Pondering Dog Anxiety
People in my neighborhood are already beginning their Halloween displays. On our morning walk, we saw a window covered in faux spiderwebs, a cluster of small pumpkins, and --most impressive of all--a stoutly stuffed scarecrow with a stake where the head should be. Lulu felt that this thing was not to be trusted. She paced back and forth at the end of her leash, sniffing the air. She cringed. Her tail--an extravagant plumed affair--slumped between her hind legs. She demanded a quick skulk-away.
We go through this every year during the holiday spectacle season. She cares not for the scarecrows or the ghosts that people dangle from trees and front porches; she shudders at those huge, bobbling, inflated snowmen of recent vintage; she cringes again in spring when the holiday exhibitionists drag their hot-air machines back outside and inflate giant Easter bunnies.
She is also so fearful during thunderstorms and in the weeks around Fourth of July that I'm thinking of getting her some doggie valium. I know these fears are common among dogs, but I don't really understand why SHE has them. I've had her since she was a puppy, and I know she wasn't fearful in her first couple of years. She's led an exceptionally pampered life--no children in the neighborhood have tormented her for sport, she hasn't been menaced by guns, she's had no near misses with cars. She never even experienced the rolled-newspaper discipline that was common for the dogs of my youth. I did once smack her on the nose when she drew blood with those puppy teeth, but her mother would have done the same.
Since these fears haven't been caused by experience, I wonder if they're part of her genetic package-- if the instinct to fear certain things is hardwired. Further, I wonder if she's programmed to fear them at a certain time in her life. I've wondered this kind of thing before, when I was writing an article for New Scientist about twin studies. These studies revealed that all sorts of things are present in our genes-- not only a propensity for colon cancer or obesity, but for religiosity and political conservatism. I asked one of the scientists if our genes are programmed to turn on at various times in our lives. Maybe in your twenties, your dissolute grandfather's genes lead you to max out your credit cards; in your thirties, your mother's frugal genes turn on and you finally manage to stick to a budget; then in your forties, you have enough leisure time (the influence of environment!) to take clarinet lessons (the genetic impulse passed on by your father's mother).
I'm sure that this scenario is simple-minded enough to make anyone who really knows much about science flinch, but still-- I like the idea of all these genetic possibilities coming into play at various times in my life, nudged by whatever's going on in my real world. Just as long as I don't start quivering under the dining room table during thunderstorms.