Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Emotional Bank Accounts: Neutral is Not Enough

This weekend, on one of the most beautiful days of the spring we've had so far, Lowell, Maebe, Fate, and I had paused at the side of a popular multi-use pathway in a well-traveled city park by our home in the middle of a mid-day run.  Fate and I were standing well off the trail, she was on leash and right at my side sniffing some grass when a roughly 50 year old man dressed in running clothes (yet presumably also under the influence of drugs or alcohol while out for some exercise) came running down the trail and rushed straight at Fate and I as he hurled threats and obscenities at us and physically threatened to kick Fate, coming within inches of us.  He continued his verbal assault at the top of his lungs as he continued to run down the path out of sight and earshot.  It was jarring, to say the least, and mostly Lowell and I stood there in disbelief.  I tried to not let the experience wreck my lovely day, and for the most part I succeeded.

The next morning though, as we were walking the dogs along the path again, I felt myself become irritated as I saw two female runners approach.  When we pass other trail users, we as a rule cue our dogs to step off the trail and stand to the side to let them go by.  I did this as always, but this time I felt a twinge of resentment and reluctance to share the path with a runner and felt myself wishing they weren't there.

On today's walk, we were passed on the road by a runner bearing roughly the same demographic profile as the man who threatened us, and I felt myself have a physiologic fear response as my sympathetic nervous system was activated, and I automatically clutched the leash to pull Fate closer to me.  Of course, like the vast majority of runners, this man simply wished us a good morning as he passed.

What went through my mind as I observed this involuntary reaction on my part was how many stories I hear from owners who can point to a pivotal scary event that impacted their dog's behavior in response to a certain trigger, whether it be other dogs, the veterinarian, cars, or toe nail clippers.

Lowell is a runner.  I am a runner.  Heck, we were on a run at the time.  We run with our friends, also runners.  One of our favorite weekends of the year every year is a three-day running event.  I encounter runners just about every time I leave the house.  Overwhelmingly the encounters range from neutral, to (perhaps even more often) friendly and cordial.  I usually have pretty good perspective and coping skills in general, but even with that healthy "bank account" of good experiences built up, I am having a temporary negative conditioned emotional response right now.  So, why do we expect it would be any different for our dogs?  And what if I didn't have that history of positive associations?  What if this was the first runner I had encountered, or the first time I'd gone to that park?  What if I had encountered a high proportion of other unfriendly runners in the past?

I hear owners all the time dismiss the importance of continuing to create positive associations and good experiences because their dog is "fine" with people, dogs, handling, noises, etc.  I tell them neutral is not enough - I want the dogs to LOVE these things.  I want them to work on building that bank account and creating the most resilient dog that they can.

Because the fact is, sometimes unpleasant things out of our control happen.  Even the best practices and habits can't prevent everything, and if we want to live our lives and let our dogs do the same, we are always running that risk.  The event this weekend happened on a popular multi-use path at a prime time of day on a gorgeous weekend when people were out and about.  We were minding our own business and had not been engaging the runner/assailant in any way.  The only way we could have reliably prevented that encounter would have been to sit in our living room on a beautiful spring morning and hide away from the world outside.  Which of course is no way to live.

I'll recover, because I know that overall the world and people are generally pleasant.  My genetic predisposition and past history tells me so, but still I'll appreciate every friendly runner who passes me with a wave and smile and helps remind me of that in the coming days.  And as for Fate - she's fine.  She wasn't touched and she barely noticed a thing.  Clearly her bank account is bigger than mine!

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