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The Dog's Question

Safe or Unsafe… That is the Question


Dogs are constantly analyzing their circumstances. They act and react according to their risk assessment of the situation in which they find themselves. If a new person or place seems safe, the dog will appear happy, relaxed and willing to interact. Conversely, if the dog feels unsafe they will communicate this through their body language and be hesitant to interact.


On a fundamental level, this is how we humans manage ourselves as well. We may have more sophisticated means of analyzing threats and arriving at logical conclusions, but we most definitely act and react based on our perception of safety.


The reality of a situation does not necessarily line up with the perception of a situation. The fact that a non-poisonous spider is not a threat and can actually be quite useful, does nothing to alleviate the fear of someone who has arachnophobia. Likewise, the fact that thunder is not a clear and present danger, does nothing for the dog who cowers in fear every time there is a storm.


Fight, Flight or Freeze


Dogs, as well as all other animals, (humans included) react to perceived danger or threats in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. When dogs display flight or freeze reactions they are not generally as misunderstood as when they display a fight response.


There are many ways that a dog’s body language can communicate that he is uncomfortable. Subtle cues like “whale eye” (a sideways glance which shows the whites of the eyes), a yawn, a lip lick, a rapidly wagging tail (yes, you read that right) can often be missed by people who aren’t aware of the importance of observing dogs and making appropriate adjustments in a situation that is causing the dog to be anxious.


When a dog reacts with a fight response, he may be corrected or even punished. If we think logically about the messages we are sending via our reactions, we may rethink our responses.


If a dog is worried about small children and their quick, unpredictable movements, he may try to distance himself. Well-meaning humans may encourage or even force the dog to engage with the child, only to become angry with the dog when he gives a stronger signal by growling. The message conveyed to the dog is not that he shouldn’t growl, but that, sure enough, just as he thought, that small child is definitely a threat. Just look what happened! The dog’s signals were ignored and the ensuing anger or punishment served to further cement his association of small child and threat.


The next time the dog’s signals are ignored, his strategy may be a stronger signal. This is often when we hear the phrase “out of the blue” to describe an unfortunate situation when a dog bites.


Dogs need support to help them in situations where they are worried or fearful. There are strategies to help normalize experiences and environments and add predictability to any situation. Talking calmly, playing a simple game that is familiar, and creating distance are all ways to help dogs in situations that are problematic.


Known, familiar, comfortable, predictable are words to gauge the value of a strategy to help a fearful or reactive dog. Anything that doesn’t fall under this umbrella might not have value and could even make things worse.


Dogs are constantly assessing and responding to everything in their world as safe or unsafe. Our responses and reactions matter because those responses will be categorized as safe or unsafe as well.



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