I want you to remember a time when you went into a new situation or a strange place, and then think about how you felt. Maybe it was starting a new school or a new job, or visiting a city you’d never been to before. Maybe it was a first date — or a second date with someone you really liked.
Now think about how you felt going into that situation. Chances are you were anxious, or maybe a little scared. Maybe you even tried to avoid that situation because of the way you felt. But why did you feel that way? Here’s a hint: It’s something you may make your dog feel all the time.
That thing is called “Uncertainty.” Humans can feel it frequently, whether it’s about the present or the future, but often we also intellectualize our way out of it — or into it! Dogs don’t have that luxury, though. In fact, to them, everything new is also, at least initially, a cause for uncertainty.
Even when we’re really nervous or scared, a lot of the time we can talk ourselves down by remembering when we’ve been in similar situations with nothing bad happening, or by reminding ourselves that the novelty of the situation will wear off soon. Again, dogs can’t do that.
For a dog, any new situation can be full of uncertainty. While they can be curious, it’s also in their nature to be wary. Instinctually, this makes sense. In the world of instincts, something new could be harmless or it could be very dangerous; it could be food or it could be a threat. And on first encounter, a dog just doesn’t know, so they choose to err on the side of caution.
A lot of that reaction, of course, depends on the dog. Some of them are naturally more confident than others, so they won’t become as skittish because of uncertainty or they may decide whether something is good or bad fairly quickly. Other dogs may be uncertain about everything, and never really get over it.
Those are the dogs that I frequently wind up working with — the ones who will refuse to go on the walk, or won’t step onto shiny floors, or go up the stairs. At its extreme, they are the ones who may lash out and bite people or attack other dogs.
At its worst, uncertainty can lead to all kinds of negative outcomes.
That’s where we, as Pack Leaders, come in. Remember, a Pack Leader’s job is to provide protection and direction. You provide both of those by being confident and calm. If you have no uncertainty going into a situation, your dog will sense that and feel much safer. But if you’re not sure yourself, then it will make your dog even less sure and much more likely to act out to protect himself or you.
Think about times when you were uncertain as a child — that first day of a new school or even just a new school year and teacher are great examples. One of your parents may have even come along to help you feel more confident about things. Well, in a lot of ways, your relationship with your dog is just like that. They are the uncertain child about to experience something new and scary. You’re the parent, come along to hold their hand and get them through that fear.
Of course, don’t take that too literally! We should never think of our dogs as actual children because their minds work in such different ways. However, as a metaphor, we have to remember that we are their protective parents, keeping them out of trouble and free of fear by example.
The great thing about this is that having our dogs to focus on can help us be free of uncertainty ourselves. After all, can you think of anything more certain than the look of love and devotion your dog gives you every day? It’s a lot to live up to — but doing so will make your dog feel more secure and will make you a better, more confident person.
Stay calm, and be certain!