My 4 dogs and I had just entered the area of the trail that led up the mountain through the forest when a sound stopped me dead in my tracks. It had originated directly above me, though I was not aware of this immediately. It trailed off behind me and I turned around, there was a tightness in my chest, I was holding my breath and the part of my brain that rarely notices my heart beating registered that it was beating hard and fast. I stood there frozen for a moment during which the realization ‘hawk’, generated in one part of my brain, the part of my brain that remembers things like that, sent the message to the part of my brain that had already started preparing me to react. At the same instant the myriad possibilities of what might be causing the sound, which seemed loud and close, were also flashing through my mind.
In the woods surrounding our home I know there are bears, coyotes, foxes, skunks, possums, fisher cats, bobcats, rabbits, weasels, feral cats, deer and a variety of other birds, insects and animals. I count on the fact that all of them also know there’s a lady who regularly walks through the woods with dogs, to allay any fears I may have regarding close encounters. But it has happened. Porcupines are discovered much to my dogs’ distress and my wallet’s (a vet visit is usually required), deer have been herded by my border collie, and unfortunate feral cats have met their demise when making the wrong choice when fleeing from a dog. Over the 20+ years we’ve lived here these events have been infrequent enough that I feel comfortable continuing to walk with my dogs off leash, but I am aware there are risks. I had recently seen a story about a Yorkshire Terrier that had been caught and killed by an owl. One of the dogs walking with me weighs 12lbs, and although that would be too heavy for a hawk, I consciously made note that the hawk, soaring just over the tree-tops, was empty taloned.
Once I was reassured that there was no clear and present danger I stood for a moment, a finger on my pulse, noticing the other sensations in my body which were a response to being startled by the sound. Not long ago I had done the same thing when I was experiencing distressing interactions regarding my foster dog Nibbles. Concerned about his welfare I would wake up at night feeling dread-filled and anxious. I noticed that even my arms had sensations that were unusual, as though low voltage was being sent through them. I wasn’t concerned for my health, I realized that what I was feeling physically was directly related to my anxiety and anger with and about the situation at hand.
More and more scientists are researching and studying emotions in dogs. When it comes to fear-induced responses I encourage you to pay attention to your own responses to stress, fear and anxiety. The next time you notice a fearful dog you might actually be right if you tell them, “I feel your pain.”