now, we may have a bit more empathy. We have not all become anxious about the environment, but tomorrow, and the day after, long held to be part of a larger pattern of work and vacations is now uncertain, and every day the uncertainty seems to get worse, not better.
We have become tentative about making plans (why bother?); we have turned inward (it's safe here with my family and my beliefs); we are less willing to explore (Why sign up for an interesting class or read a really technical book when your brain feels fuzzy, and there are more important things to think about?).
If the world seems less secure right now, realize that we humans have far more autonomy over our lives than do our dogs, and that anxiety is exactly the feeling of "why bother?" and "I'll just stay here, thank you" that our anxious dogs face every day.
So, where do we begin to help our dogs?
We create powerful ties to the world with predictable feeding times, walks, and training systems.
We ensure that behavior - both good and bad - are met with the same consequences every time.
We remove as much uncertainty from our dog's life as feasible, through patterns, habits, and predictability.
We begin to build courage where the dog is now (not where we think the dog should be). We ask our dogs to overcome the smallest hurdles and ensure that they are rewarded heavily. Slowly we build up resilience and build a reward system that the dog sees great value in working for.
We create a series of wins - yes, dogs need to learn to suffer through adversity and meet failure, but not now, not to start - we want our dogs to see the world as a place of hope, where good things happen.
Show a bit of kindness. Fear makes all animals act preemptively and often behave outrageously to seemingly small triggers (how much does changing the name on a syrup bottle really affect your daily life?). Fear creates a desire for stasis in the face of a tide of uncertainty, and our job for our dogs is to help them see that their boat is solid.
As a last note, spare a little kindness for your fellow humans as well. Know that fear is an irrational master, and we are all subject to its whims - so give yourself and your fellow creatures a bit of a break right now.