I used to worry about what other people thought of me. I tried not to. But I did. I also have a strong sense of responsibility. I am predisposed to feel that it is my responsibility to make sure my actions don’t disrupt or impose themselves on other people. The latter has made me (I hope) a good, community-minded and neighbourly individual. However, when entwined with the former – an underlying fear of what of people think – it has been easy to get things out of proportion and slide into the habit of prioritising other people’s feelings above my own. It has been a slippery slope along which I have descended to a place where I have negated my own needs in an attempt to be seen favourably in the eyes of others.
How much has this impacted my life with my dog? I think quite a lot.
My dog, Benson, has some insecurities. The resulting behaviour means that when things worry him, we all know about it. Some of his behaviours could easily be termed anti-social. I’ve met a number of people over the years, professionally and personally, with dogs that present similar anti-social behaviours and for many, worrying about what other people think can be a big part of the problem.
Managing this stress response can be one of the biggest challenges we face as we endeavour to offer our dogs the support that they need. On a fundamental level, we are social creatures; once upon a time, our survival was dependant on being part of a group or tribe. To be a social outcast could literally be a matter of life or death. In some cultures, this is still the case. This biological predisposition can be a positive thing – it engenders a sense of social responsibility and feeds an instinctive knowledge that our wellbeing is intrinsically linked to that of our community. Coupled with individual self-confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth, being concerned about the opinions of others can create a well-balanced approach to life. Unfortunately, for many of us, our self-confidence has taken some knocks. Negative messages from our parents, challenging experiences at school or work and the pressures of living in a social-media-driven society all erode our sense of self. This is when our response to our environment becomes distorted; when the line between having a healthy awareness of our responsibility towards others and the need for social approval to validate who we are becomes blurred.
Here in the UK, it is not easy to be the owner of a dog whose vulnerabilities create some degree of reactive behaviour. Barking in the garden, lunging on the lead and frightening the postman are among some of the behaviours that could potentially end with us in court. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 states that a person need only feel sufficiently fearful of injury from a dog for there to be a case for prosecution (even if the dog was on the lead at the time); this applies to visitors to the owners’ home as well as in public places. Owners of dogs that aggressively jump up at the letterbox or bark excessively in the home or garden can be prosecuted under other legislation. These laws seek to protect the public (and dogs) from irresponsible owners, and fortunately the vast majority of people are reasonable. However, the wording of these laws allows for the occasional unreasonable individual to push for a prosecution and put responsible owners through a very difficult ordeal.
Social media, while being a useful platform to share worthwhile and supportive information, can also become a public noticeboard for naming and shaming. Just yesterday I saw such a post on my village Facebook page: One dog owner described in detail an incident in which her dog had been attacked by a neighbour’s dog whilst out in the local fields. The neighbour responded in defence of her dog and gave a vastly different version of events. She described her dog as playful and good-natured, and encouraged people to come and meet her dog to see for themselves. Others contributed to this online conversation, some placatory but many seeking to add fuel to the fire. I have seen this kind of interaction before, as I’m sure we all have. All of this online chatter creates an anxious backdrop for those of us with concerns about what other people may think, feeding our fears that there will be no mercy should we or, more importantly, our dogs step out of line.
Worrying about what people think is quite a broad statement, and under this umbrella will be many individual fears or concerns – some of which are quite common and some of which are unique to us as individuals. Here are the three most common ones that have come up for me and my clients:
Not wanting to be seen as an irresponsible owner: As discussed earlier, this relates to a sense of social responsibility and feeds into a more respectful and harmonious society. However, where do we draw the line between maintaining an awareness of others and keeping a sense of perspective? A priority must always be to ensure the safety of others, our dog and ourselves, but what if our dog isn’t a real danger to anyone – he’s just an anxious barker? Life is unpredictable. We can put every management strategy in place but still there will be the occasional time our dog lunges and barks at a passing stranger, the cyclist that suddenly surprises us as we walk along a country track causing a stir, or similar unsettling event. Are we able to brush these experiences off or do we keep them alive by berating ourselves over and over about what ifs? Reviewing an experience to learn from it is one thing but tormenting ourselves with shoulds and should nots is another.
