Irrational Worry Syndrome - How do your fears affect your dog? | The Collared Scholar


May 3, 2016Meagan Karnes8 CommentsGeneral Training

“Irrational Worry Syndrome”

Now this isn’t a term you’ll find in any medical journal. It’s just a phrase I use to describe the completely ridiculous and absurd fears I have, mostly about the health and safety of my dogs. 

For instance, when driving on the highway with a dog in my backseat, I refuse to crack any of the windows in my truck – not even an inch. As I hear the air rushing past when the windows crack, my mind instantly flashes through a number of wild and completely irrational and horrifying scenarios. 

What if my dog leans on the door, inadvertently pressing the window button (despite the windows being locked), and topples out just as I hit 85 mph?

What if she gets sucked out of the open window by some force that only exists in my irrational mind, again tumbling to her death?

I can vividly imagine looking in my rear view mirror, my dog staring at me from the road as my truck barrels forward down the highway, and in a split second, she is obliterated by a semi. 

(I think I may watch too many movies.) 

I also know she could never squeeze her 50 lb body through a two inch gap, regardless of the massive amounts of air that I envision are pulling at her, as if we were traveling in a space shuttle and a window broke, the gravity of the Universe sucking her out into the abyss. 

These things can’t possibly happen. And yet, if someone rolls a window down when I have my dog in the car, I get a little tense. My worry is completely absurd. But it grips me tight nonetheless. 

Some of you may be reading this and thinking “Alright! She’s officially lost it. Meagan is totally insane.”…and that might be true. But the fact of the matter remains, our fears manifest themselves in some interesting ways. Some that are fairly harmless, like my fear about windows, and others that leave pet owners making poor choices as they succumb to the gripping reigns of their insecurity. 

I could tell you the psychology behind my irrational fear of car windows, as I know it quite well. But I’ll save the voyage into the inner workings of my psyche for another day. 

For now, I simply want to point out that, in dealing with our dogs, our fears can have crippling effects that ultimately end up holding us (and our dogs) back. The interesting phenomenon is that our fears show up in an impulse to protect the dogs we care about so much. But by pacifying our insecurities, we often end up making poor, knee-jerk choices that compromise our dogs’ well being.

Here are just some of the fears I’ve seen impact dogs over the years….and not for the better:

  • Fear of a dog being stolen from a yard or a vehicle
  • Fear of communicable disease
  • Fear of snake bites
  • Fear of ticks or fleas
  • Fear of off leash dogs
  • Fear of judgement or criticism from others
  • Fear of making mistakes
  • Fear of the unknown 

Sure, these things could happen. Your dog could absolutely pick up a bug from running off leash at the beach where other dogs have romped and played. He could encounter a rattlesnake on a hike, and he could be snatched from your car when you step away (well, your dog could possibly be snatched…mine would put up a serious fight).

In response to these fears, I’ve seen pet owners increasingly rely on crates and confinement to prevent exposure and metaphorically wrap their dogs in bubble wrap, ensuring their safety. 

But I’m here to tell you, life is full of risks. I promise, you can’t control everything. And trying to will only cause undue stress and anxiety and a lessened quality of life for both you and your dog.

Forcing a dog to stay confined to the four walls of a home (or worse yet, the four walls of a crate) out of concern for their well being is completely counter productive. Dogs should be free to sniff, explore, learn new things about their outside environment, and experience the world right alongside of you. They should run and play and…plainly stated…they should BE DOGS.

You need to trust yourself

I was watching an episode of The Dog Whisperer the other day. (Don’t worry, I’m not a fan. I do however tend to get sucked in occasionally as it comes on after one of my favorite shows.) Anyhow, the acclaimed Cesar told the woman in front of him who was struggling with her Pomeranian, that she had to “trust herself” for the sake of her dog. The statement instantly resonated with me, because the fears we have day in and day out, those fears that are negatively impacting the dogs we love so much, are about us….not the dogs at the end of our leashes.

