Most people have some sort of phobia. Maybe it’s snakes or spiders or heights or small spaces, but I don’t know anyone who isn’t irrationally nervous about something. I’m not particularly afraid of any of those things. Seeing a snake has me running for my state’s identification guide for reptiles and amphibians. I prefer high places and my cozy car interior makes my claustrophobic mother-in-law sweat. Spiders I could take or leave, so I mostly leave them when they set up shop around my house. What I am afraid of is something all too many of our pet dogs can relate to. Because it’s not a common human phobia, people have trouble relating and dealing appropriately with it. I loath and am driven to twitching, stuttering anxiety by parties and soft hugs. That is to say, I’m afraid of crowds and people with whom I’m not extremely close touching me. Come anthropomorphize with me, and let’s see how my first hand account of a recent wedding I attended can shed light on your dog’s reluctance to cuddle with strangers at a crowded park.
I’m normally happy to skip any social function that would require too much crowd or touching exposure, but sometimes your husband’s sister is getting married and you’d be a real asshole not to show up. This is what a big fun party with lots of family and friends and booze and music is like for me:
I am doped to the gills on antianxiety medications and my goal for the evening is to make it through the pictures and hide in the car. My smile is false and plastered on, my body language is stiff and if I could make myself sink into the ground or pop out of existence until this wedding is over, I would. Because I live in the south, people are hugging me. Everyone is hugging me. Or touching my shoulder. Or rubbing my back. By the third hug in, I’m spasmodically twitching my head and shoulders. My husband knows how awful this is for me and gives me a long, lingering embrace. I inform him that if he doesn’t let me go immediately, I’m going to have a panic attack. The music is loud, and the noise just makes the twitching worse. Soon, I’ll progress to slurring my speech and stuttering, which will make people even more eager to hug and touch me. Everyone who knows I don’t like crowds or touching will come up and consolingly touch me. The touching will never end. My first impulse is to slap hands away, or possibly hit someone, but I understand that this would be rude. It’s rude to tell people to keep their fucking hands to themselves, too. People I like individually, or in small groups want to talk to me and I would like to run from them. I plaster on a smile and mumble one word responses so my stuttering will be less noticeable. My husband keeps trying to keep a comforting hold on me, and while he’s normally on my “yes” list for touching, now isn’t a good time. Everything is horrible and it goes on forever until I’m told I’m free to go to the car. I cuddle in my comfy seat and play solitaire and eat cake in a place where there aren’t hundreds of people and no one but my husband has a spare key.
What can we take from this and apply to our dogs?
- Nothing objectively bad has to be happening for a phobic dog to be having a miserable time. These people aren’t jabbing me when they hug me. They’re mostly nice old church ladies, and they want to hug me because in my part of the world, that’s considered polite. People don’t have to be doing anything scary or hurtful to your dog for him to be very afraid and act that way. Every big overwhelming party makes me hate parties more, not less.
- Flooding doesn’t work very well. If flooding worked, I would be a stranger hugging machine, instead I become more of a hug hater every year. Exposing a phobic person or dog to a high intensity version of what they’re afraid of doesn’t usually result in decreased fear. After a time, they can become emotionally exhausted and quit reacting, but they’ll usually find the whole thing unpleasant anyway. I certainly don’t react to unwanted hugs anymore. I tolerate them politely, but I hate them. I’ve learned that it’s rude and it hurts people’s feelings if I reject their affection, so I suck it up and take the hug. Dogs can learn to tolerate something because they’re afraid of punishment, but they can still be very afraid of it.
- All the nice people trying to help are actually making things worse, and the best thing they could do would be to leave your dog alone. When I’m at a big event, even people who know perfectly well that I don’t want them to touch me will do it because they want to help. They would find it comforting to receive a hug or a touch when they were overwhelmed or afraid and they project that onto me. My anxiety makes them uncomfortable, and to relieve that discomfort, they will do things that make me more anxious to make themselves feel better and like they’re “helping.” My body language makes this clear, but no one is listening. This is true of people phobic dogs. My anxious guy is most terrified of the people who most want his love and won’t leave him alone. The extra “friendly” vet tech is his worst nightmare.
- Threshold matters. Know your dog’s limits and respect them. If he’s nervous around more than two new dogs, don’t take him to the dog park on Saturday because he’ll be miserable. Most of the people I see and despise at these events I actually like in smaller groups. It’s only when they come at me all at once that I can’t tolerate it.
- Have reasonable goals and expectations. I honestly have no particular desire to get over these phobias. I desire to avoid crowds and excessive touching. There isn’t anything about loud parties that I feel like I’m missing out on. Everything I actually want to do socially I’m able to, so I see no reason to try to morph myself into a party animal. When you got a dog, you may have envisioned taking them to outdoor music events or crowded pet rescue events, but that might not be your dog. If your dog’s phobias of people aren’t keeping him from enjoying a normal life, why should you make him change? My goal with all the socialization work I do with my anxious dog is to be able to take him to the vet without it being a major ordeal. He needs to be able to see other dogs on leash calmly, tolerate the vet examining him, and nothing more. I’m never going to take him to a crowded restaurant patio and let everyone pet him, like I do with my older dog, because he’s not going to enjoy it.
- Breaks and safe spaces are heaven. Even though people think that waiting in the car is some kind of torture, I’m more than happy to sit in my safe space and not deal with the crowd as long as it’s not too hot or cold. If your dog has to do something that will make him anxious, like a vet visit, make it as quick and painless as possible. Sit in the car with the air conditioning or heat on and let the tech call you when it’s time to go in. Leave him in the exam room or put him in the car while you pay if the waiting room is crowded and overwhelming. If you’re taking your kid to a crowded park and your dog will hate it, admit that and leave him at home. Don’t feel like you have to bring him just because it “should” be fun. He won’t magically have fun just because it’s a “fun” place.
People are much more understanding when their dog is afraid of thunder or sirens, but when they’re afraid of pets from strangers in the park, it’s hard to relate. We expect our dogs to be very accepting of physical affection and attention from strangers, more than we would accept ourselves. There is nothing wrong with telling people they can’t pet your dog if he’ll just tolerate it and not actually enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with having a shy dog and respecting what he will and won’t enjoy. If you find yourself thinking your dog is being silly, think of whatever your phobia is and be kind to him.