In this article, I want to cover a natural survival mechanism possessed by many living beings including humans. This mechanism helps to survive what could even be a life or death situation.
Many people own dogs but are unaware of this natural response of dogs towards a stressful situation. It puts them, their dogs and anyone around at risk of harm.
The knowledge of this natural response can be of a great use for anyone. You will understand when boundaries of the dog are getting pushed a little bit too much.
The fight or flight response is a reaction of an animal, in this case, a dog, to a stressful situation.
This type of response is a survival mechanism. That makes the dog respond to a certain stressor with aggression if the dog chooses a fight response. If it responds by getting away or hiding from a threat it chooses a flight response.
Homeless dogs that constantly struggle to survive may have a more sensitive level of a stress response. Because of previous traumas or bad experiences, this can lead to their fight or flight response to be easy to trigger.
It is important that anyone owning or dealing with dogs is well aware of this natural reaction possessed by dogs. The decision that a dog will make on how to respond to the stressor depends on the dog’s character, genetics and previous experiences.
An unconfident dog may decide to “fly“. As I have already explained, this doesn’t mean that it will spread its wings and take off, but it means the dog will avoid or run away from a threat at all cost. The behaviour of a flight response may include: running away, hiding, hiding behind the owner’s legs (if the dog is on leash) or rolling on its back exposing the belly to display submission. Some dogs may even urinate while rolling on their back as a sign of total submission.
When everything fails or the escape route is blocked or the animal is trapped, the only option the dog ultimately has is to fight. A confident dog or a dog that due to previous experience of a failed flight, has been attacked or punished, may decide to choose to fight immediately to send the threat away.
Because of the above reasons, it is important not to punish or be abusive with dogs, especially if they show submission.
They learn this behaviour from their mother. When a puppy does something wrong, the mother gives correction to the pup. The young will stop the unwanted behaviour and show submission, and at that point, the mother’s correction will end there.
If the owner gives punishment to a dog that is displaying submission, the pet may learn that surrendering is not an option as it doesn’t work.
If the dog chooses to fight back as last resort and it is successful, making the person back off, the dog may find the discovered behaviour rewarding. It will repeat the rewarding behaviour in the future instead of surrendering.
Responses that a dog may have towards threats or anything stressful are not only limited to fight or flight but can also include freeze and fidget.
When facing a threat, a dog may freeze and stand motionless like a deer blinded by car lights.
In nature, a freeze is sometimes used as a last result when fleeing is not possible and fighting is not an option.
By freezing a potential prey may not be visible or the predator may lose interest. Do not assume that in this condition a dog won’t bite, generally, a freeze is a sign of an imminent strike.
The fidget response is not a proper response. In this situation, the dog is uncertain about how to respond to the given stress.
The dog will display different stress and displacement behaviour such as nose and chops licking, yawning, scratching, sniffing the ground, looking away etc… In this situation, the dog is trying to cope with stress and decide what to do.
If you notice these signs, acknowledge the fact that the dog is under stress and the situation may escalate into an unwanted situation. Consider giving the dog a room of space and time to relax.
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Also, if you like the topic of dogs, please check my book ‘Before You Get A Dog’ by Simone Burani. You will find the essential knowledge written in simple language to have a great time with your pet.