Wanting to be liked: Who doesn’t want to be liked? Most of us do to some extent. It’s a completely natural desire. For some the need is stronger than others. A scowl of disapproval, the unsmiling stare of an observer or a judgemental comment can cut very deep. Sometimes these responses are real, sometimes they are merely imagined. Unfortunately, the fear of others responding in this way is very real. As the owner of a barky dog, I have experienced the relief as a friendly soul gives Benson an understanding smile or offers me a kindly comment.
Wanting people to like my dog: We love our dogs. We see the many different faces of our dogs – relaxed and playing in the garden; tail-wagging and joyous when you walk through the door; a heavy head on your lap for an evening cuddle; eager and happy as you produce the lead for a morning walk. Not everyone sees these faces; sometimes the only face they see is the stressed and anxious one that barks out a fearful warning. Many of us find ourselves wishing other people could see the other side of our dog, feeling sad that our dog is misunderstood, knowing that behind the barks and growls hides insecurity and fear.
Most of the time these concerns just tick along in the background, niggling under the surface but not creating too much discomfort. It is easy to normalise them and not consider that they may actually be having a significant impact on our dogs and their behaviour. But how many times have we lingered too long in order to explain our dog’s behaviour: “He’s a rescue, poorly socialised”; “She was attacked by a black dog as a puppy and just hasn’t liked them since”? How many times have we inappropriately reprimanded our dog for displaying a behaviour because we are embarrassed and wish they would just ‘behave nicely’? These may seem like relatively minor actions. In isolation they are, but as habits they are indicators that our concerns have become too focused on how other people are experiencing our dog than with how our dog is actually feeling. Sometimes it takes one event to highlight just how out of proportion things are below the surface: I had an experience with Benson, a minor incident really in terms of his behaviour, but one in which the other dog owner responded by trying to kick Benson. Suffice to say there was a lot of barking. I was relatively new to the village and we were in a field overlooked by my neighbours, one of whom was in his garden. These ingredients added up to create an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and fear in me. I rushed home, my heart pounding, barely able to resist the urge to draw all my curtains and hide. I dissected the event over and over: It was all my fault; how stupid I’d been; if only I’d gone a different route; what would people think? My imagination ran wild: What would my neighbour tell people? Who else might have seen? Would the tale spread along the village grapevine? In the end I called on the neighbour who I believed had witnessed the scuffle: “I just wanted to reassure you that I am a responsible owner” I heard myself saying, as I explained (in far too much detail) what had occurred. My neighbour smiled patiently and said all the right things. But I was left with my anxiety. Lying low, I skirted around the edges of local fields for at least two or three weeks, in what was really an attempt to avoid my uncomfortable sense of shame and vulnerability. This experience was a pivotal one in flagging up to me the need to explore my emotional history and recognise that my concerns about what others think have some painful roots in the past. By doing this, I have been able to positively support myself to manage these fears and in turn become better able to support my dog as we manage his.
There are many methods available to help us resolve our fears and work with our anxieties. For me, the first step is to keep a journal of my experiences, to detail my feelings and to ask myself if I have felt these feelings before. This can be an extremely useful way of recognising that our present emotional responses are being influenced by our past. Recognition is the first step to being able to detach from our emotional habits and make choices around them. Psychologist Tara Brach has a wonderful acronym that I find very helpful: R.A.I.N.
Supporting ourselves with the same kindness and compassion we show our dogs is crucial to overcoming this particular anxiety. Our need for approval and our fear of being disliked are so often outward projections of our own internal emotional landscape. Like most things in life, our emotional responses are habits. We may need support to break these habits or we may already have the inner resources to create change. Whatever our path, the first step must lie with us. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “Begin within”.
About the author: Sharon Rich has worked with dogs for 10 years and is a Master NLP practitioner. She specialises in exploring the emotional dynamic between dogs and their owners and its use as a tool for personal development. Her website is www.making-the-connection.co.uk