How do you cope with stress?
We all have different coping mechanisms. Some of us eat, some of us yell, some of us sleep, some of us shut down. No one is the same and no one has the same stress threshold and each one of us displays or copes with stress differently. Our animals are no different.
Over the years the “fight” – “flight” responses in horses have been recognized as a talking point for many training methods and more recently these labels have extended to the dog training world.
We all have experienced dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations triggered by those instincts, and many humans and animals have been hurt because of these responses. The following scenarios are familiar to most of us:
- A horse spooks and flees at the sight of flapping plastic
- A tied horse pulls back and fights at the end of the lead
- A dog runs and hides at the sight of nail clippers
- A cat scratches you as you try to administer medication
- A puppy flops down and refuses to move the first time you put them on leash
This list goes on – I imagine you could add a few of your own personal stories to the list , but the same basic characteristics are displayed by the animals in these scenarios: their heads go up, the adrenaline flows, their breathing pattern changes and the animal simply react instinctively – they are no longer thinking and the sympathetic nervous system takes over.
The Tellington TTouch Method has long identified 5 main coping strategies commonly used by horses, and to some extent dogs, in times of stress or anxiety. Flight, Fight, Fidget, Freeze, and Faint.
The Five F’s
Fight, flight, freeze, faint and fool around or fidget.
Within each of these broad categories there is also a scale – for instance an animal can be triggered for ‘flight’ and it might be that the response is as small as the head going up, back tightening and then he recovers before it escalates into anything greater. The average person might not recognize that the animal was at all concerned because they were able to cope.
If this “threat” or “stress” escalated and the animal was pushed beyond their thresh-hold, the behaviour may turn into something anyone would notice, not usually in a positive way!
All the coping strategies an animal displayed can be considered on a scale – from a small indicator to a large behaviour. This goes along with the ‘candles’ raising the temperature as described by Edie Jane Eaton in her article Shedding some (Candle)Light on Resistances in Horses: in the Jan-Mar-09 issue.
If we start to recognize the smallest response to stress and work to help an animal
feel safe in those situations then the tendency to escalate in other situations will generally diminish. If we fail to recognize the beginning of stress in the animal and continue to increase
pressure in those situations it is unlikely that the animal will ever really change and may actually become less able to cope with the smaller stresses.
Flight is one that we are all familiar with, when faced with a stressful or fearful situation, the animal simply tries to exit the situation as quickly as possible.
Fight is another well documented instinct where the animal will respond to the situation in a confrontational manner.
Fidget (or fool around) is an extremely common response in domesticated animals and is probably one of the most misunderstood.
This response can look like pawing, grabbing the lead line or leash, initiating play, scratching, head tossing, many behaviors that would typically be labeled as “pushy”, “bored” or “happy/playful” in dogs. More often than not these are signs of mild to high anxiety. The best way to recognize this is to notice if the behavior stops as soon as you change the context. For instance, if your horse or dog all of the sudden starts displaying this type of behavior when you touch a certain part of the body but stop as soon as you stop touching them, you can almost guarantee that they were quietly displaying their concern.
Freeze also happens in dogs and horses and can be recognized too late. This will happen in horses where people may feel like their horse exploded “with no warning”. In reality the horse was likely in freeze mode and essentially “checked out” trying to cope with whatever was being done or asked. They probably held their breath, had a change in respiration, may have tightened their eye or mouth, and “stood like a statue” until they hit their breaking point and could not take it any longer.
Faint is the least common of the 5 coping skills, thankfully. Faint can sometimes be seen at the track when horses are saddled quickly and tightly and the horse simply lies down. The animal’s nervous system is so overwhelmed that they go in to a “catatonic” state.
A horse who is under extreme pressure to trailer load or go through an obstacle may simply lie down and “say uncle”.
Each of these responses are simply a reaction to external stressors or pressure. As the trainer or handler, it is up to us to keep the requests below the threshold that an animal is pushed into these states because once an animal is pushed enough to activate the sympathetic nervous system, the ability to learn is greatly reduced.
Start noticing how your animal reacts in stressful situations and see how you can break down your request or exercise into smaller, easier pieces to reduce anxiety and listen to your animal’s smallest indications of concern. This will allow your animal to whisper to you, rather than shout!