I like to think that I’m a good dog-mom. Of course, around here dog care goes well beyond food, water, and shelter. Ongoing behavioral training is another must, especially for Lilly. And, yet, I read something in Temple Grandin’s book, “Animals in Translation,” that stopped me cold.
On page 189, Grandin says, “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally
is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it’s worse than
pain. I always get surprised looks when I say this …”
I read that and got a big knot in my stomach. Here I am — training, shaping, and working myself into a tither over Lilly’s emotional state and her ability to perform one way or another in “public.” Clearly, such outings cause her fear (or at least anxiety). Suddenly, I thought, I’m bad, bad mommy … especially when I recall the many times I took her to class, in the early stages of her meltdown, with the idea that she’d get used to it and learn not to be afraid.
In furthering her comparison between animals and autistic people, Grandin adds later on that same page: “I believe animals have lower pain and higher fear than
people do. My other reason for believing this at least provisionally is that
it’s the same with autistic people. As a general rule, we have lower pain,
higher fear, and lower frontal lobe control of the rest of our brain than
nonautstic people. Those three things go together …”
“You almost have to work with animals to see what a terrible
emotion fear is for them. From the outside, fear seems much more punishing than
pain. Even an animal who’s completely alone and giving full expression to
severe pain acts less incapacitated than an animal who’s scared half out of his
wits. Animals in terrible pain can still function; they can function so well
they can act as if nothing in the world is wrong. An animal in a state of panic
can’t function at all.”
It’s true for Lilly. When she panics, there is NO reasoning with her. It’s as if she cannot see or hear me. It honestly looks like she’s left her body on flee-autopilot.
Her regular, every-day fear can look like anything from shyness, to nervousness, to total shut down. In our vernacular, shut down is very different than panic. When Lilly shuts down, she looks like someone trying to mentally circle the wagons, to close out all stimuli and regroup. It is hard to reach her in this state, but she’s more “reasonable” than when she panics.
Grandin explains the different between fear and anxiety on page 191:
“Fear is a horrible problem for people with autism – fear
and anxiety. Fear is usually defined as response to external threats, while
anxiety is a response to internal threats.”
Then, on page 192, she talks about vigilance and its connection to anxiety. This made a lot of sense to me since as a border collie, Lilly is ever vigilant to every movement, every sound around her.
I once had a classmate whine, “But, we’re way over here,” when Lilly reacted fearfully in class. That’s when our instructor explained that Lilly was reacting to a dog about a quarter mile down the trail. She misses nothing.
“The reason I think vigilance may be linked to anxiety is
that anxious people are always on guard, always watching for trouble,” Grandin explains.
That’s Lilly in a nutshell.
And, then, on page 195, I read the one thing that made all my hard work, all my worry, all my efforts feel even more like failure than usual.
Grandin says, “No animal goes back to acting nonchalant about a person,
place, or situation once he’s been scared half out of his wits. It just doesn’t