Downeast Dog News


A story behind "Fight or Flight"
By | Oct 01, 2017

Personal safety is a necessity underlying everything in our lives. Feeling safe is an emotional state to which we don’t pay much conscious attention. Do you remember the last time your safety was in jeopardy? We have experienced this at some point in our lives, but most of the time we don’t really think about it.

Fight... or flight?

We have a few options available to us if we find ourselves in a predicament where there is a perceived harmful event: we can leave (therefore adding distance between the source of our fear and our location) or we can resist or aggress. You’ve heard of the ”fight or flight response”; it’s a part of all of us, human and canine alike. It’s a genetically-programmed, primal response designed to protect us from harm. It’s so well programmed, in fact, that once activated, it affects our entire body and can hijack our sense of logic and reason in order to operate efficiently.

What's happening?

“When our fight or flight response is activated, sequences of nerve cell firing occur and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. Our respiratory rate increases. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes.

“… we tend to perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival. By its very nature, the fight or flight system moves us into "attack" mode. We see everything through the filter of possible danger.” [Dr. Neil, MD, “The Body Soul Connection”]

"The UPS driver is surely going to murder me!"

Hmm… sound familiar? If you have a dog who tends to be fearful, you most certainly said “yes.” Dogs and humans share the very same physiological makeup when it comes to hyperarousal (fight or flight). The difference is that we tend not to share or understand our dogs’ ideas for what potential threats might be. In our eyes, it’s just the mailman delivering a package: to our dogs, this same person might be considered dangerous. Add to the mix the frequent impossibility of fleeing (due to a leash or a fence or to confined quarters such as a home or vehicle) and you have a dog who is ready to act defensively or even to fight. Our dogs find themselves in emotionally precarious situations on a very regular basis. The effects can be long-term and far-reaching.

If our dog has a whole arsenal of practiced aggressive displays, it doesn’t take much to get to the next step: fear aggression. Fear aggression can lead to injuries which can eventually lead to euthanasia for the dog. It happens too often and, unfortunately, when the signs are recognized, it’s often too late.

“We can't learn how to swim in a stormy ocean.” [Dr. Neil, MD]

I love this descriptor as it captures the futility of trying to train our dog when he’s in a state of fear. It just can’t happen. We need to be able to help our dog learn new patterns whereby the sources of his fears are turned into sources of good things. To achieve this, our dog has to be relaxed enough to be able to value his favorite rewards; only then can we hope to “rewire” the connections and prevent those stress hormones from taking over.

Do you have a dog who is fearful in specific situations? If so, tell me a bit about it (through the contact form on my website) and I may use your scenario in next month’s article. Specifically,


1. What is the trigger? (the source of your dog’s fear)

2. What is your dog’s behavior when he perceives the presence of the trigger?

3. How do you respond?

4. What happens after the trigger is no longer present?

5. How long does it take for your dog to return to normal?