Thursday, January 7, 2016

How animals assess their world: Is it safe to go outside?

Two posts back we talked about perception and a dog’s response to a perceived threat. I want to go into that a bit more this week and talk about the steps that a dog goes through when assessing their surroundings and the objects or people in them.

As I said before, a dog, in fact any animal, makes an assessment that starts with safe vs not safe. This assessment is made based on hardwired survival behavior, physical and other cues, experience, and training.

The best outcome for an animal is that a situation is safe. Just determining that a situation is safe is not all that happens though. From basic safe the animal decides whether to stay in place or approach. If they approach, the long term decision for approach may be determined by whether the approach is reinforced. Is there a reward that makes it worthwhile to pursue this behavior in the future? Is a need fulfilled? If so, the approach is reinforced and becomes more likely to occur in the future.

This is what we strive for. We want our companions to be reinforced by approaching us, and we fulfill their needs when they do. Fortunately for us dogs are social beings and want our interaction. They have a need for social contact, and we can fulfill that need in a positive manner. We can also provide the physical bits that aid in their survival, like food and shelter.

On the other hand, when an animal evaluates a situation as not safe they are presented with three basic responses: Freeze, Flight, or Fight. Everything that happens in a not safe circumstance is a modification of these three choices.

First let’s talk about freeze. This response is the bunny rabbit response: stay really still, try to blend in, and maybe the scary thing will overlook you and go away. For rabbits and other animals that blend in (the technical term is protective or cryptic coloration-we call it camouflage) this is a common response. They stay still because many predators react to movement. If you aren’t obvious and don’t move, you may not attract attention. In the wild, if you are potential prey, attention is bad.

For dogs this is less, er, useful. A 98 pound harlequin Great Dane is really tough to miss, regardless of the background. Staying still is not a real option most of the time. Dogs that freeze are, in my experience, usually not trying to blend in-they are, instead, so fearful that they can’t decide whether to run or fight as they perceive that both options are equally dangerous. Dogs that show serious freezing may have been abused, or suffered from making either choice in the past. The have acquired learned helplessness, which we will talk about another time.

With freezing off the table in many cases, we are presented with the age old dilemma: fight or flight. Of the two, flight is usually the safer, and most common choice.

Flight is easy to understand. You see something scary? RUN AWAY! Live to eat another day. This makes sense. If you are paying attention to your surroundings, you can even see the scary thing before it sees you and, by fleeing, you may avoid the confrontation completely. Avoidance by flight is really safe and, if you successfully stay under the bad thing’s radar, you can continue your life unmolested. To do this you require an escape route, for which animals are scouting all the time. If you are pursued, you may have to make the decision again to keep running or turn and fight, but running is still the best option if you can.

Fight is the least attractive option. Someone is getting hurt. Getting hurt is always a less attractive option if you are trying to survive. Getting hurt as an option means that you either have nowhere to run or you have to protect something worth possibly dying for.

The first step to fighting is to try and become scary yourself. Get big, get loud, get fierce. Make the other guy think that you are bigger and badder than they are. Maybe they will decide to take the flight option. This is behavior we see in a dog that is frightened and feels that flight options are limited. This can be backed into a corner, or even more insidious, being chained in a small area (which is another topic coming up in the future). They growl, snarl, lunge, bare their teeth, and try to look as intimidating and dangerous as they can. This looks, and is, frightening and dangerous. The good news is that, in most cases, if you give an animal in this situation an exit, they will turn fight into flight. Give them an out. They will mostly take it.

In canine conflicts, if bluster doesn’t work, then the two in conflict may proceed to what is essentially ritualized combat. This is your typical dog fight. The two dogs come into physical conflict, but are mostly pulling their punches. Neither really wants to get hurt, so they show inhibition and control of their biting. There is a lot of spit, sound, and fur flying. There may be punctures and torn ears. No one, however, really gets injured. One or the other decides that enough is enough and retreats or surrenders. Case closed for the day and survival is achieved.

If this doesn’t work, the the situation escalates into full-on high stakes combat. Someone isn’t going home today. This is the final option. In the overall scheme of things, this is the least attractive option because one animal is likely killed and the other may be mortally wounded. If your strategy is for the species to survive this is not good, as you may be reducing the healthy population and limiting your survival chances. Remember: if your goal is to keep your species alive and reproducing, you try and stay alive to spread your genetic material far and wide. Killing off too many of your cohorts limits this ability. This is something that we as humans seem to have forgotten, but then that is partly why I now deal with dogs after doing my years dealing with nasty people. Dogs have better sense.

Ultimately the conflict must be defused or resolved. Either way the animal is seeking to return to a state of safe. That is the root. They aren't plotting beyond that. There is no desire to establish an empire and exploit the local weaklings. That is human. As long as animals can provide for their basic needs conflict is unnecessary. Fulfilling needs and reducing conflict makes the world safe and allows the propagation of the species, which is really the bottom line for any organism. Make more of yourself and keep them all healthy.

How does this apply to us and our interactions with our dogs? They need to identify safe vs not safe, and need guidance to figure out what things are real threats and what are not.

Our dogs take major cues from our behavior. If we are tense or nervous, that information is quickly picked up by our dogs. If we are relaxed and receptive, generally so are our dogs. They do make their own decisions apart from our cues though, based on the input we have already discussed: scent, vision, hearing, and as associated with their own experience. Our job is to equip them, through socialization and positive experience, with familiarity with enough novel situations that they more accurately assess situations. Dr. Ian Dunbar says that all our puppies should meet 100 new people before they are eight weeks old, and another 100 people between 8 and 12 weeks. I personally have seen the result of this. When I was doing a lot of dog demonstration events I took litters of pups to expos where, over three or four days, my pups met up to 30 or 40,000 people. These became bulletproof pups.

Those particular opportunities are not available for everyone, but the principle is the same. Lots of exposure, lots of positive.

This also applies to adult dogs, even those who have had bad experiences. It does take a little longer. Your dog, even with a bumpy road behind them, can learn to be accepting and secure. They can expand their world of safe, and you can make your companion's life more relaxed, more enjoyable, and safer for you, them, and everyone else.

But if your dog insists that something, or someone, is not safe: don't force them. That will make things worse. Maybe, your dog sees something you don't. Look and listen and respect your dog's opinion. They may be right.