A question that I am often asked about animal behaviour is: “If animals focus only on the present moment why do they exhibit fearful or traumatic behaviour? Surely that shows that they hold on to memories from the past.”  I thought I’d put my thoughts on this topic into a blog:

I have heard that animals are much more ‘in the moment’ and can shake off their worries and fears. Is this true?

Animals that live in the wild, or close to their wild nature, do live in the present moment.  An animal’s natural way of living is to respond and react to their present circumstances and current environment.  This is different from humans. We are often thinking about the past or dreaming about the future!

When an animal experiences threat or danger they will exhibit a ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response.  But as soon as the danger or threat has passed they will shake their body to release the experience. This releases the tension held in their muscles; they return to what they were doing before the danger or threat appeared. 

In this way, the animal literally ‘shakes off’ the experience instead of storing it in their body’s cellular memory.   

But isn’t there evidence that animals hold onto trauma just as people do?

Animals that live with humans or that have a lot of interaction with humans can hold onto trauma.  They learn from experience, just as humans do. 

Learning from experience is useful if we want to train a dog to round up sheep or a horse to jump fences. However animals also remember past experiences of danger, threat and pain. 

If an animal has that experience many times they will learn to be afraid of anything that reminds them of that experience.

I know that horses can be scared of whips. Surely they are not fully in the moment if they remember treatment from the past that causes them to be scared now.

Being scared of whips does not mean that they are no longer in the present moment.  It simply means that their sympathetic nervous system has been ‘programmed’ to respond to a whip. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for the “fight or flight” response during any potential danger. 

If the horse regularly and frequently experiences pain from a whip, their sympathetic nervous system learns that a whip equals pain. Eventually the horse’s response is no longer a conscious reaction, but a basic survival mechanism. Their sympathetic nervous system is now protecting them from that potential pain by triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response whenever they see a whip.

I have a rescue dog. It is a delightful dog and is totally relaxed with everyone. But if anyone wearing a hat gets close to them they get aggressive. Why is that? A hat can’t hurt them.

This is very similar to the situation with the horse and a whip. It might be that your dog was previously hit or kicked by someone wearing a hat. Over time it will not only equate the person with the experience. It will equate the hat with the person.

If this continues for a prolonged time, eventually anybody in a hat will remind them of the danger and pain. Now they respond in a defensive and protective way to anybody in a hat. Their way of protecting themselves from danger looks like aggression to us.

Do wild animals learn to be afraid of humans or are they naturally afraid?

Wild animals don’t have these learned fears.  They have not learned to be afraid of a whip or a person wearing a hat.  This is because they have not had the experience that teaches them to be scared of these things. But they do have that natural fight / flight / freeze response to threat or danger.

Wild animals also have an instinctual response to the energy of aggression coming towards them. That is why a wild animal will run away when we raise a rifle or a camera. Both of these actions contain an energy of ‘hunting’.

The animal does not know if the person intends to take a photograph or take their life. They just feel threatened by the energy being directed towards them. They don’t hang around to find out what it is – they just run!

Is it true that animals can pick up on our feelings?  If so, can we influence how they feel?

The animals that live with us are so connected to us that they continually pick up our emotions.  As a result we can influence how they feel. They can learn that certain situations or people should be feared based upon our response. 

This is a throwback to their time living in their wild state in packs or herds.  One of the herd picks up the scent of danger. Very quickly the whole herd gets the message and they are all on high alert.

We are their new ‘herd’ and they look to us for clues as to how they should respond to a situation.

Can our thoughts and ideas help our furry friends change their behaviour?

Absolutely! Our animal companions pick up our thoughts as well as our emotions and they look to us for guidance. If we are worried that they will bark and growl at other dogs they meet while out on a walk, we can inadvertently reinforce their behaviour.

They hear us thinking “I hope he doesn’t growl at the dog that is approaching us”. The trouble is they don’t hear the negative part, “I hope he doesn’t”. They just hear “growl at the other dog” – so they do!

They love us and they want to please us.

If we want them to change their behaviour we can help by focussing our mind on the behaviour we would like them to exhibit. We can think, “I am so happy that my dog walks calmly past other dogs”. Our dog will pick up that message and they will do that instead.

If you have a question or a topic that you would like me to write about, please email me via the contact form.

Image: Cath Neville – unsplash