Understanding the Dog Fight or Flight Response
What Is the Canine Fight or Flight Response?
You may wonder what the dog fight or flight response means. No, it doesn't mean your dog will wear boxing gloves and fight in the ring, nor does it mean he'll grow wings one day and will take off and fly. The canine fight or flight response is an innate survival instinct that humans display, as well.
Fight or Flight Response in Humans
I will never forget the day our physics professor showed up in class began lecturing on the fight or flight response in humans. He was speaking very softly—so softly I felt like nodding off. Suddenly, he took a book and forcefully slammed it on the desk. We all startled and looked at each other wondering if our teacher had gone insane. Then he explained: "This is the perfect example of an adrenaline rush that would stimulate you to engage in fight or flight."
By definition, the fight or flight response is a physiological reaction (not under conscious control) that occurs when an animal or human feels threatened. It was first described by American psychologist Walter Cannon in 1920. This chain reaction causes a cascade of events that is meant to help the body deal with threatening circumstances.
It all starts in the amygdala, which triggers the activation of the pituitary gland. This causes a sudden release of catecholamines such as hormones, as well as neurotransmitters, including cortisone (a metabolite of cortisol), adrenaline and noradrenaline. This leads to a series of changes in the body and mind that we will now examine more closely.
Physiological Changes Caused by Fight or Flight in Dogs
The release of hormones and neurotransmitters during the fight or flight acute stress response causes a variety of physiological changes in the dog. These physiological changes are the body's effort to create a boost of energy sufficient to get the dog out of trouble and survive. While a brief, acute response to a suspected trigger may cause temporary physiological changes, the effects of chronic, prolonged stress in dogs can long term undermine the dog's immune system.
Physiological Changes in Dogs
- Increased heart rate
- Increased breathing
- Increased blood flow to muscles (so the dog can sprint into action)
- Increased muscle tension
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased blood clotting (so to prevent excessive blood loss)
- Increased blood sugar
- Appetite suppression (blood flow goes from skin and intestines to muscles for action)
- Dilated pupils (so to see with more clarity)
- Heightens your senses
- Inability to concentrate, lack of impulse control, lowered threshold
According to Hans Selye, the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist and stress-response scientist, the stressed body goes through a "general adaptation syndrome." After the initial activation alarm phase of fight or flight, the body goes through a resistance phase, where homeostasis works on restoring balance and recovery. This is when the dog "shakes off" the stress so to relax those tight muscles, resumes normal breathing and his heart rate slows down.
The exhaustion phase is then seen if the stress is allowed to continue for some time and the resistance phase is repeated too often, and in this case burnout occurs with its negative effects on the body. The dog's immune system is lowered, cognitive functions (ability to learn) are depleted, energy levels lower leading to lethargy and disrupted sleep patterns. Some dogs may have a hard time relaxing even when there's nothing happening. However, a dog that is acutely stressed may become hyperactive as a defense mechanism before later shutting down.
Choosing Fight Over Flight: Special Circumstances
The choice of fight or flight varies depending on the situation. For instance, a dog who just gave birth to puppies will choose to fight if the puppies are threatened by an animal rather than flee, leaving the vulnerable puppies at risk. Whereas, some dogs may normally flee when presented with frightening stimuli, but may resort to fight if their escape routes are blocked. Genetic predispositions may also play a role. Some dogs breeds may be more likely to choose fight over flight and flight over fight. A learned component may be at play too. A dog who was predisposed to flee may decide to fight first if his attempts to flee were often unsuccessful in the past. This is the dog who stressed by children chasing him and cornering him decides to bite one day to make the chasing stop once and for all.
Other Options Beyond Fight or Flight
Interestingly, when dogs are faced with a perceived threat, they don't necessarily go into fight or flight, they may also have a plan C, a plan D, and a plan E. Basically, the fight or flight response can be extended by adding the freeze, faint and fool around response.
In nature we can see these "Five F" reactions in a variety of animals. A lion feeling threatened will often fight, a zebra feeling threatened may flee, a rabbit feeling threatened may freeze as if becoming almost invisible. The fainting goat is an example of an animal that truly faints when in a state of panic, even though this is not the greatest example as this is mostly caused by a hereditary genetic disorder.
In dogs, signs of fight are pretty evident. The dog may lunge forward, bark and attempt to bite. The signs of flight are also quite evident, the dog may cower behind the owner if leashed or attempt to flee to get out of trouble. During freeze, the dog may stand still, hold its breath and have a fixed look in his eyes. Be careful as a bite may come next. Real fainting is quite rare, but it can be seen when a dog drops to the ground and refuses to budge. Most likely it's a sign of learned helplessness.
The fool around response may sound harmless but it's really a sort of displacement behavior; basically, the dog is taking off the steam from a stressful situation by engaging in a totally different behavior such as rolling on the floor, catering to a sudden itch or humping anything in sight. These are not signs of a disobedient dog who is acting out, but signs that the dog is stressed.
So pay attention to your dog, and try to recognize triggers that may cause the fight or flight response. Prevent these triggers from affecting your dog, and if possible, try help your dog face irrational fears through desensitization and counterconditioning. Your dog's health and well-being will thank you!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Why do some animals flee and some fight?
I think it depends on natural instincts, but that there is also a learned component. For instance, it is instinctive for zebras to escape rather than fight a hungry lion. Prey animals are known to choose flight because they can't stand a chance to survive animals that are larger or stronger or who hunt in packs. Fighting back would be maladaptive unless they have no other options. An example of a learned component? A dog may choose to remove himself from a situation and therefore choose flight, but that day he is cornered, he may have to resort to fight.Helpful 3
When a dog is fighting and he draws blood from his victim, is it true that once they get the taste of blood, they will continue to kill ?
No, that is an old myth, meaning that the taste of blood won't make a dog more likely to injure or kill in the future. The taste of blood, in other words, won't make a dog a crazed killer. However, a dog who uses aggression may be likely to use it again if put in a similar situation in the future. A dog who acts aggressive, needs evaluation by a professional such as a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.Helpful 3
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli