Safety cuts both ways

Mar 24, 2017

In a previous article, I talked about scaffolding safety for our dogs, providing an environment in which they can experiment, test things out and learn to make safe choices.

But safety cuts both ways.

We often focus on keeping our dogs safe but what about us? Safety is a fundamental need of all of us. For most of us, feeling safe is the norm. We do not spend our life anticipating harm or hurt at every turn. We are aware of risk but we don’t expect bad
things to happen all the time. Trauma can change that in an instant. When something traumatic happens, suddenly the premise that the world is fundamentally safe is shattered and we may feel unsafe all the time. This is part of post-traumatic stress.

Thankfully most of us are not suffering from post-traumatic stress though I am certain that some dog owners are: those who have witnessed their dog being attacked or who have seen their dog do something that puts them at serious risk. But all of us
have some fears associated with that “what if”. And if you are scared of what might happen, then you will be anxious and stressed.

When we don’t feel safe with our dogs then we need to work on re-establishing safety. Whether our fears are niggling worries that spoil our enjoyment or terrors that stop us functioning, the first step is identifying the triggers for feeling unsafe. When is it happening? What are we fearful of? Then we can acknowledge our own response. What do we do when we feel unsafe. And finally we can work out a plan for re-establishing safety. That might mean involving other people, who help us feel safe; changing the context, to scaffold our own safety; or working out a plan to avoid triggers until we can deal with it another way.

Let me illustrate with an example.

I realised a month or so ago that I was avoiding taking Roo off property for walks. We have fields that he can run in so it is not an issue for exercise but he does enjoy the variety of being out and about.

I realised that I was happy to take him out with my partner but not alone. He is not reactive. In fact he is friendly to people and dogs. I have been working hard on his loose-lead walking and using a balance lead along with two points of contact when we needed extra influence, and he walks beautifully in situations like going to the vet or on property.

But when he sees something he is really interested in - like a cat - it still all goes out the window! At 12 months old, he weighs in at 52kg and is getting on for 30 inches at the shoulder. I am 5'2 and, though I certainly carry more weight than him, there is no doubt in my mind that he could pull me wherever he wants to go! Even with a balance lead, it is a struggle to hold him. And this knowledge is enough to make me feel unsafe out on the streets.

I identified what I was afraid of: not being able to hold Roo if he saw something highly stimulating, and my response: avoiding taking him out on my own. So I came up with a plan.

Even though head collars are not my first choice of equipment, I acknowledged that if I had a client in my situation, it would be what I would recommend to them.

So I got him a Dogmatic head collar - one that is padded, comfortable and doesn’t squeeze the muzzle or ride up into the eyes. We spent a couple of weeks associating it with tasty treats, until he was willing to put his muzzle into it happily. We went for a few on property walks on lead with it not attached to the lead, and then finally with it as the second point of contact with the harness. All good.

Earlier this week we went out for our first solo walk. It was a joy. He walked with me rather than feeling in opposition. Most of the time the line to the head collar was completely loose. When he saw something of interest, he stepped forward and there would be momentary pressure, but the lightest meeting and melting on that line turned him back to me.

The result: Roo and I can enjoy his off property walks again. I have re-established safety.

Don’t dismiss your own need for safety. If you are avoiding something or fearful about what might happen, then focus on what you can do to make yourself feel safer. A different route or different time? New equipment? A muzzle? Barriers in the home? Walking your dog on his own? Introducing guests outside?

The solution you choose will be personal to you, your dog and your context and, as long as it doesn’t make your dog feel less safe, it is all good. The important thing is that you address your own need for safety.

Remember safety cuts both ways.

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