Stubborn, Stupid and Just Plain Nasty

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When animals are afraid (and you can include yourself in this example) we see one or more of the following four responses. Keep in mind that without lots of practice we, or our dogs, do not have cognitive control over reactions to being afraid.

Image courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

1. Freeze: Stop what you are doing. Maybe they won’t see you. Maybe they’ll go after something else. Prepare for responses 2-4.

2. Withdraw: Flee! Get the heck outta there! Save yourself!

3. Submit: Offer appeasement gestures. Roll over. Cower. Duck your head. Maybe they’ll decide not to hurt you since you are showing your lack of intention to hurt them.

4. Aggress: Maybe if you act threatening enough they’ll leave you alone. Fighting might be your last chance of survival.

This list is in no particular order, a feral dog who has had the opportunity to flee will likely do so when frightened in the future. A dog who has lived in a cage or was chained up their entire life never had the chance to flee so will have learned to use other responses in an attempt to protect themselves. A dog who freezes up or offers appeasement gestures is not necessarily any less afraid than a dog who becomes aggressive. They may be, but maybe not. All four responses are to achieve the same end, self-preservation.

Now, think about the frustration, anger and even fear, you may have felt trying to get a scared dog to do what you want. Think about how you have described their behavior. Are they being stubborn, or afraid to make a move? Are they stupid or unable to make good choices or learn new skills because they’re scared? Are they mean or using aggression to protect themselves? Think about what getting a dog to offer ‘submission’ really means to the dog (be afraid, be very afraid).

The first behavior we have to change when it comes to working with fearful dogs is our own. When we have a better understanding of how fear affects a dog emotionally, behaviorally and physiologically we will be better prepared to respond in ways that are more likely to effect positive change in our scared dogs.

This series of lectures by Jean Donaldson are worth viewing.

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