Downeast Dog News

Got Fear?

More insight into "fight or flight"
By | Oct 27, 2017

Last month, I talked about some of the basic physiological aspects of fear and how we humans and our dog companions share the same general system, including the “fight or flight” response. The big difference between our two species lies in what might trigger a fear reaction, how it is manifested, and what the consequences might be. No matter how you look at it, overcoming fears can be a complicated process with any species.

I extend a sincere thanks to readers who sent me information about their fearful dogs and the triggers they have. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, stories were abundant, from common lunging and barking at joggers (fight) to more pervasive, all-encompassing general anxieties that often send dogs into hiding (flight). It is important to note that there is a difference between dogs who have very specific fears but who are otherwise well-adjusted and dogs who go through life worried that something bad might happen to them at any moment. Worried dogs often have a very poor bounce-back mechanism, meaning that the effects of their fear linger long past the actual fearful event.

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

I am repeating this quote from last month because it’s a very good reminder of the futility of expecting a dog to learn something new when she’s fully engaged in fight or flight. The key to helping our fearful dogs is two-fold: 1) we must pair something really great with the presence of the trigger, and 2) we must protect our dog, to the best of our ability, from situations in which she is apt to want to “fight or flight.” It’s a tough balance to find: a trigger that is in a weak enough form so as not to elicit a fear response yet strong enough for the dog to notice. That fragile place is the only place where we can truly change our dog's emotional response to a trigger.

A mistake many of us make is to think, “this time will (magically) be different.” We lead our dogs into the shark infested waters time and time again when he still doesn’t know how to swim. If I were to expose my dog to a situation where he’s very likely to react, not only will I lose out on a training opportunity, but my dog’s fear response only serves to fuel more fear responses in the future. Each time a dog plunges into the depths of fear and reactivity, it paves the way for more of the same later on - it can even become a habit after very few repetitions. For this reason alone, it’s imperative to “get out of Dodge” as quickly as possible. Remove your dog from the situation, add distance - do whatever it takes to change the scene - without harming your dog in any way, of course.

The Same Picture, Different Angle

Reacting to passersby from a car, to a stranger coming into the home, to a hiker at a distance – these are all different versions of the same issue. When working with fearful dogs, every situation in which he is fearful needs to be carefully managed.

We have to keep in mind that when we are dealing with fear, training is not always sufficient. We can train skills and management techniques, but sometimes we hit the limit of those tools. Working with a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (a CDBC) or if cost isn’t an option, going to Tufts where there are veterinary behaviorists are good. I am a certified dog trainer with extensive experience working with fearful dogs, but I will often refer more complex cases which are beyond the reach of training to a CDBC. There are pharmaceuticals and other products which can aid in the effort, in conjunction with training, and they should be explored.

I wish, oh how I wish, we could look lovingly into our dogs’ eyes and get through to them that they are not in danger, there’s no reason to have fear; we will keep them safe. It’s just not the way our dogs see things, though, so our only good option is to get in their program and do what we can to help.

Stay safe out there!