The survival response in dogs, often called the “fight-or-flight” response, is a complex set of physiological and behavioral changes triggered by a perceived threat or stressful situation. It’s a natural and essential instinct that helps them adapt and respond to danger, increasing their chances of survival and self preservation.
Humans experience this as well and have different reactions based on the current circumstance and situation.
However, it’s more than just “fight-or-flight”. Let’s explore some of the other F’s that can happen.
This is an active stress or fear state and dog may adopt aggressive or defensive tactics to make the perceived threat go away. Behaviors may include barking, lunging, growling, snapping, wrinkled muzzle, showing teeth, and in some cases, actually attacking the percieved threat. This is actually a less common reaction than flight in domesticated dogs.
Dogs in this state are often mislabeled as aggressive. They are not necessarily aggressive, but they are acting aggressive.
This is the most common reaction in domesticated dogs. The dog will try to avoid the threat or situation by fleeing, running away, escaping, and seeking shelter. You may see behaviors to demonstrate they are uncomfortable such as sniffing, avoidance, lowered body posture, paw raising, lip licking, tail between legs, and hiding (whether under or behind objects or people).
Some dogs will appear to shut down, freeze, and be motionless, hoping to be undetected by the perceived threat. This is common with puppies and dogs who are experiencing the world and situations for the first time. It is too much for their body and brain to process, resulting in a full system shut down.
FLIRT (OR APPEASE)
In this case, the dog is insecure and unsure how to react. Displacement behaviors you may see include sniffing, lip licking, paw raising, play bows, zoomies, and jumping up on people.
Appeasement behaviors you may see include rolling over to show their belly (this is not always an invitation for belly rubs), licking the face and muzzle of another dog or human (not necessarily giving kisses), and wagging their tail (not necessarily a happy dog, but a nervous and unsure dog) to defuse the situation and avoid conflict.
This often happens when dogs are meeting new people or dogs for the first time.
In this state, the dog seeks help from someone they know, trust, and feel safe with. This is the state that we aim for.
But how do we get this response and this state?
getting to know our dogs likes and dislikes
getting to know their body language and non-verbal communication and what things may mean
listening to their feedback when they are uncomfortable and removing them from situations
not placing them in situations and enviroments where they may be uncomfortable
working on relationship, partnership, and building confidence (both in themselves and in you as someone who represents safety)
The specific response that a dog will show will depend on factors like inddividual personality, past experience, breed, severity of threat, and current relationship with their guardian or caregiver.
It’s important to remember that every dog is an individual and their survival response can vary based on their unique characteristics and experiences. By observing your dog and understanding the different facets of this critical instinct, you can better support them and help them navigate stressful situations calmly and safely.