Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Paralysis of Fear

Baxter has developed a phobia about hard wood and smooth-surfaced floors. He simply won't walk on them. He won't even step on them.

Since every floor in our house, with the exception of our family room's brick floor, is either linoleum (the laundry room), wood laminate (the kitchen), or hard wood (every other room), his fear presents a problem.

Carpet runners and area rugs provide a solution. But they offer an imperfect solution at best. It's heartbreaking to watch Baxter navigate inside. This 97-pound, boisterous adolescent becomes a cautious, timid waif who carefully picks his way from carpet runner to carpet runner, carefully avoiding contact with any smooth-surfaced floor. It's almost as if he's walking on boulders set in lava; if he steps off he'll get burned.

We don't know what happened or why he developed this fear. As a puppy he loved trotting on the bare kitchen floor; the wood laminate tiles felt cool to rest upon on hot summer days. The hard wood floors of the front hall and living room afforded new places to explore. Baxter seemed fearless.

Then, one day several months ago, I called Baxter to come and he wouldn't budge. His paws seemed "stuck" on the kitchen's laminate flooring; he acted like he wanted to come but couldn't. At first I thought his response might be neurological, but a quick trip to the vet ruled out a physical cause. Baxter was afraid.

The vet (and canine behavior books) suggested that Baxter might have slipped once, perhaps spreading his front legs too wide (not a natural movement in dogs), and ended up straining a muscle or hurting himself somehow. So now he avoids what might cause him pain. His response to this fear, while protecting him from possible (not definite) pain, limits his freedom.

It may sound silly, but I feel like he's missing out.

Oh, to be sure, our house boasts more carpet runners and area rugs than any other house I've been in, and Baxter has ample carpet space on which to roam. But he won't step off the carpet.

What a picture of how fear can rob us! Baxter's fear keeps him from resting his head on our feet while we sit at the kitchen table (a treat both Ridge and Elsie fearlessly enjoy). His fear robs him of visits to me in my office (another hardwood floor) while I work (something his pack-mates do often). His fear robs him of the freedom to fully enjoy his surroundings. And it makes me sad for him.

But I can't remove his fear. I can only encourage him to take risks (which I do). But his fear of smooth-surfaced floors is one fear over which he seems to have little control.

When I look at Baxter on his carpet runners, I have to wonder what fears, if any, limit me. What potential pains keep me from adventure and joy? What fears keep me from taking risks or fully enjoying the world in which I live? Of what am I afraid, and is it a legitimate fear?

That's the sad thing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, walking on smooth-surfaced floors will not hurt Baxter. But he has associated pain with a certain kind of flooring, and now he avoids it all cost, even if in reality it won't hurt him.

Baxter reminds me that we all have smooth-surfaced floors in our lives: things that provoke fear and avoidance in us. He also reminds me, however, that most of our fears will never be realized; the outcomes we fear are only potentials, not realities.

The question is, am I going to allow fear of what will probably never happen to rob me of joy and adventure today? I hope not. How about you?

'Til next time,

1 comment:

2ndchance said...

Gotta say, I see that with a lot of dogs, in some cases they got hurt so that's what they remember, In other cases, such as with my Newfoundland it's a sight thing. My Newf is a Therapy dog and when we do therapy shows in the mall he will pick only one color tile to walk on out of the two patterns they have throughout the mall.If he steps on the lighter tile first he avoids the darker tile and vice versa. Makes for a long walk to get to the spot we're going to as the pattern is usually around the whole mall! I also saw a Newf in the show ring who would not step on the black runner. He did not win a ribbon and the handler came out of the ring saying, "You always do this to me, it's just a floor!"
Had a St Bernard who would only go in one room of the house as well because of wood floors and floor changes, each time we redid a floor he would not go on it, ended up spending his life in the family room which was okay because we were always in there watching tv so he was not alone.