Spice of Life (and protection)

I love to ride my bikes (one at a time, of course - I have two). Our valley has an amazing paved bike path and we are so close that we can ride to the path from our house in about four minutes. There are also many side roads, paved and unpaved, and so really -- we live in a perfect place for cycling (well, except that whole snow/winter/ice thing). And who knew!? Cycling informs Life, with Dogs.

This is me on my mountain bike yesterday...

Yes, that is a pepper shaker attached to my backpack. Allow me to explain...

Recently two loose large dogs chased us on the bike path. I had seen the dogs before - safely fenced in a large property. But this one time they were loose and they first chased us, and then -- while I was on the phone with the Sheriff's Office -- they chased and menaced two other cyclists. It was terrifying.

About a week before this, I was chased by a small dog on one of the side roads. WTH?!

Surprisingly, loose dogs are not really a thing around here and so to be chased twice in a short amount of time was noteworthy.

And indeed, my body took note.

Although I had cycled in both places HUNDREDS of times before with no issue, the two spots now make me anxious.

Pepper is surprisingly good at convincing dogs to stop what they are doing. And so until I am armed with pepper spray, I carry pepper in case I need to detach a dog from my calf. 

But that is not the point.

This is the point: although I had hundreds of good experiences at those two places, ONE BAD EXPERIENCE was all it took to make me anxious.

Now, because I have the cognitive ability to process my anxiety (and I am armed with pepper), I am still able to ride my bike at those two spots. BUT -- and here is the part I find so interesting -- I still feel anxious.

One bad experience -- and no blood was shed, BTW -- quickly overshadowed hundreds of neutral or positive experiences -- in a person who can rationally understand and explain the whole thing to herself. 

Think about that, if you would.

Another few hundred positive/neutral experiences later, likely the anxiety will go away -- but in the meantime, those two spots make me nervous.

A dog who has a bad experience doesn't really have the ability to engage in the kind of self-talk it takes to work (and ride) through such things. Further, they cannot carry pepper for protection. 

Okay -- most can't.

Instead, a dog who understands something as terrifying or dangerous is more likely to avoid it, if possible. 

I am thinking of a dog who is terrified of a stranger (aka the judge). It doesn't matter if *I* know the judge is not dangerous -- what matters is how the dog perceives the threat judge. 

Imagine the owner of the two loose dogs screaming, "THEY'RE FRIENDLY" to me as they are barking and growling inches from my calf -- not really helpful or convincing, right?!

And so what happens when the dog is scared of the judge and tries to avoid -- and the owner insists the dog WILL stand so the terrifying stranger can grope examine her? I assure you, force is not really a good plan. Even if you can make the dog stand, she will be so flooded with stress/anxiety that nothing positive will be accomplished -- unless you think Learned Helplessness is a good life strategy (it isn't) and/or you want to REALLY cement the fear/anxiety response (bad idea).

Better idea -- be smart/aware enough to prevent the Bad Experience in the first place. 

But we are human and so we goof that up sometimes. If you find that you need to help a dog get through a Bad Experience, remember: 1) Your opinion of the threat is not actually important; and, 2) Baby Steps.

And please remember this: You cannot force fear out of a dog, a child -- or yourself; trying just makes it worse, even if the negative consequences are not immediately apparent.

Our goal should be about creating safe, happy, positive experiences with -- and for -- those we love.

Recovering from a Bad Experience can absolutely happen, but it requires patience, time, understanding, compassion -- and sometimes, yes: Pepper.


by Kay on Sat, 09/30/2017 - 10:22

Such a good point. Good experiences are are so important and an impatient reaction to a dog showing stress is the wrong way to go. Love your canine teaching assistants.

by Jim Sontag on Mon, 10/02/2017 - 09:56

We live our lives assuming that things are safe, predictable. We go through green traffic lights assuming the other cars will stop for their red lights. We drive our massive cars and trucks at 80 miles a hour on the freeways assuming that other cars will stay in their lanes, and on their side of the highway. We eat at restaurants assuming that they are clean and safe. It is a part of everyday life, a belief that life is predictable and generally safe. An event like this (and congratulations on how you handled it) puts a doubt to that assumption and exposes us to concern and anxiety. I think the way you handled it makes sense, prepare yourself to handle such situations, acknowledge the anxiety, and peddle through it, and filling your life with the things you treasure, family, bike riding, and two and four legged friends. I am glad you are safe and prepared.

by CA Heidi :-) on Tue, 10/03/2017 - 15:51

I am so struck by your story (as I am also SO glad you were not hurt). All those good experiences overwhelmed by one or two scary ones. We are really programmed to notice the scary and the dangerous, and let that inform us more than the positive. There is an obvious evolutionary advantage to being a good noticer of the scary and bad (and avoiding it), but in our modern day, it can make for some real anxiety. As Jim put so well, you handled it well. It's been interesting to chew on this concept for a bit, especially since we can do so being glad YOU didn't get chewed on!!!


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