Fight or Flight? Neither Please!

This past few weeks I’ve had several experiences involving the combination of dogs and fear.

Most of those experiences have involved fearful dogs …



… and some have involved fear OF dogs.


Somewhat unsettlingly, a portion of that recent fear OF some dogs has been my own, not only my clients’.

I’ll post about those latter experiences in a bit (once I re-settlle myself). For now it seems like a good time to post the notes from a talk I gave several months ago, at an event hosted by Brooklyn Bark and FIDO, on how to most therapeutically deal with fearful/anxious dogs.


“Counterconditioning and the Flight Response”
Anthony Newman, Calm Energy Dog Training
FIDO Lecture, Brooklyn


How many people here own fearful, or anxious dogs?

This is an are extremely common issue for dogs in a city environment.
Also one of my favorite issues to treat, because so many dogs can let go of their fear so quickly, if shown the way.
However, it is often untreated, or treated in my opinion improperly or inadequately. Because in deep anxiety or fear cases:
Luring w treats won’t work – dog thinks “not time for food, daddy!”
Speaking verbal commands won’t work either – can actually stress the dog out more, making them have to weigh a decision between being obedient to their owner’s request and the very real presence of the frightening situation or thing in front of them.


 Ultimate goal shared by most trainers: countercondition.

Counterconditioning = conditioning the dog “counter” to their expectations.
They expect something bad to happen, thus the fear and anxiety; but something good happens instead. Treats, bellyrubs, play, run…

But before any of the rewards/positive reinforcement necessary for counterconditioning becomes possible, there’s a step that I see as far too widely overlooked:
You have to stop the so-called “flight response”.
Prevent / preempt / “correct” it.

You’ve heard of “fight or flight”?
A natural and historically advantageous reaction in periods of stress.
We all know to prevent a dog’s fighting, i.e. aggression, because it harms other dogs or us in obvious, bloody ways.
Yet flight hurts the fearful dog herself just as much! She remains psychologically, emotionally, trapped in a jail of fear.
Even simply jumping, or pulling against the leash, counts in the relevant sense as flight behavior. As long as your dog is trying to get away.
Reason: flight/fear behavior is what I call “self-reinforcing”.
Dogs that are allowed to consistently react fearfully will begin to rely on the fear behavior
They think it helped them, kept them safe.


Visitors: How many houses do I ring the doorbell of, and the dog is hiding when I arrive – under the kitchen table, or behind the couch.
This dog IS going to get treats, pets … they ARE going to end up liking me, and I am eventually going to leave. These are all rewards. So if don’t go back and eliminate that flight behavior, the dog will think Thank God I did that! It was needed; rewarded, thus reinforced.
So first thing I do: go back outside, have owner leash the dog; then I re-enter, crouch and turn away non-confrontationally, so the dog can sniff me.
I get to try a little bellyrub, offer chicken … we’re off the the races.
Leash as an indoor tool, to stop flight and condition leadership. Can be latched to belt loop

Spiral staircase: Many recent instances! (Is this a Brooklyn thing? 🙂
Owners have tried luring with treats, calling “come!”; dog retreats. Again the fear will be reinforced.
Martingale collar is a great tool his, vs other collar-types. Won’t slip off the neck of frightened dogs who startle, plant their feet, or try to wriggle out.
Get momentum, lead down the first step – then home free! Dog inevitably after that first step runs down after me, giant praise and biscuit at the bottom, then running back up and down, play with owner.

Rain walking: How many times have I heard “My dog hates the rain!”
Venture out, dog turns and pulls back inside.
What did they learn? “Thank God I was able to pull Mommy/Daddy and save them!”
Tool here is leadership – the walk. Bundle up in rain gear. Head to the park. Make it fun! Ball, frisbee, chicken.

Buses; skateboarders; garbage cans; vicious barking fenced dogs:
Be aware which side your pup pulls toward during the
If their direction is fear-induced (i.e. away from a trigger, not toward), pull back toward / in front of.
The importance of subtleties, inches. If it’s relevant/important in your dog’s mind, it’s relevant and important even if it seems ridiculous to us!
E.g.: Fenced yard near my 18th St. dog run; my dogs know when we approach the vicious barking pack lunging against the fence that we’re going to slow down, lie down, and get bellyrubs. They look at me like “Oh well here we go again! Daddy you better know what you’re doing!” Then big happy release, all run to dog park.

