Ruby grew up in rural northern California and had not had much exposure to the extremes of thunder, lightning and fireworks that are so prevalent in Florida, so her first summer here had her unnerved. Like most dogs, the sudden and repetitive noise and light of explosions made her jumpy and upset. One Fourth of July we went to see friends who lived with five cats. Ruby was raised by a cat named Bob and has always been fond of felines so she was delighted to have five cats to follow around. The first loud firework explosion made her jump and shake…. until she noticed that all five cats were nonchalantly grooming, lapping water, or playing, not paying any attention to the fireworks. I wish I could have gotten a photo of the expression on Ruby’s face. And in just a few heartbeats, Ruby had stopped trembling and was back playing with the cats, fireworks forgotten. To this day she is pretty much ok with thunder and fireworks, altho she does sometimes bark at the really loud ones.
We all have experience with the phenomenon of peer influence. It may be labeled as public opinion, political correctness, conformity, peer pressure, mob mentality (pitch forks and lanterns!), social influencing, group think ….. all terms for the powerful impact our society exerts upon us. Epigenetics is an area of scientific research that explores how environmental influences effect the expression of genes. Research into the concept of "soft inheritance”, a passing on of learned traits or behaviors that might actually become encoded in our DNA, suggests that a person’s experience actually generates molecular changes in the brain. Does that mean that if Ruby had puppies they would not be afraid of lightening or thunder even without her physical presence calming them? There are more questions than answers about this issue, but one thing is clear: we are social creatures and the influence of those around us is strong and often beneath our awareness. Increased consciousness of this phenomenon might allow us to avoid unfortunate behavior by intentionally choosing more positive influences.
"The people you spend time with influence your attitude and thoughts more than you think.”
Fuad Alakbarov, human rights activist and photojournalist