A couple of weeks ago, I decided to get one of those interactive toys for my 15-year-old dog, Puffy. I am always trying new ways to stimulate his mind, whether it’s through training or fun games. This is because I believe the more you use your brain, the stronger it will remain. This time, I decided to get him a puzzle to keep him busy at home while I was at work. Once it was delivered, I quickly opened the box and hid treats inside the toy, then set it down to let Puffy figure out how to get the treats. I wanted to make sure he was supervised the first time he tried it, so I stayed right there with him.

Puffy has always loved to solve problems, especially if they involve accessing food. This was no exception. As soon as I set the toy down, he went to check it out. His vision has diminished over the years, so he relies on his nose a lot more now; his first instinct was to cautiously smell the new toy. His first attempt in getting the hidden treats was to use his nose to overturn the entire toy; this didn’t work, and it made a huge noise that caused him to jump back. After seeing him frightened, I immediately picked up the toy and ended the game, even as he approached it again.

Why, you might ask? Puffy was diagnosed with Vestibular Disease last year, which I started to noticed would flare up when he found himself under stress of some sort. As soon as I noticed this pattern, I made it my job to make his days as stress-free as possible by playing calming music once a day, using training to help him cope with new situations, and having him wear a calming collar to promote as much calm energy as possible. Almost a year later, he has not had another episode. Seeing him go through his last episode, and loving him as much as I do, resulted in my own subconscious fear becoming stronger than Puffy’s. So, after picking up his new toy, I stopped and wondered why I’d done it. As a trainer for mostly fearful dogs, I help dogs overcome their fears daily–and had for years with Puffy, as well. I realized I wasn’t responding to Puffy’s fear of the toy, but to my own. The noise of the toy flipping over had startled Puffy, but only for a moment (nice recovery on his part), and he was already approaching it again when I panicked and stopped him from progressing. My fear blocked off my own rational side, effectively blinding me to the obvious: Puffy was fine and happily moving back in to figure out how to get the treats.

Fear is a dark entity that can make even the most rational person irrational. It can prevent us from fully living our own lives, and it can affect everyone around us, as well. In this case, Puffy was the one who was going to suffer (miss out on a fun new problem-solving game with treats) if I didn’t overcome my fear that he would get stressed out and trigger another episode of Vestibular Disease.

I’d acted out of instinct, but after a few minutes of reflection, I became aware of my own actions and started to think more rationally about the situation. Although all dogs have a startle reflex, Puffy had learned (through many years of training) to overcome his natural fear of things that startle him, and he was quickly ready to try the toy again. So there was really no reason for me to worry about his stress levels, because he wasn’t stressed. So I decided to give it another try, but this time I wasn’t going to look at him (I’d lost that privilege); I was going to be in the room, just in case something went wrong, but with my back turned to him. Guess what happened? Puffy quickly figured out the toy and enjoyed every second of ferreting out the treats I’d hidden inside. Now, whenever he sees me bring it out, he starts wagging his tail in anticipation.

In my 13 years as a dog trainer, I frequently see owners’ personal fears prevent their dogs from learning or overcoming fears of their own. How many times have you found yourself taking the stairs and not the elevator out of a fear you might meet another dog and your dog will lunge? How many times have you avoided fearful situations with your dog, afraid he might hurt someone? Or tightened up on the leash as a response to your own stress, causing your dog to become stressed, too? Perhaps you’ve even stopped walking your dog altogether (you wouldn’t be the first person to do so). Avoiding stressful situations your dog has not yet learned to handle is a big part of behavioral modification, but it is equally important to re-create those situations in a safe way, so that you can train your dog—and yourself—how to respond to them effectively and without undue stress. Avoidance alone will not teach your dog to cope with fear.

As far as overcoming your own fear, seek professional help: not in a therapist, but in a professional dog trainer who can teach you how to read your dog’s body language and guide him or her through daily life. Sharing success with your dog in safe, positive training experiences will enable both of you to navigate daily life with greater confidence and less fear. You will learn how to predict your dog’s behaviors and assess when he or she can cope with the situation and when you should flee. I never thought I would be in this position myself, which just goes to show you how deeply ingrained our fears can be. But as our dogs’ main guides and leaders, it is our responsibility to train ourselves first, so we can in turn help our dogs overcome their own fears, gain confidence, and thrive in our world.

In loving Memory of Puffy Arroyo

January 23, 2000- March 21, 2015

I wrote this post a week before Puffy’s passing. Re-reading it now, as a grief, I can feel Puffy is yet again at my side, helping me during this difficult time. The future without him is scary, but just like he taught me, I need some time to go through the emotions my heart needs to feel in order to start moving forward and continue to problem solve in this puzzle toy we call life. Fear is natural feeling however, we should never let it take control of us. Thank you Puffy for continuing to teach me about life.