Grasping the basics

cartoon warrior slaying bowling balls

The clip art I could find to illustrate gladiators were of bulky men slaying bowling balls. Go figure.

Understanding the physiological effects of fear on a dog’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) is not just a bunch of big words tossed out to make me feel smart. Truth be told, it’s sentences like that that make me grateful for spell check.

Fear can cause a dog to become more or LESS aggressive. When frightened, some animals will experience an increase in heart rate, others a decrease. It can vary within species based on the threat. Being less aggressive when frightened has proved to be such an effective response that some animals take it to an extreme. Some will display what is called ‘tonic immobility’- think possums. That ‘calm’ or ‘submissive’ behavior is based less on animal’s psychology and more on an immediate and dire response to a perceived life-threatening situation.

If your own psychology is making you feel proud every time you manage to get an animal to stop trying to escape or defend itself by using force or intimidation you are reveling in the fact that you’ve managed to scare them so thoroughly that another possible life-saving, out of their cognitive control, response has kicked in. Let this sink in for awhile. When we applaud trainers who proudly display this approach, whether on television, youtube or in person, we are not unlike spectators at the arena who cheered on gladiators as they slaughtered unarmed opponents or wild animals.

When I think of it that way, bowling seems like a better option all around.

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5 comments so far

  1. Jen on

    The gladiator slaying bowling balls is pretty wild!

    I much prefer Elka working with me and listening to me rationally. I can’t claim to have never yelled at her, my patience and understanding do wear thin sometimes, but I’m most happy when I haven’t yelled, and have stayed calm.

    Did you see the video that circulated lately, of the “dog kicker”? It really only confirmed things I’d been saying already. Understandably, NatGeo had it taken off of YouTube, or at least the original.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I did notice the kicking video was circulating, but didn’t watch. I can’t.

      The thing about being human is that we’re suppose to be so darned clever with these extra special brains. It doesn’t mean we don’t have powerful emotional responses, some save our lives and others can embarrass us. If I end up becoming frustrated with a dog, and respond in a frustrated manner, I can use my big, special brain to think about whether my response was helpful in attaining my goals with the dog or provided me with some kind of catharsis I’m not going to be proud of achieving in that way.

      I may just be human after all, but it doesn’t mean I can’t learn. My dogs have been very good about giving me the chance to prove there is hope for me. 😉

  2. rangerskat on

    Finna is a dog that gets more aggressive when she is frightened. On those very few occasions when she’s been in a calm and relaxed place she’s really a lovely dog but sadly, her usual state is fearful to one degree or another. We figure our job is to keep that fear at the lowest possible level and to do our best to create an environment where she can be calm and relaxed and to help her find that place where she can be a calm, relaxed, well-balanced dog. I’ve seen that dog twice now and signs that she exists a handful of other times. Thankfully, Finna has not yet bitten anyone and when she is being mouthy she exhibits great bite inhibition. We hope to keep things that way but it isn’t always easy. When the noisy neighbors are shouting at their own dogs Finna, understandably in my opinion, charges down to the fence to bark ferociously. She’s very sensitive to moods and angry yelling increases her fear levels. The idiot neighbors then start yelling at Finna to shut up. Of course she views this as them barking back and redoubles her efforts. And at this point she’s in a place where she can’t see or hear anything except what’s scaring her. Since the neighbors only seem to communicate in yells I doubt speaking to them would do any good. I don’t like yelling any more than Finna does and no doubt my own fear of being yelled at is another factor keeping me from speaking to them. Instead, we try not to have her outside when the noisy neighbors are out. I also spend a lot of time fantasizing about that 50 acres with the house in the center and no near neighbors. I suppose what I’m really trying to say with all my rambling is that just like with raising children, every day you do the very best that you can but some days that isn’t very good.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I was thinking about a similar situation with my own dogs. People must think I’m an idiot when my dogs run down the driveway to bark at them and I thank the dogs and walk away from them. This response by me is much more effective in getting the dogs to stop barking and turn around and come back to me.

      I try to only ever allow a couple of my dogs to have the opportunity to do this, because I am not concerned about them ever being aggressive toward people. The other two I have worked (am working on) on a ‘wait’ cue so I can stop their pursuit. It was easier when I just had one dog like this to deal with, but Nibbles, the latest, really enjoys barking and chasing.

  3. Lizzie on

    This post describes the very behaviour that Gracie displays when she perceives a threat. Her posture at the time is belly down, hunched body, flat ears and avoidance of the eyes. This is AFTER she has tried to flee, but because she is on a lead that action is impossible for her.

    Knowing Gracie as well as I do now I am convinced that she is not as scared as she appears. I say this because I have listened to her heart beat when at the vets, where she is obviously stressed, and it is normal. I just don’t see it as an emotional response. As soon as the ‘threat’ is passed she reverts to what is normal for her and we continue on our way, tail up, head up, and smiley face.
    Gracie has practised this behaviour over and over now for years, not just with me, and she has learned it well. Obviously I do my utmost to keep her away from what she perceives are potential threats and whilst I am in control of where I take her, I have no control over other people. Situations do happen but are few and far between now, happily.

    You may ask, ‘have you not done anything to help her overcome this learned response to people’, for it is just people she reacts to; and yes I have and do try, but I am no expert dog trainer and obvioulsy have failed Gracie somewhere along the way. Others have observed her behaviour but because her fear is people based they have been at a loss to physically help as she cannot be handled by strangers, she would simply ‘shut down’.
    I would have hoped that over time she may have become less reactive ie desensitised but it appears not.

    So I have adjusted to the way that Gracie is, and accept that her life outside is limited to what she can best cope with. Other than that she is a very happy, responsive and affectionate dog, who learned the ‘wait’ command very early on which is put into practice every single day. Not as brilliantly as Sunny though I have to say 🙂


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