Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The 4 F Responses When a Dog Feels Threatened

In May, I discussed the 4 Ds in a position stay and Brian Hare/Vanessa Woods “The Genius of Dogs”, and I want to stick with that theme – 4-letter something then book - for this month. First, the 4 F responses available to a dog who feels threatened, and followed by my take on Lorna McMasters’ “Dancing with Sheepdogs” toward the end of June or beginning of July.

Whenever a dog perceives someone or something as a threat, to his welfare or possession, and it doesn’t matter if in reality it is or isn’t, there will be an emotional response. It is impossible for a dog, or any animal, to not feel what they feel, to willingly alter hormonal and neurochemical changes that come with the emotion, and not express it. However, what the expressions look like varies, and depends on nature, past experiences and possibility.
I like to believe that just about everyone knows two of the Fs: Fight and Flight, and I come back to them in a moment, but there are two more less understood by the average dog owner: Freeze and Flirt.

Let’s have a closer look, and let’s start with Fight, the behavior people are most concerned about and that sends many a dog to the doghouse, shelter, or veterinarian to be executed.
When a dog is ready to fight, he is confident enough to confront the threat. The intent is not always to injure or kill, especially regarding social group members, but to cause the threat to back off or not move closer – not increase the pressure.  Normally, naturally, there is a hierarchy, or ladder, of warning signals that precede a bite: a high, forward leaning and tense body – the dog doesn’t blink, the ears don’t play, direct fixation on the trigger, a puckered mouth, a high stiff or quivering tail tipped toward the head. Humans have a tendency to ignore those signals either because they aren’t bilingual and don’t comprehend them, or because they are stupid and intentionally disregard what the dog is communicating.
When they proceed with whatever they were doing, the dog in fight mode turns it up a notch and might growl, and almost every person understands that and feels compelled to do something about it.
However, the typical human responses create dilemmas.
Dilemma 1: If the person backs off, he reinforces the growl and the dog will growl in the future to keep someone at bay or keep a resource. The dog wins in people's minds, which is a big problem for their tender egos. The person doesn't like his pooch anymore and either gives up, or feels justified to do whatever it takes to stop the growl; either labels the dog aggressive and surrenders or kills him, or punishes harshly and destroys the mutually rewarding relationship he could have had.
Dilemma 2: Dogs that growl a lot, because they’re confronted a lot, become stuck in that behavior pattern. If the growl suddenly doesn’t work anymore, for example when the owner hired a mighty “whisperer” wash-up who comes equipped with tools and the skill to suppress the growl, another emotion arises: Frustration. The dog becomes more stressed, more aroused, and angrier. Anyone who believes that an emotion can be punished away is a fool, but the expression might be. Growls can successfully be quelled when the punishment is harsh enough, but the dog, still feeling threatened, resorts to the next level of aggression, albeit perhaps only directed against people or dogs seen as weaker.
A growl isn’t good, but a bite without a warning is worse.
Dilemma 3: If the person ignores the growl, persists and insists, the confident dog will bite, resulting in two big problems: It hurts, and I have yet to meet a person who will NOT retreat when the dog injures and thus reinforce the escalation of aggressive behavior.

A dog who feels threatened but is not self-assured enough to confront wants to leave the scene and situation. Get out of Dodge instead of driving the threat away. Chooses Flight to Fight.
Don’t just think running away, but also stepping back, curving out, leaving a room or a certain area at the dog park – anything that increases distance to something or someone without attacking. Averting eyes, head and body are the subtle signals.
The dog who chooses non-confrontation is not sure he can successfully defend himself or a resource, or he might generally like his social encounters, but not the situation at the moment. I recently met a beautiful German shepherd believed to be aggressive with people who in reality was rather friendly and interested in interacting when given the opportunity to hang back until the new person was more familiar.
Often dogs in possession of a valued resource, like a bone, walk away with it. That is not submission; the dog does not surrender the resource, but doesn’t trust the people and/or dogs around him completely and in that context seeks a safe place. The worst thing someone could do is follow and take the resource away. The dog is non-confrontational on purpose. Don’t punish that, or he might fight next.
Fight dogs are often flight dogs who can’t flee because they are restrained or cornered.
The German shepherd I just mentioned chose Flight, but nevertheless had a bite history because some people did not give him the space to hang back, and he was confident enough to Fight when pressured. Knowing that, I allowed him the Flight option, and whenever I introduced something new, he created distance, but moments later returned and then was motivated to learn the new thing. By the end of the afternoon we had a real connection and not once did I feel I was in danger.
Don’t confront a dog in Fight or Flight mode, but instead investigate why the dog feels defensive and address that. Regarding resources, my goal always is that my dog trusts me with anything she has, and brings it to me.

