FAD2 Day 2 - The Science Around High Arousal
Flight, Fight, & Freeze
When dogs, or humans, are frightened, they activate their fight, flight, or freeze system. All the systems in the body are activated by epinephrine to give the best chance of escaping the situation. This is why skunks can stand up to other animals and spray them. We use this system to our advantage when we have a starting conversation.
In nature most animals will do Flight or avoidance and run away behaviors first and only Fight, if they feel like there is no other option in that moment. Flight, Fight & Freeze by nature is designed to help an animal survive in the presence of a threat. (Or perceived threat!) Animals then learn from what has worked previously and what has not worked based on the threats in their living environment. When we look at dogs, starting with puppies who feel scared will often hide behind mom (dog or human) or make themselves small which is part of the Freeze reaction. As they grow up and realize mom isn't always there to protect them, they start to slide more easily into the Flight reaction. The problem with flight responses is that some animals including other dogs are stronger and faster then the young dog, therefore the dog learns to use the fight response. Of course even then, most young dogs start out with subtle body signals such as looking away from the trigger, making themselves smaller, doing a lip curl, or even a low key growl. If these behaviors work and cause the larger threat to move away, young dogs never learn to do any more than that. Sadly that is not what happens most of the time. These low key signals often get ignored or worse yet punished and so the dog learns to escalate quickly to the bigger stronger signals like big barks and/or lunging toward the threat. Sadly these often get punished as well which leads our dogs with very few options left for trying to stay alive.
As humans, we need to learn the body language and behavior signs of our dogs so that we can assist them before they learn to take matters into their own hands. And we also need to learn how to select environments where we are able to help our dog learn successfully without rushing into situations where things might escalate too quickly.
Fawn & Fool Around
Fawn and Fool Around are also reactions that our dogs can demonstrate in response to stress. When a dog reacts in Fawn manner, they will make themselves look small or perhaps injured in a way that asks the other animal to have mercy or pity on them. The opposum, that plays dead to avoid being chased is offering a Fawn response to a threat. Dogs do this too! Often we thing of the bow behavior as in the dog is offering a play bow, but it can also be a fawn response. The play bow is generally more loose and wiggly where the fawn bow is more tight in a duck & cover pattern. Fool Around is often referred to as the "class clown" of reactions because it is similar to the child that laughs and teases others because they feel like they are being laughed at and teased. Dogs show us fool around responses to stress by jumping straight up and down like a kangaroo, biting & tugging on the leash, or even nipping at the owner's pant legs.
When you look at flight or fight responses in dogs, their behaviors are generally more easily recognized by humans. However the freeze, fawn, or fool around behaviors are often misunderstood by humans. It can often be said that the dog is demonstrating flight or fight is showing openly terrified signals, where the dog demonstrating freeze, fawn, or fool around is showing quietly terrified signals. This stems from studies in human psychology that overlap in comparison to studies in canine emotion and behaviors.
Most humans have experienced a moment where they basically shut down and didn't know how to respond or they knew how they wanted to respond but were too fearful to actually do the action they wanted to. When we think in these terms, it can help us dog owners learn to watch out for those silently terrified signals that our dogs might be giving us and do our best to set them up where they can be successful.
Recognizing Stress & ArousalWhen a dog experiences big emotions such as fear, anxiety, over-excitement, high arousal, or any over the top emotions, they also experience chemical changes in the body that impact their ability to process stimuli in the environment. Our dog may start out at their baseline and slowly escalate towards red-lined or rapidly jump from baseline to red-lined. As those emotions build behaviors will grow as well. Perhaps the mildly excited dog lets out a few happy, friendly barks and as the trigger approaches that moves up to pulling & barking, then jumping & barking, then lunging & barking uncontrollably. There are also dogs who instead of getting louder, grow quieter as the trigger approaches. Humans tend to want to change the loud dog's behavior because it bothers us or we perceive it to be bothering others. Yet often human's, myself included tend to ignore the quiet behaviors because everyone loves a quiet dog, right!?!
Here's the problem with that! It doesn't matter what the behavior is, the climbing emotions still have a negative impact on the health and well being of the dog. Quiet dogs that are feeling stressed might hide, try to run away, or even have potty accidents. This is why it's super important to learn what is normal for OUR dog when it comes to body language and behaviors. When we can see the emotions building, we can often make a change to the environment, our activity or direction, or the value of reinforcement we offering. If we catch it early enough and make the changes that help our dog return back to their baseline, we can often prevent the explosion of red-lined behaviors when the dog's thinking brain totally shuts down and they are acting solely in survival mode.
