Downeast Dog News

Blueberries, Springer Spaniels and Coffee:

The Power of One-Event Associations
By | Nov 08, 2018

I was 5 or 6 years old at the time, and my family was taking a drive in Downeast Maine during the wild blueberry season. Oh, how I LOVED blueberries! We stopped and picked up a few quarts at a roadside stand and to my delight, one of the quarts was handed to my two siblings and me in the back seat. I was in heaven! I dove in, dipping out handfuls of delicious berries and pouring them into my mouth, sending myself into a blueberry trance. My siblings weren’t as enthusiastic, and my older sister teased, “Diana, you are going to get sick!” How could I get sick from something I loved eating? It didn’t make sense to my young mind.

A few minutes later when my digestive system finally had a moment to comprehend what it had just been asked to do, combined with my propensity to get motion sick, we had to make an emergency stop. It was in the nick of time; we’d no sooner stopped than I was unbuckled and leaning over the car door threshold, depositing a large, blue-colored pile of slop on the pavement.

I couldn’t eat blueberries for many, many years after that.


My elderly friend saw me with a gregarious Springer Spaniel, and he instantly became quiet and withdrawn. He told me that when he was a young teenager he got bitten by a Springer Spaniel, and ever since then, he just couldn’t trust them. He’s a dog lover, a dog owner, but still, that sentiment prevails with such tenacity that he remained suspicious of all Springer Spaniels.


She is in her 70s now and had never drunk a cup of coffee in her life. She took an unauthorized sip once when she was a young kid, and it tasted so utterly vile that she could never bring herself to try it again. In fact, the memory was so potent that she has a hard time coping with the simple aroma of coffee.


We all have stories similar to these. There are events and experiences in our lives that are so powerful that their effects linger long afterward. This holds true despite our ability to reason, use logic and problem-solve our way through things. We have the capacity to change our own behavior and way of thinking, yet these experiences still manage to maintain an influence over us.

From a dog’s perspective

Now imagine what it’s like to be our dogs, who lack the cognitive skills just described yet are subjected, time and time again, to things that cause them discomfort, fear, or anxiety. They don’t have a choice and all too frequently those fears become stronger due to continued exposure without appropriate intervention. Our dogs won’t try to use reason or talk themselves out of being fearful. We need to be more aware and intervene when necessary before that fear or anxiety starts to fester and stick and before the dog starts to tack other things onto the trigger (such as getting into the car because the car may take the dog somewhere she doesn’t want to go).

Vet visits are a good example. Puppies go to the vet a few times and generally, the first time or two are “fine” - no obvious expression of discontent, but they may remember how they felt when a stranger restrained them and during some future visit, they make it crystal clear that they think the vet’s office is a torture chamber.

Classical Conditioning Rules!

We need to implement strategic associative learning practices BEFORE a potentially bad experience occurs in the first place. This means we need to make the assumption that a pup will be fearful of vet visits. We can then take appropriate action to ensure that the pup has the absolute best possible experience. We will have to repeat this pattern over and over and over again. Food, toys, games, friends, multiple fun visits without exams - these all help to tip the scales in favor of happy! It’s much easier to do this than to try to manage a terrified dog. In fact, many people don’t take their pets to the vet frequently enough because it’s so stressful for them.

What one-event experiences have you had in your life that still affect you? How about your dog?