The fears which we allow to cripple our relationships on a regular basis stem from a perceived lack of control. Those fears that eat us alive and leave us making poor choices on behalf of those we are responsible for arise because of our innate need to be in control. We don’t trust ourselves or believe in ourselves, and instead we live in a perpetual state of self doubt and guilt, owning responsibility for everything bad that happens while completely neglecting those things that go right.

In fact, rarely do I see dog owners celebrating their accomplishments, praising themselves, or feeling confident. More often than not, those I meet are constantly dwelling on the negatives, beating themselves up for their (very natural) mistakes, and questioning their own handling on a daily basis.

But for the sake of your dog, you need to start treating yourself with a little more respect.

But his owner LOVES him. So it’s okay…..right?

Believe it or not, love is NOT all you need when dealing with dogs. In fact, it’s your love that got you into this mess. The Irrational Worry Syndrome wouldn’t have taken hold if you didn’t love your dog. But in some instances, you need to take risks. Your dog can’t build up his immune system if he is never exposed to anything except outdated and overdone vaccinations. Your dog can’t build muscle and strength if the only running he does is from one side of your living room to the other. And despite how convincing your arguments are, your dog can’t physically tolerate life if he’s never exposed to it.

Think about it. Which dog would fare better on a hot day? The dog that spends a good deal of time outside or the dog that lazily lounges on the couch or is cooped up in a crate in your perfectly climate controlled living room?

You can’t control everything….so stop trying!

Sure, your dog could get stolen from your perfectly pad locked, privacy fenced yard in your upscale neighborhood. And lightning could strike him on a sunny day, an earthquake could topple your house crushing him inside, and a tornado could pick him up off the ground and carry him away. You can’t control everything in life. So stop trying. Bad things can happen. It doesn’t stop you from getting in your car everyday and driving yourself to work, despite the fact that the chances of you getting into an accident are far greater than your dog being stolen. You can’t control everything – and that’s OKAY. Just do your best to ensure your dog’s safety and quality of life, and then enjoy his companionship. Don’t be afraid to take risks if it’s in your dog’s best physical and mental interest.

Instead, focus your energy on becoming knowledgeable. Understand the risks…I mean the REAL risks, and get yourself prepared to prevent or deal with them should they arise. Knowledge is power, and by educating yourself and taking appropriate precautions, you can begin to overcome your fears.

Your dog needs you

Your dog relies on you for his perception of this world. He sees the world around him through your filters and emotional state. If you are afraid, the fear bleeds straight down your leash. If you are worried or feeling insecure, your dog will know. He may not understand why – he may not realize that your fear for example, of how he will react when a stranger approaches is about his behavior. What he does know however is Stranger = Fear and now, you’ve given him a reason to be afraid.

If you are confident in how you approach life, you will help your dog to feel more confident too. He needs you to show him that the world can be a wonderful place. So you better start believing it – for the sake of your dog.

Sometimes our fears, while coming from a place of immense love and adoration, can manifest themselves in ways that hurt our dogs….and ourselves. My fear of windows probably doesn’t impact my dog’s quality of life much. But many of the dog owners I meet with regularly have fears that stop their dogs from living life fully.

I promise, your dog doesn’t want to spend his entire life in a crate or curled up on your couch, being confined to your home and given only short leash walks around the same block day in and day out. Especially if he is an active breed. Dogs want to experience the world. They want to sniff and pick up sticks and run and play. And their bodies will be stronger and more full of vitality as they live active and stimulating lifestyles.

So next time you pass up a trip to the beach or a hike in the woods with your pup, ask yourself why, and make sure your fears aren’t taking the wheel. And next time you change your path for fear of judgement, ask yourself if you are doing what’s in your dog’s best interest.

Step out of your “safe” routine, and let your dog live a little. And while you’re at it, let yourself off that leash too!

Chelsey Montgomery