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.