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Putting Canine Fear in Context

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

redheaded woman holding snakes
Me with my new slithery friends

I just got back from teaching a seminar in Seattle. The trip was one of those rare occasions when I got to spend an extra day in town, and so a friend and I visited Pike’s Place Market. It reminds me of Venice Beach (sans the sand), with the plentiful crafts stalls, food stands, musicians, and other sidewalk entertainers. As we passed a small gathering where a woman was holding two large snakes, she turned to me and asked, “Would you like to hold them?” I smiled and replied, “Sure!” Despite a moment of curiosity about whether it was normal snake behavior to immediately turn and begin slithering toward my face, I felt quite comfortable. In a lovely kind of role reversal, I was quite charmed by the snakes.

Contrast that with the way I feel when walking out my front door and seeing a snake. Even when it’s not a rattlesnake (which, unfortunately, it usually is), those unexpected encounters always give me a start. I never feel completely at ease, even with the non-harmful varieties. The garter snakes that live around our property aren’t likely to hurt me, and are much smaller than the snakes I held in Seattle. What’s different is the context. In one I feel safe; in the other, not.

Naturally, this made me think about dogs and their fears. Imagine Blondie, a Golden Retriever who loves to be hugged and cuddled by her family. (Although many dogs don’t like being hugged, some actually do.) Even the six-year-old can throw her arms around Blondie and, instead of a flurry of lip-licking, head-turning, and other stress signals, Blondie’s mouth remains open, and her eyes bright. She clearly enjoys the affection. But the next day in the vet’s office, a tech goes to restrain Blondie, and her body goes stiff, her eyes wide. She is clearly afraid. Isn’t she just being hugged? Yes, in a way she is. But this is completely different. The “hugging” is now being done by someone she doesn’t know, in a place where she’s not quite comfortable. It’s all about context.

I’ve heard owners say things like, “Oh, that’s so strange! Normally he likes men,” when the man trying to greet their barking dog is wearing a hat and sunglasses. Again, the context has changed from what the dog is accustomed to; hats make our silhouettes look weird, and dark glasses make us look like space aliens with four-inch pupils! I’m sure if you think about it, you can come up with some contexts in which your dog is perfectly fine with something, and in others where he’s not okay with that very same thing. When modifying canine fear issues, it’s not enough to describe the trigger in a general way. We’ve got to get as detailed as possible, and an important part of that process is to consider context.


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