Understanding Your Dog's Fight or Flight Response

“He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.”

Confucius


dog looking at camera

Fight or flight? Lady or the Tiger? Both may be good choices…or both may end the same way: badly. It’s a choice your dog is always making. For some dogs, the choice is difficult. We label these dogs as “aggressive” or “dog reactive”. Let’s take a look at what goes through the mind of a dog-reactive or aggressive dog.


Aggressive Dog


Technically speaking, there is more than fight or flight.

  • Ignore: Right now, Ellis is ignoring the yarn I have on my coffee table. It is of no interest to him.

  • Accept: Arwen was originally engaged with said yarn. I answered her question (“Can I play with it?”), and she’s accepted the answer (“No”) and is drifting off to the “Ignore” category, which is right where I want her in when in proximity to my yarn stash.

  • Avoid: Gandalf, my rescue cat, thinks I’m stupid. He thinks he can get at the yarn if he goes around the coffee table, where he thinks I can’t see him. He doesn’t want a direct confrontation, but he’s not quite ready to give up.

Accept, followed closely by Ignore, are generally the places you want your dog to hang out. The path to those places is sometimes paved with Avoid (sometimes you have to answer their questions more than once). But where does it all start? You guessed it: Fight or Flight.


FLIGHT

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Flight is typically any animal’s first choice. It’s the one that keeps them alive. You may call it cowardly, but it’s actually rather rational: live to procreate another day. Pass along those flight genes, and you’ve got Natural Selection working in your favor.

Look at it like this: a dog decides to kill a mouse, for no apparent reason. The mouse, though losing the battle, manages to nip the dog on the muzzle, giving him a small wound. Mouse is then promptly turned into lunch. That wound festers, and the dog dies. That’s a small case scenario. Imagine the life span of a dog who decides to fight with everything. Other dogs. Larger prey. Just for the heck of it. Pretty short.


FIGHT



Fight Club. Or as I refer to it, Some Movie Starring Brad Pitt’s Abs, not to be confused with That Other Movie Starring Brad Pitt’s Abs




There are very few reasons why a dog would choose Fight over Flight. Typically, those revolve around resources (they need to eat or you’re trying to take what they need to eat), breeding (Hey! That’s my potential mate!), or defending their young or pack (don’t get too close to my family!). Typically, the need to eat and the need to defend their young/pack are the strongest motivators of Fight.


Imagine what it would take for you to become aggressive and decide to Fight. What if someone broke in your house, would you shoot them? What if they were taking family heirlooms? What if they started up the steps towards where your children were sleeping? What is your breaking point, in other words. We all have it. Some would have pulled the trigger with the first provocation. Others would only wait until they were certain they or their loved ones were in mortal danger. Dogs are the same way: we all perceive the same scenario as a different threat level, and will respond with violence when that level has been breached.


Dog outside

And remember, perception is everything. You may not consider something a threat, whereas your best friend may have a different perception of the same situation.


As a wise woman once said, "What's normal for the spider is chaos for the fly."

Okay, it was actually Morticia Addams, but the point still stands.

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REMOVING OPTIONS


“So if every healthy animal would choose flight over fight, why is my dog reacting to other dogs/people aggressively?”

Because you’ve removed options.


They no longer have the option for Flight; they’re only left with Fight! You have them on a leash. You have them in a crate. Heck, you have them surrounded by the walls of your house! Their option to run away is gone! Ever notice how some dogs are crazy-reactive to other dogs when you take them for a walk on a leash, but at the dog park they’re fine?


For some dogs, even if you take them to a field and have them off leash, they still may be aggressive. Why? Because now they have pack to defend. Meaning you. You’ve made it abundantly clear that you aren’t going anywhere. They can’t move you. Again, their only option is to defend you. Their young/pack.


Now take a look at your “aggressive” dog. Are you seeing things a little differently now? That other dog walking right towards you isn’t a cute little Golden Retriever. It’s another predator. Heading straight towards you.


On a retractable leash.


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Your dog starts to give “back off” body language. The other dog doesn’t back off because they’re tethered to a leash as well. Your dog realizes their warning is unheeded, and therefore decides to step up their game to all-out aggressive mode. A simple miscommunication between owners and their dogs has resulted in at least one dog being tagged as “aggressive”.


THE ANSWER


So, what is the answer? The answer is the answer! Let me explain.


That scenario with the other dog coming towards you? Your dog is actually asking a question: “Is that other dog going to hurt us?”. When that question isn’t answered, it can escalate to another question, “Should I back him off?”. Obviously the answers are “No” and “No”. To successfully work with dog-reactivity, you need to Pilot your dog. You can read more about it here and here, but basically:


1) Control yourself. If you are angry, tense, upset, yelling…basically anything other than bored and calm, your dog will pick up on it. It’s okay to feel angry, upset, nervous. Just don’t show it. Take a deep breath, and release those clenched muscles (take a look at your arms…I guarantee they’re clenched with the leash as taunt as you can make it). Fake it if you have to.



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2) Control the situation. You can not add stimulation to a situation you’ve already lost control of. So, your dog regularly pulls you on a leash…how do you think it’s going to play out when you add the stimulation of another dog?! Get control of the current situation. Work with your dog on leash skills. (If you need some help, check out this post) Gradually add stimulation as you can handle it.

Hint: Don’t try walking past the dog park on the first day you’re working with dog reactivity. Remember, we’re looking for progress, not perfection!

2) Answer the question. “Is that other dog going to kill us?”


“No, Fido, it isn’t.” The more often you answer these questions successfully, the easier it will be to answer the next question and the next. You are building up trust. Remember, your dog will be asking questions with body language. Answer as soon as you see your dog asking!

Remember, this shouldn't be about being the "aLpHa" of your dog, nor is it about domination; you should be focused on communicating with your dog.

Again, watch out for "fight" body language: head erect, stiff tail, , body shaped like a letter “T”, wrinkled or furrowed brow. If your dog looks like he took Viagra and rubbed it all over his body, it means your dog is asking a question.


And the answer is "not today, Satan".


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Stiff tail, alert expression, standing on their toes. We refer to this as “Meerkat-ing” or “Prairie Dogging”. I don’t know what the question is this dog is asking, but the answer is “no”.


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Finally, you don’t always have to know what the question is to answer it. Sometimes you won’t be able to identify what your dog is concerned about. That’s fine – just answer “no”.

Congratulations! You have successfully Piloted your dog.


Teach them to trust you. Trust for a dog means trusting you not to do crazy things, like, oh, …get angry because they are legitimately frightened. Remember, they aren’t doing it because they are bad. They are doing it because they are scared. Let them know that yes, you see that dog, too, but you will protect them. You will answer their questions. You will Pilot them so they don’t have to be afraid any more.


And remember: Keep Calm and Pilot On.



Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


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