Two weeks ago I was sailing down a fairly open two lane highway in Idaho (read: the middle of nowhere); two border collies in secured crates in the back of my van. This is not an exceptionally unusual scene for me, and as the sun was going down I was closing in on hour ten behind the wheel that day. With just fifteen miles to go, I noticed something was wrong. My car was swerving and thunking; I had a flat. On the side of the road between two vast fields of farm land, semitrucks hauling past, I called my insurance company to dispatch a tow truck.
Two and a half hours later in the vast dark of the open country the monstrous tow truck arrived. I had cleared with him on the phone that my dogs would be riding in the cab with me, and from what I hear, I am lucky that he was fine with that. I loaded my suitcase into the cab; his wife and two year old boy were in the backseat. Then, it was time to get my dogs.
Idgie is almost 8 years old. She and I have traveled this whole country together. She has handled a lot of scary stuff right next to me. She is not keen on small children; so I informed the woman of that fact and she was good about keeping her son with her (a blessing–this is not always the case). The truck is loud, enormous, and not far from the rushing traffic of the nearby highway. The flashing lights of the truck are the only way any of us can see. Idgie’s eyes are wide and afraid but she follows me to the truck. Felix is just over a year old and he is not just scared; he is panicked. Darting to the end of his leash, frantically trying to escape this monster (tow truck) and I have to get him into the cab. My ultimate fear is that he might somehow get away from me; a terrified dog can’t make the rational choice to run into the field instead of the highway and he certainly can’t respond to a recall signal–no matter how trained. I asked Idgie to wait, I picked Felix up, and hauled him into the cab (a reach, I had to life him above my head). I then climbed in, and asked Idgie to hop up, which she did.
The entire ride into town Felix remained plastered to the floor of the cab. Idgie stayed sitting up so she could see my face, and though I could tell she was afraid, she was ok. She licked my inner elbow to calm me (and perhaps, herself) and I took a deep breath.
Idgie at Felix’s age would have been just as terrified as he was that night; perhaps more so. She is also less forgiving than he, for lack of a better word, and the same incident may have sewn into her development, manifesting in a terror of large vehicles and machines. If I know Idgie, she may have even refused to get back into my car–because that is where this all began. As it is, she is had no ill-effects that I can see. Were this to happen to us again, I think she’d take it relatively in stride. Meanwhile, Felix shows me subtle signs of worry around loud trucks now, and he was quite concerned when we had to go to the tire center to get my car the day after our tow. I am carefully pairing all large or loud vehicles that he notices with a cookie shower, but I know something more than that must occur. Idgie doesn’t have classical conditioning on her side with loud trucks and traffic–she has something else. Idgie has a long history of her person having her back. She has an eight year trust account with me. In her years on this earth I have stopped children and friendly labradors from reaching her. I have removed her from situations in which she told me she didn’t feel safe. I taught her to cooperate in veterinary and grooming procedures; and I do my very best to always allow her to opt out of these things when that is her choice. Though neither of us are confident or anxiety-free by nature, together we have learned that we are brave.
Felix will have this, too. He just doesn’t have it yet. I am grateful that he was wearing a harness he could not get out of, and that he is small enough that I could lift him above my head into the cab of that truck. I am grateful that my dogs always travel in crates, so that when I opened my car he could not dart out in fear. I am grateful that biting me is not a thought I think he has in his head; because he was certainly scared enough that it would have been warranted. I’m really grateful that he is a resilient fellow, and that this huge withdrawal should not stop us from building up a hearty trust account over the course of his life. I believe he will someday be able to trust me in those moments when his dog brain tells him to run away. I understand why that can’t happen overnight.
Think of my dogs and the tow truck next time your dog tells you he is afraid. If you don’t have to have him in that situation, walk away. If you have a puppy think trust account in everything you do; learning to trust their person is perhaps the greatest lesson a puppy can learn.