In this last example the dogs learn two important things:
To relax and be calm, less fearful
To TRUST their leader. Condition this, then even when they ARE scared (e.g. fireworks, lightning, the vet) they’ll be calmer, more trusting, more relaxed.


There is nothing more beautiful than watching a fearful or previously traumatized dog open up, start sniffing/playing/running acting like a dog should act.

To get there, a crucial but widely overlooked first step is to disallow the flight behavior.

Now it’s time for me to flee the stage!


Hey – I told you these were just notes. But I think the point is important.

The vast majority of so-called “aggression” in dogs is founded in fear. And rejection of the flight behavior is in my experience a vastly underappreciated and misunderstood therapeutic tool in fear cases.



  1. Tamara March 14 at 1:43 AM - Reply

    Thank you for your article. I don’t think I can apply any of it to my 5 month old Aussie puppy who has been showing “flight” fear issues for about 6 weeks, almost from the time she had all her shots and being able to go anywhere. The flight response comes out of nowhere and doesn’t happen all the time. One time, a barking dog walking with its owner, first time, a man in front of us about 30 feet who stopped to say “hi”. Another time, I don’t know what, but at these critical times, she shuts down and will almost choke herself to get away. Sometimes I have to pick her up and carry her away from the stimulus. She is also fearful of strangers “standing”. Typically, if I can ask them to kneel down and give them a treat to offer her, she will end up being their best friend. I have worked with two trainers and neither of them have seen her “shut down” with the major flight response. Sometimes I think its me, but I have become so aware of remaining calm myself. I get frustrated because it comes out of nowhere and I am concerned that this could become a lifelong issue. She is very smart and we work on commands several times a day. We are currently working on targeting. Any further advice you may have would be appreciated. As you noted, when she gets that bad, asking her to do a “sit” or offering her a treat is pointless, she just wants to get away. All that adrenaline coursing through her cannot be good for her.

    • Anthony March 15 at 3:04 AM - Reply

      Yes it can be difficult! If a situation is too extreme, work up to it by starting with smaller, more therapeutic triggers. Try blocking with your body, e.g. your legs stopping her from running away. If done well this can be calming. The most helpful obedience exercise to work on is belly-showing “lie down”; it’s vulnerable and creates trust, and opens the way for calming bellyrub rewards! Best of luck!

  2. lauren June 26 at 7:30 PM - Reply

    Thank you for this article. What is the protocol when your dog fights instead of flights? When on walks my dog lunges at every stranger that comes near. It’s a spacial/distance thing because he is fine, but if we have to share a sidewalk that is narrow all hell breaks lose. He starts by starting hard and then he walks really slow (this is probably his flight mode) but I pull him to tell him you’re okay, focus on me and in the last second he lunges at the stranger because he feels trapped. How do I countercondition that without someone getting hurt?

    • Anthony June 27 at 12:59 AM - Reply

      Yes very common! First of all you’re allowing him to get into hunched/”staring”/”slow” mode — that isn’t flight mode, that’s hunting mode! He’s about to lunge. You should immediately snap him out of THAT mindset with appropriate and effective audio/visual/phsyical communications telling him “quit it!” in dog language, sending his body back away from the trigger, getting his ears back, body up, following you and being submissive and peaceful. Instead you let him react and THEN you “pull” him — which only creates “opposition reflex”, he fights harder against you as restraint. Practice in smaller-trigger safer environments with as much fun joyful social playful rewards as possible, so you can handle the tough spots when they arise!

  3. Cheri September 10 at 1:30 PM - Reply

    I have learned through 2 extremely shy dogs now. I use a control collar with very very low setting to correct unwanted behavior like hiding under my wheelchair when we see people, how ever at this point I ask them to keep a comfortable distance that my fearful dog can tolerate without the flight mode kicking in with lots of praise each success we have. After 4 months of working and bonding we can now let people with in 2 foot of my wheelchair. She works well in store as she is being trained with my 2 service dogs. Calm, stand your ground, love and obedience training with touch command For future social work. Gods gift to me is to be able to help others train and enjoy there well behaved dogs. Thank you for such good notes. Have a blessed day with dogs

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