Taming the Chihuahua Brain

As I sat at the kitchen table yesterday, reading the paper, I heard one of our dogs barking outside on the deck. We have five dogs, so hearing a dog barking just outside the kitchen is not particularly noteworthy. Our dogs are so sensitive, they bark at cross-eyed gnats. It is, however, annoying to the neighbors. I got up to let the dog in, so he’d stop ruining everyone’s leisurely Saturday morning. As I opened the door, though, I noticed a man I didn’t recognize walking away from our neighbor’s garage. I found our six-pound chihuahua delivering, what I’m sure he intended to be, a bracing message of warning. The strange man, looked back over his shoulder at me, and hurried down the driveway. Something didn’t feel quite right about the stranger’s presence.

As I walked back into house, I remember observing, “Well, maybe the dogs get it right once in awhile.” I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

The whole thing got me to thinking, though. Evolution has honed canine senses to acute levels[1]. They are so sensitive, in fact, that they respond to any new stimulus as a threat. And they can sniff out a threat a mile away. Living in the wild, constant vigilance against natural enemies is evolutionarily advantageous. Living in a suburban home, on the other hand, where the fiercest threat is the neighbor’s dachshund three yards over, constant vigilance is maladaptive behavior.

Besides, what exactly could a six-pound chihuahua save me from anyway?

Noting the highly sensitive threat detection systems that patrol our back yard, people have said, “You’ve got some good watchdogs.”

Usually, I smile and nod my head. What I want to say, however, is: “No, they’re not. They’re horrible watch dogs. If everything makes them bark, then they’re useless as watchdogs.” Fear only works as an effective warning signal if there’s truly something to be afraid of. To walk around in a perpetual state of fear is not only exhausting, but sustained long-term stress is damaging to the body. It releases all sorts of chemicals that are helpful for short term confrontations with genuine threats; but perpetual stress is corrosive. Prolonged stress has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, as well as sexual disfunction. In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

In addition to the physical impairments caused by prolonged stress, the psychological toll can be debilitating. If you’re afraid all the time, you lose perspective about what to be afraid of and when it’s appropriate. It’s possible, in other words, to be afraid of, and react with hostility to, things that are good for you–and inevitably to tune out real threats.

It occurs to me that churches, especially churches experiencing decline, often confront the world with the nervous system of a chihuahua–treating each new change in the environment as a threat. They’ve evolved highly sensitive threat detectors over time. Unfortunately, these threat detectors issue an unacceptable level of false-positives.

If you bought a pregnancy test, for instance, that gave you a false-positive 90% of the time, you’d quit using it. If you had a security system that went off every time the baby cried or the parakeet belched, you’d be on the phone imploring your provider for an emergency service call to recalibrate the sensors. Threat detectors that go off indiscriminately and often are useless (at best), and insanity-inducing (at worst).

Why do churches settle, then, for a life wired to respond to every new thing like a six-pound dog–certain that calamity is behind every bush?

The only way to tame the chihuahua brain is to relinquish control of the future to God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

It’s God’s church, after all. God’s plenty capable of taking care of God’s stuff. What exactly could I save God from anyway?


  1. It has been called the “lizard brain” or the “triune brain,” but I have more experience observing chihuahuas, so I’ll stick with “chihuahua brain” for the purposes of this post.  ↩