Freeze is not only the muscle tension stillness before an attack, but an expression of a dog who has no options; who has resigned himself to his fate and imploded. The dog is too terrorized to move, extremely stressed with no resolution.
Sadly, lay people often misconstrue Freeze with well behaved, but the truth is that the dog is not behaving at all. He isn’t doing anything because he is afraid of the consequence when he offers a behavior. Freeze is non-behavior. Our Will was a Freeze dog: born feral, humans were completely foreign to her, and forced to live with them paralyzed her in fear. She would neither aggress nor try to get away. Will was frozen to no fault of ours, but some dogs are punished into that state, and that is abuse. You can see these dogs in training facilities: they perform, but joylessly, and they don’t behave at all unless ordered to.

Flirt is a term Barry Eaton in his book “Dominance in Dogs” uses to explain active and passive appeasement. I like both the term and the behavior. Yes, ideally we aim for a relationship and environment in which a dog never feels the need to appease, but methinks it might be elusive. In the socially complex world our dogs live in, there likely will be encounters and situations they feel uneasy about, and I want them to signal that with a lowered body and low wagging tail, exaggerated blinking, lip licking and yawning, instead of checking out or attacking.
A dog might feel a bit intimidated by a certain tone of voice, scent, body language or action and asks for assurance that he is still safe. A dog who has a resource pleads to let him keep it.  A dog who flirts seeks social connection in a submissive way.
I think Flirt is the most appropriate word for a puppy who begs a resource from an elder, and sometimes the older dog will orchestrate a situation to prompt submissive begging for educational purposes.
A good number of dogs, fosters and guests, entered our home throughout the years, but only twice, with a 4-month-old pup and a 2-year-old Aussie, Will saw the need to teach that lesson: She grabbed a toy, arbitrarily because Will does not and never did care for toys other than one red ball to play fetch with, played to keen the other dog’s interest, and then guarded it with a tense body, hard stare and growls - the fight signals she displayed to communicate that she has the confidence to follow through should a resource ever be disputed. Will would ignore the dogs' barks and intensify the aggressive signals when they tried to steal the toy, but relinquished it the moment they became obnoxiously solicitous and goofy, exaggeratedly bowed, with lips, ears and eyes drawn back - the stupid grin face. The pup, in addition, whined and rolled on her back.
I know that dominance is a loaded word, but appeasements, flirting in social contexts, signal that power is acknowledged and a friendly connection wished.

It is important to point out that Fight, Flight, Freeze and Flirt are not static behaviors, but context specific. Which of the four options a dog chooses depends on what he has learned in the past and what is possible at the moment. And it depends on the dog’s nature: genes predispose to respond in a certain way.
Even so, within a lifetime a dog will demonstrate all four. Will’s M.O. was freeze with all humans, it is flirt now, and fight with some unfamiliar dogs. Davie's was fight with unfamiliar humans, ignore and avoid - flee unfamiliar dogs, and flirt with us whenever she wanted access to a resource, or keep it.
So don’t label the dog, but the situation. If you don’t like how your dog acts, address why he feels the way he does. Address the emotional state, instead of fixating on the expressions.


  1. An excellent Article. Covers all bases. Thanks for making us all the wiser. You sure do rock the Dog World.

  2. Love this post Silvia! So many dogs get lablelled for life after one unfortunate interaction. You have shown beautifully, how they are so much more complex than that.