Defense Reflexes In Dogs

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All animals share the same defence reflexes. It’s a natural behavioural mechanism. When the animal is scared, it will express those behaviours automatically. These reflexes will allow the animal to survive a stressful situation. Whether it’s life is in danger or not, the animal will always express its reflexes the same way. In order to avoid being bitten, it is crucial to be able to detect if our dog is exhibiting defence reflexes or not.

In a previous text, I talked about stress signs in dogs. When the stress is too important, the dog will show defence reflexes. You can’t have one without the other but there are strong chances of avoiding the dreaded bite once we’re able to read the signals. In dogs, defence reflexes are expressed in this order:

  1. Freezing: the animal stops moving, its muscles are tense, and we even get the feeling that the dogs has stopped breathing.Aggressive dog behavior
  2. Fleeing: it wants to avoid the threat, wants to escape and then go hide.
  3. Fighting back: the ultimate effort to escape what the dog considers a threat; which is ATTACKING! The dog will bite! 

Be careful: when your dog is in “defence mode”, he’s incapable of:

  • Remembering
  • Learning
  • Eating

If the dog doesn’t eat he’s favorite treat in a stressful situation, there are some strong chances that he will show to defence reflexes.

So, when the dog is scared, he’ll start showing us signs of stress. If the fear is too important, he’ll freeze first. Sometimes, he’ll freeze for a long period of time and sometimes he’ll immediately flee. The fleeing reflex is THE reflex to look out for, because it is followed by the bite. As soon as the dog tries to avoid somebody, another dog or a situation, it’s time for you to do something! If the dog can’t flee or avoid the cause of his fear, there’s a strong probability that he’ll turn around and try to bite in order to make what is scaring him go away. Pay special attention when the dog is leashed because he has nowhere to flee to.

We often react too late or we don’t pay enough attention to our dog’s behaviours. Many bites can be avoided if the dog owners would listen carefully to their dogs. Many children get bitten because these owners don’t. The dog sends several signals before he bites. He will first use calming signals, then show signs of stress, and try to get away. If the child keeps stressing the dog, as it often happens, the dog will end up biting him!

You have to exercise the utmost vigilance when it comes to dogs’ defense reflexes because if the dog has a lot of “practice”, he’ll learn something. Meaning, if the dog learn that biting benefits him the best, he’ll stop going through the first two steps and will immediately go to the biting. The dog becomes unpredictable since he won’t flee as a warning but will bite instantly. Therefore, if we don’t pay attention to our dog’s defense reflexes and if we don’t handle the situation, we’re likely to train our dog to have an aggressive behavior. Please keep in mind that an aggressive behavior is ALWAYS caused by fear. If you can manage the fear, you can manage your dog’s behaviours as well.

Catherine Gouillard, BSc Biology

Catherine GouillardCertified Animal Behaviour specialist

Catherine Gouillard

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