Myth, Modern Dogs & Mortal Fear

Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

fear noun /fɪər/ as defined by The Oxford dictionary

A feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety of someone.

Fear is a powerful, primitive emotion inherent in all of us, a healthy reaction to stimuli designed to keep us safe.

In the 1960’s Eleanor J Gibson & Richard D Walk conducted a study which they called “The Visual Cliff” with the intention of evaluating depth perception in humans. They set up apparatus using plexiglass in a four sided frame with checkerboard fabric, simulating a cliff. Gibson & Walk tested the responses of 36 crawling infants by placing them on the apparatus with their mothers calling to them to cross the percieved cliff. When the infants were called to cross the shallow side of the apparatus most did. But when asked to cross the perceived cliff many refused, crawling away or remaining stationary while crying. Gibson & Walker were able to assess the infants depth perception while also proving that the fear of falling was inherent in each child. For many species, not just human beings having a fear of falling is a necessary survival skill & if Gibson & Walk are correct it would seem that it is a skill we are all born with.

By From Gibson and Walk (1960). Copyright 1960 Nature Publishing Group. – Image taken from the US National Institute of Health website at Per license and attribution information in original, image is published under CC-BY-SA 4.0. See also for additional information regarding the Nature Publishing Group and the release of current and historical copyrighted works under Creative Commons., CC BY 4.0,

But not all fear is inherent from birth, many of the things that we fear as adults are learned responses.

Psychologists at the National Institute of Mental Health and Charles University in the Czech Republic studied the responses of a sample of humans to 24 animals & recorded their responses in a study of specific animal phobias.

In the case of spiders their presence provoked both fear & disgust in the participants. Using a five point rating system spiders scored 4.39 points for fear & 4.7 points for disgust. You can read more about the study in The British Psychological Society Research Digest.

Do you fear spiders?

I don’t, but many people have a fear of them that is so strong it affects their quality of life. This fear is far greater than just having a dislike for spiders. The very thought of a spider can provoke panic responses in the person resulting in sweating, increased heartbeat, trembling, nausea & an intense need to escape. Imagine worrying about the possibility of a spider being in your home or possibly avoiding places where spiders are most likely to be like summerhouses, garden sheds or even the garden.

What causes such a difference in emotional responses to spiders in different individuals. Might it be a remnant from some evolutionary threat response?

Hoel, Hellmer, Johansson & Gredeback looked at attention bias & arousal in 6 month old infants. They showed them pictures of spiders, snakes, fish & flowers & measured the infants arousal to the stimuli. The conclusion of that study was that the infants increased arousal to spiders & snakes in comparison to flowers & fish alluded to an ancestral threat mechanism that prepares humans to acquire ancestral related threat fears.

You can find the study in Frontiers In Psychology

Other factors that come in to play when provoking fear is the influence of others. In the case of spiders, some children may see spiders provoking a fear response in a parent & pick up on that fear which in turn creates a fear response in them.

By Fallows C, Gallagher AJ, Hammerschlag N (2013) – Fallows C, Gallagher AJ, Hammerschlag N (2013) White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) Scavenging on Whales and Its Potential Role in Further Shaping the Ecology of an Apex Predator. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60797. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060797, CC BY 2.5,

You’re gonna need a bigger boat – Martin Brody”

Hollywood has cashed in on our fears for years & in some cases created new reasons for us to be anxious & fearful.

One of Hollywood’s most successful fear based films was Jaws. Taken from the 1974 Peter Benchley novel, Stephen Spielberg made a mix of the ocean, suggestion & mechanics & made us believe that it most definitely wasn’t safe to go in to the water.

Jaws was an absolute blockbuster, earning three academy awards it is the seventh highest grossing movie of all time. It was massively successful at drawing us in thanks to a stupendous marketing campaign & the scary subject matter, it was a license to print money. We lined up for cinema tickets, we bought the merch & watched it all over again on VHS & DVD. And most of us believed that sharks were in fact cruising beneath the surface of our oceans just waiting for an opportunity to pull us under & devour us, mindless, frenzied killing machines that they are according to Jaws.

Soon after Jaws was released a testosterone fuelled race by fisherman came into being, as they hunted for shark trophies. proving to us that they were protecting us from the shark menace. Populations plummeted & Peter Finchley, the author of Jaws publicly declared a regret for writing the novel. In fact, he went on to campaign for shark rights & protection.

Because sharks are not a great threat to humans at all. Only 3 shark species are capable of eating us, the great white, the bull & the tiger shark. And even when they do it isn’t by choice, it is normally because something has gone wrong. We are not their natural prey. Statistics gathered from 1958 – 2018 show 439 shark attack fatalities. Meanwhile a report compiled by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada suggests that we kill 100 million sharks annually. So, whose the mindless, frenzied killing machines now Mr Spielberg?

Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The incitement of fear in story telling is nothing new. Humans have been at it for a very, very long time. Unlike Mr Stephen Spielberg & his blockbusting money spinner of a tale, some stories functioned to give us warnings to keep us safe when threats were real or to encourage caution. Lets take a peek at the ancient Greeks.

Greek mythology is a kind of mix of news, entertainment, ideas & a way to make sense of phenomena passed down the generations by storytellers.

A complex area of study, a place where fact & fiction collide leaving a trail of historical evidence, tall tales & societal expectations for historians & social scientists to unravel & the rest of us to enjoy.

I want to talk about Cerberus the three headed dog who guarded Hades kingdom, the underworld. The child of Typhon the most deadly monster in Greek mythology & Echidna, half woman, half snake said to have given birth to all monsters in greek mythology. probably the most well known of her children was Medusa. She was vicious with snakes for hair & is said to have turned all that looked at her to stone. All in all Cerberus had quite the hellish pedigree.

Loyal to his master Hades, he stood at the gates to the underworld in monstrous form with his three heads, a serpents tail & snakes springing from his back. His function was to prevent the living from entering the underworld & the dead from entering the world of the living where it is thought they would wreak havoc. He is said to have been ferocious with the dead as they attempted to escape the underworld, savagely devouring them. He was said to be so terryifing that even the gods were afraid of him.

Monsters in Greek mythology are often representative of things in the natural world that we should be wary of & sometimes they represent the dark side of human nature. On the one hand Cerberus is simply a working dog, doing his job. A regular guard dog, loyal to his master & a very good boy. Like our modern day dogs he was even partial to a piece of honey cake falling victim to it twice when both Psyche & Aeneas used it to sedate him so they could pass through to the underworld. On another level Cerberus represents evil, anger, vigilance and fury. Negative, harmful states of being & emotional responses which must be overcome. Hercules triumphed over Cerberus in his 12th & last labour proving that good can overcome evil.

By Wilhelm Janson (Holland, Amsterdam), Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630) – Image: archive copy, Public Domain,

Pack Of Devil Dogs Eat Man Alive

Sensationalism sells newspapers.

Which of these statements grabs your attention. “Woman taken to hospital after being bitten by dog” or “woman savaged by frenzied devil dog attack in blood lust fuelled rage”. The second one right?

Sensationalism is a driver for fear & panic

In the early 1990’s a series of very unpleasant attacks on humans by dogs, some resulting in fatalities attracted the attention of the media. The media responded with sensationalism, graphic images & terrifying headlines & we were afraid, we were very, very afraid. And quite suddenly many dogs who even looked a little similar to a “type” of dog were pariahs.

The government had to respond to public calls for action & quite rightly so, all dogs have the capacity to get out of hand & something needed to be done to ensure that dogs were kept under control & fatalities did not happen again. But the sensationalism had some members of the public baying for blood so when the government did respond they did so with a knee jerk reaction & Breed Specific Legislation or BSL as it is commonly known came into effect as part of The Dangerous Dogs Act.

