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31 January 2010

The 5 F's

This is one of many dog ownership tips I'd like to share with you under the name 'Paws for Thought' written by a friend at work who is passionate about dogs and is happy to share and discuss what she has learnt. Posted here with her permission. Please note: She is not a dog expert but a dog lover learning more each day.

In later posts we’ll look at the subtle signs that a dog is not comfortable in a situation. But this post is about the five reactions that should shout to you that something is not right. These are commonly referred to as the five F’s. The first two being the commonly recognised ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ responses.

* Flight – To flee from a perceived threat (death, injury etc) is generally the first instinctive response.

* Fight – Fight usually kicks in when flight is prevented.

The other three less commonly known responses are:

* Freeze – The dog stands still. There is a fixed look to his eye and he is rigid throughout his body, even appearing to hold his breath. I’ve seen two types of freeze and they’ve both given me very different feelings.

The first is the freeze that happens for just a split second and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Miss this warning or continue to push the situation and you are a likely candidate for dog bite. If you miss the subtle signals and you end up with a ‘freeze’ from an animal step back quickly and calmly and give them space and time and then change something about the situation (your approach or the environment) to lower their stress level. But beware if you’ve gotten to this level then the bite might occur before you can act. If this is the case then blame yourself for missing the signals, not the dog for a natural reaction to a stressful situation.  And no getting your dog to this point is not a game nor funny - despite a number of postings of videos on the web that claim this.

The second type of freeze you can often see labeled as stubborn or willful. In this case the dog can just plain refuse to move – to continue walking, to get into the car or to meet a particular person. If you push this then you can also end up with aggression because the dog has nowhere else to go (for instance if it is on lead) or us stupid humans keep chasing them down (in effect cornering them behind chairs or under beds) just asking for a bite.

You can also see this second type of freeze being mistaken for a dog that’s just relaxed and happy because it isn’t doing anything – wrong. Look closely the body language – tension, eyes, breathing etc will show you that the dog is pretty much overwhelmed and feeling threatened by the situation but just not sure how to respond (yet).

* Faint – This is a rare response but can happen. You see a real faint rarely (but sometimes associated with medical conditions) but you can see a more pronounced version of the second type of freeze described above where the dog drops belly down to the ground and refuses to move or interact. Again sometimes this seems to be mistaken for being stubborn or difficult instead of overwhelmed and extremely stressed - or even being good because it is doing nothing.

* Fool around (or fidget or fiddle) –Dogs that rush about, jump up and down, mouth, become rough or over the top, who can’t sit still, who lick you constantly or who drop into a roll to show their bellies everytime someone approaches or touches them can fall into this category. They use this behaviour as a coping strategy. This can even happen during training sessions with a dog or puppy, and definitely happened with my boy whenever we were in a competition situation – where he fed off my stress levels and couldn’t flee being on a leash so went for fool around instead. This is no more or less serious a warning though than any of the other five F’s. The dog is overloaded and stressed and we (the humans) need to let off the valve by changing the situation somehow.

Remember that the dog is not thinking 'oh wow, stressful situation, I'm in fool around, or freeze, or fight and need to do something about it'.  They are reacting naturally to a certain situation and the feelings/response it creates in them whether that be fear, confusion, anxiety etc etc.   We're the ones with the bigger more complex brain and the theories about behaviour.  We're the only ones who can change the situation (for the better or worse) many times.  However if you watch dogs with great dog communication and social skills you'll often see them making those changes (often really subtle) that relieve the pressure.  More on this in future postings.

The puppies reacted to the stress of being moved by shutting down (perhaps the Faint response) so were popped into a pool of water to both cool them down after a long trip on a hot day and to help stimulate them to respond to their new surroundings.

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