When we can recognize the signs of our dog escalating towards an emotional explosion, we can then learn to use this natural process to our advantage. As we try to work through a desensitization & counter conditioning process, we can push dogs slightly away from the calm alert zone into the yellow caution zone without pushing them too hard and causing them to escalate into the orange or red zones. Often we start this with arousal up/arousal down games that help our dogs learn to focus on in a slightly aroused state. Some dogs might stay in higher arousal state and need games designed to bring their arousal down, while other dogs might stay in a lower arousal state and need more games designed to build up some excitement.
Ethically we never want to push dogs into the orange or red zones on purpose! It's simply not fair to the dog to expect them to deal with the stress this puts on their body!
Understanding Trigger Stacking's Impact on the Body
Anything a dog sees, smells, or hears in their environment that causes big emotions is referred to as a trigger. It is important that we are keeping track of our dogs' triggers and how often they are encountered so we can prevent trigger stacking. When the stress builds due to repeat encounters in a short period of, the dog's ability to handle that stress decreases. This is why a dog reactive dog might do OK with the first 2-3 dogs they see, then suddenly explode on the next. Each encounter builds up until that energy has to go somewhere.
Trigger stacking is what happens when your dog encounters multiple triggers in a day.
With Nick, a high energy dog, Cindy would be searching for the fine line of activating him or building excitement but not getting him too wound up which causes biting the leash. On the other hand, Cindy's friend, with a lower energy dog, has to wake her dog up and energize her. Penny refers to Conversation Starters which are the activities that we do to help get our dog at the right energy level and right frame of mind for what we are about to have them do. What happens next, is based on each dog’s experiences and ability to self regulate and interpret the environment.
We are able to shape and change responses in our dogs. Nick has a difficult time disengaging from dogs that stare at him. Cindy has worked with him on not staring back, and engaging with me instead. Penny has taught Azul to look at her when someone compliments him. By lowering the fight/flight response in these situations, they change the response to the neutral response we want in our service dogs.
It is important that we keep this in mind when we are planning on training with our dogs. Training should be an enjoyable experience for both you and your dog, and that isn’t possible when your dog has high stress levels from encountering multiple triggers beforehand. Trigger stacking will result in a very overwhelmed dog who won’t be able to focus well during training and is more likely to overreact to the next trigger they encounter. When it comes to training, if our dog has reached the point of trigger stacking, they may shut down from the amount of stress or overreact to a trigger out of frustration. This is not what we want.
Planning for an Exit Strategy with Distractions that are Out of Your Control
Any time you’re out with your dog, it’s good to have an exit plan, or at least a plan of where to go and how to protect your dog’s optimism. It can be helpful to practice figure eights, pace changes, switching sides, about turns and turning with the dog on the outside going one way while the handler turns the other way. Teaching the dog to target your hand gives you another way to move the dog out of the way, or to maintain focus.
As I was getting ready to check out at the local big box that carries groceries, I spotted a dog that clearly lacked training and was staring at Nick. I’m not sure if Nick spotted the other dog or not. He did as I asked and stayed on the opposite side of my cart from the other dog. This is a really good strategy, when it’s available. Most often, the best option is to turn around and go the other way. If the other distraction is following you, turn away from it.
For Azul, turning the opposite direction, putting the trigger behind him is nearly impossible. But turning at an angle or turning left/right, instead of turning away, is much easier. Turning away does let you put more distance between your team and the trigger more rapidly. But for a dog that wants to watch while putting more distance between your team and trigger, the angled turn is a better option.
We advice our clients to practice multiple ways to exit an area with triggers still far away at a safe distance to figure out what works for each individual team. Teamwork between owner and dog is not a one size fits all approach! We are happy to work with you to help you find an exit strategy that works for your team!
Games & Exercises
Fooling Around with Penny
When it comes to learning how to work as a team around distractions it basically becomes a choice for the dog of choosing to interact with us or choosing to interact with the distraction. This often means that we as the human side of the leash need to "Up Our Game!" and become more exciting for our dogs. Similarly to slowly reducing the rate of reinforcement with food, we can also slowly reduce our level of excitement in distracting environments. However early in training and often with adolescent dogs we need to get somewhat crazy and "Fool Around" with our Dog. Often we reduce the food reinforcement by offering things like praise instead which works well in low distraction environments but in high distraction environments we have to meet the energy level of the dog when they see that distraction.
We can also use the "Fool Around" Game as a way to reinforce our dogs at the end of a training session.
Middle & Weaves with Cindy
Playing with our dogs in close proximity to our bodies is a great way to teach them that coming to their handler is both fun and rewarding for handler. In the case of middle, it can be easily carried over into ways to manage the dog in public. In the first link, Cindy is playing leg weaves with Nick. He was uninterested in food that day, playing with his unicorn was way more to his liking.