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Reactions in Dogs - Part 2

Fight or Flight?


Continued from part 1....... Fight or Flight – What is it? Our dogs, having no control whatsoever over their physical response to the threat in their immediate environment, are now in a heightened state. Their bodies are primed and ready to deal with the perceived threat. Muscles are energised and full of oxygen, senses are focused or ignored to maximise reaction times. They are now ready to act.  How they react will depend on a number of factors including how fast the environment is changing – Has the loud noise caused the dog to focus on a large aggressive looking dog who is fast approaching them or is there more time to react? Is there an exit route they can escape to or are they trapped? (For example: stuck on the end of a lead and tethered to their owner). These questions are almost assessed immediately in the brain and as soon as they are able to act, they will. If there is a chance of escaping the threat and a high probability they will out run their foe, most dogs will opt for flight (Running away or appearing non-threatening to avoid aggression).  If there is no chance of running away and appearing less threatening is not working (by avoiding staring at the threat and adopting a non-aggressive body language like lying on its back with its legs in the air) then the dog will move out of the flight behaviour and move into a more aggressive fight posture.  What does flight look like in my dog?  Avoidance is very often the best policy when feeling threatened. This strategy is quite effective and it is used by many different animals, including humans. For example, if I appear less threatening and don’t look at the school bully, then perhaps they will focus their attention on someone else. In dogs this can be seen quite clearly as they turn their gaze away from the threat and avoid it. Their heads turn away and are bowed low as they look to the floor. This is often accompanied by the tail tucking under the dog’s body and the ear carriage (the position of the ears) tends to be low and swept back close to the head. All of these body language signs are designed to say to the would-be attacker, I am no threat to you, you do not need to worry about me, there is no need to attack.   Perhaps you’ve seen this behaviour occurring around the back of your legs as your dog cowers behind you hoping you’ll make it go away. This is all flight behaviour.  Very few dogs will want to enter into a fight as there is always the risk of serious injury – even if they succeed in besting their quarry. The question of whether it is worth their while will always be there before an attack. If, however, the dog is hungry and craving a food resource, this could tip the balance, leading to an attack. In the same way, protecting a resource (like a toy or food source) will generate a higher probability of attack. Dogs can be very protective over resources, such as the place they live (Which is one of the reasons they bark and appear aggressive when the doorbell rings!) So, the chances are, if the dog attributes a resource as important to them they will act in a way to keep it or protect it.  So, what if avoidance or running away and cowering doesn’t work? What does fight look like in my dog? If avoiding the threat doesn’t work a dog will quickly move into a more aggressive stance and this builds in intensity and can reach its climax quickly where the perceived threat is moving fast towards the dog.   In the first instance, the dog will be now focusing on the threat with its eyes firmly fixed on it. The ears will move away from the head and be pricked up the head will be raised and the front legs will look firm and stiff. The dogs whole body will stiffen as its muscles are building ready for action and it may shake (appearing excited). As the dog stares focusing its attention on the threat it may issue a warning by raising its lips and baring its teeth and growling in a low tone. If this reaction fails to intimidate the threat and it continues then the dog may begin to bark a warning, following this by an “air snap” (snapping it teeth towards the threat). If there is still no reaction then a lunge towards the threat may be initiated. You can see puppies practice this as they play with new toys sometimes. They mix both play bouncing (which is where they drop to their front paws and bow towards the toy or another dog) and lunging towards the toy snapping at it.   So, what happens if the threat doesn’t take the hint? What if the vacuum cleaner refuses to run off and hide? Well there is not much left in the dog’s repertoire other than to attack the threat. Lunging forward it will bite the threat. Even now though there is usually a pause to allow the threat time to reconsider as the dog stops its attack momentarily. If this doesn’t happen there is usually a further sustained attack. Enough to subdue the threat and allow the dog to go back into flight mode and back away.   Continued in part 3....

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