One of the less pleasant sides of owning a fearful dog is that stress is additive.
Think about a terrible morning in your own life. Your alarm clock doesn’t go off at the right time. You burn your toast, which happened to be the only breakfast food in the house. You get toothpaste on your blouse and have to change. Then the traffic is bad on your way to work. The first e-mail you open when you get there is a reminder of a very close deadline you had forgotten. At that point, you go to the ladies’ room and cry like a baby.
Every one of those things is something you could have handled, separately. And you did handle them, right up until you couldn’t. You ate leftover pizza for breakfast, found a new blouse, waited out the traffic. Then “suddenly” you “snapped” over that e-mail. Your coworkers rush over to your computer, afraid that someone has died, and see a pretty innocent looking meeting invite. “She’s lost it!”
Dogs have the same problem. Like your coworkers, we sometimes look at them and scratch our heads. “Huh? He’s never reacted to that” before. But, whereas you can come out of the ladies room and say, “Sorry, just having a bad morning” your dog just gets to look like a crazy.
Sometimes the detective work isn’t too hard. One day last week Silas flipped his poor little lid “for no reason” with an employee in a pet store. But if you trace back the steps, it seems much more logical.
1) He had to get his harness put on
2) We drove to the market
3) We drove past a sign featuring Giant Sized People right at eye level, and it scared him
4) He had to wait for me while I ran in to buy a bag of coffee
5) We drove some more
6) We went to a new store that he’d never been in before
7) A stranger was petting him
8) The stranger was petting him a little too long
9) A car alarm went off in the distance
10) Silas started barking at the stranger
I should have stepped in at stage 8 and gotten him out of the situation, but I didn’t think about all the stress stacking (I believe Stress Stacking is Grisha Stewart’s term, but it’s possible that I made it up.) that had already gone on.
The problem is that sometimes this doesn’t seem so logical. The dog’s stressors might be something that is clearly A Big Deal to your dog, but that we, with our merry top-of-the-foodchain blinders on, don’t think about. Silas is more nervous at the park if the wind is blowing, for instance. It took me most of a walk thinking “Good grief, why is he pulling on his leash so much more?” before I realized that there was a gale blowing at tree-top level. He is more comfortable at PetSmart if we use the entrance that isn’t right at the cash registers, where more people are standing around. He handles the first dog or person we meet better than the subsequent ones, and is the worst if we meet several people in a row. He has flattened to the ground in terror over things that I have never found a reason for. (I believe that most of these are wildlife smells. He patently refused to walk any further one day after sniffing a drain culvert.)
It is hard, but incredibly important that you work through this stuff with your fearful dog, and it’s a job that is basically never done. Paying attention to all the small stresses, even if they aren’t anything you can control, will help you and your dog be able to handle the big stuff.