Within this piece of legislation 4 breeds of dogs are banned. The Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentina & Fila Brasileiro.

You might think that the action of banning these dogs, considered dangerous breeds would result in reduced biting incidents & zero fatalities. But you would be wrong. According to the RSPCA 37 people have died from dog related incidences & hospital admissions due to dog bites increased 78% between 2005 & 2015. And of the 37 deaths 28 were caused by dogs not on the banned breed list.

Those figures are testimony to the failure of Breed Specific Legislation. A piece of legislation that we do not support, in fact every animal welfare organisation we know doesn’t support it either & we would all like to see change. But fear is a powerful weapon if this legislation were changed what position would our government be in if a fatality involving a banned breed were to happen after any changes.

As an organisation we continue to collaborate with others & support all efforts that lead to debate regarding BSL. A thorough overhaul of this failed legislation is desperately needed to protect both dogs & humans alike.

Keep your foreign dog away from mine, it’s full of diseases & feral”

There is a new fear in the dog community. A fear of foreign dogs.

There is a creeping trend for foreign dog bashing that needs to stop. A trend that has sprung from fear. Fear of disease & fear of aggression. And, unfortunately the headline on the post isn’t sensationalism, it is a genuine remark made to a listener.

Not helped by the recent CDC import ban on dogs travelling from countries endemic for rabies despite said dogs being adequately vaccinated & definitely rabies free.

Most rescues are very savvy with regard to screening & have been testing for everything including the latest worry, brucella for some time. Less savvy rescues are catching up double quick but please do remember to ask the right questions when adopting, they won’t be offended. If they are, as hard as it is please walk away.

Your vet is the best source of advice regarding pre adoption screening advice, preventative measures & best practice across the board. I would strongly advise that you speak to your practice vet before you adopt & stay away from well meaning social media posts that can get out of hand, become toxic, attract argument, negativity & create fear.

It bothers me that so many of you get in touch because you have received abuse for having a dog that others see as being nothing but a big bag of disease with legs. It bothers me that you are accosted for your choices. Nobody has the right to tell you where you should get your dog from, that is your business & nobody else’s. Please remember that. The behaviours that you are experiencing are totally unacceptable.

More worryingly a few people have come forward actively seeking out vets with ethnicity because they don’t feel welcome at their surgery, they feel that their vet disapproves of their dog & it makes them feel uncomfortable or shockingly they no longer trust their vet to treat their dog. I would hope that all vets would be concerned to hear that a patients guardian felt that way. If you are able to speak to your vet you may be able to resolve the problem. The vet may not realise how they are coming across.

We are sometimes sent remarks from vets that are controversial. One remark in particular was extremely upsetting. The remark in question was that foreign dogs should be euthanised in the country of origin. In my opinion that is an absolutely disgraceful remark to make & detrimental to the good reputation of the veterinary profession. Because dogs ARE euthanised in countries of origin. They are shot, not that well, it takes time for them to die, often in front of children, they are poisoned, bludgeoned & injected straight in to the heart.

If you see something online that makes you uncomfortable or upsets you, don’t engage, block or mute, you can also report the post if you think it is hateful. If you are worried about going to see your vet change practice but I strongly suggest that you also talk to the relevant professional body about it. You can speak to another vet at your practice, this may resolve the issue. Practice managers may find your feedback helpful & given that many practices are owned by a few large corporates they may also find your feedback helpful. These companies are big businesses with shareholders to satisfy. They will not want to lose your business to a competitor.

If you are being abused in the street & the abuse is intimidating or threatening document it & report it to the police. This kind of behaviour is an offence under The Public Order Act 1986 & you do not have to put up with it if it makes you feel intimidated or unsafe.

If you are struggling with other people’s attitudes to you & your dog please don’t suffer in silence, get in touch & we will signpost you to someone who you can talk things through with. All dogs are amazing, it doesn’t matter what they look like or where they come from, they all deserve to be treated the same way, with care & kindness.

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