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Reactions in Dogs - Part 1

Why does my dog react the way it does? 

Have you ever wondered why your dog: • reacts the way it does when it becomes scared or excited?  • Shakes or pees all over the feet of someone when they come through the door?  • Runs and hides with huge dilated pupils when a car backfires?  • Licks its lips and looks panicked when another dog walks by?  Is it just your dog’s quirky behaviour which you've come to accept and live with or is it something deeper? Something more primal than their emotional state?  The physical response in your dog is caused by its sympathetic nervous system and it is no different to that of your own, except to say it appears more heightened in dogs. Its more visible to us in animals and it results in real fight or flight reactions that aren’t suppressed like many of our own human responses.   So, what is going on in our dogs when the postman knocks the door, friends visit us or a firework explodes outside? And more to the point – why do we need to understand it?  In my opinion, understanding what physical responses occur when our dogs fight or flight response kicks in is important if we want to understand how to counteract this primal behaviour. If we can understand the response process, we can then act in a manner that makes them more content around the things that we know aren’t threats or help them to control themselves when they become excited. Why is it that when a firework goes off outside, we don’t react in the same way? After all we have the same physiological systems. Why does our dog shake and cower whilst urinating on the floor or bark and growl at the window when the firework explodes? In fact, our physical response is actually no different from our dogs. The firework explodes and for a brief moment we respond; we jump, our muscles tense, our heart rate quickens, our breathing rate quickens, our senses become heightened, our mouths dry up. All of this happens in a matter of seconds. Then our brain kicks in, we assess the threat, evaluate the evidence we’ve received from our sensory organs and in most cases we come to the conclusion that the sound we heard, or the flash we saw, was a firework, or a car backfiring and slowly, after realising there is no threat to us, our physical systems return to normal. Our heart rate slows again and we relax back to the state we were in before. Sometimes this can take a short while as we slowly calm ourselves down.   But what if we aren’t sure it was a firework? Perhaps the sound was more like that of gunfire? Perhaps, we’ve just been watching a horror film or the news has just reported a gunman on the rampage. What happens then? Well, instead of calming us down our body does the opposite, it steps up a notch. Our muscles stay tense, our senses become more heightened, our body starts to focus on the details around us and shut down systems we don’t need. Our digestion rate slows, any sexual arousal is halted, our bladders relax. In some cases, we suffer temporary hearing loss and tunnel vision. All of this happens to allow our body to focus on the threat at hand and develop a mechanism to survive the perceived threat. Our body is now prepared allowing us to decide - Can we run from the threat and hide whilst the Police arrive? Or perhaps we can find a weapon and fight anyone that intrudes our space? Its time for fight or flight.  So what is happening physically in our dogs? And why is it when they’re scared or excited they never listen to me?  When something happens in our dogs environment that they have never experienced before and don’t understand – like a loud bang, or that they have had a bad experience with previously - like an aggressive encounter with a dog, they begin to react.   Their brain processes the information they are receiving from their sensory organs and their sympathetic nervous system begins to kick in. A hormone called adrenocorticotropic is produced in the pituitary gland and is released into their bodies. This in turn stimulates the release of cortisol and adrenaline and the presence of these hormones causes the various organs of the body to react. The body is now automatically getting ready to take action. The heart increases its rhythm and blood pressure increases so that more oxygenated blood can be pumped around the body. The lungs inflate more quickly as the body sucks in more oxygen to meet the increased demand. The salivary glands slow down production of saliva causing dryness in the mouth. The pupils in the eye dilate. Muscles tense as they prepare for movement and they may appear to shake.  All of this happens in a matter of seconds and the physical changes continue to build as long as the threat remains. The sensory organs begin to heighten with the eyes processing more detail. The brain begins to focus the eyes on the threat and starts to ignore things happening around the edge of their vision (The peripheral vision is ignored) and the dog experiences tunnel vision fixing its stare on the threat. The chances of the dog seeing you now are slim, as it focuses all its attention on the perceived threat. The body then begins to turn off systems it no longer needs to deal with the threat. Sexual arousal is halted, digestion slows, the bladder relaxes and as the brain focuses more on sight it loses it’s focus on hearing. The brain no longer processes the sounds the ears are receiving and the dog will suffer temporary hearing loss. Not only is the dog now no longer seeing you jumping up and down at the side of them they can now no longer physically hear you shouting at them!  More to follow in part 2.....

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