We often associate reactivity in dogs with barking, trying to chase the scary thing away and looking as big as possible. Sometimes though reactive dogs don’t react at all, yet they are still just as upset.
Reaction, like everything else about dogs, is based on canine individuality.
Some dogs are so gentle, scared or emotionally shut-down that they default to the freeze reaction, when the stress response occurs in their body and mind.
- They don’t fight and attempt to chase the scary thing away.
- They don’t flight and try to run away.
- They simply freeze and hope the scary thing goes away as quickly as possible.
Freezing is a totally natural reaction, rabbits do it when they see a fox, they try to become invisible. In fact, a lot of prey animals do it. The internal stress reaction of the freeze is no less than the fight or flight reaction, the dog is just as stressed, the body is flooded with stress chemicals.
Many dogs that freeze have learned, sadly, that nothing else has worked. They might have once had fight in them, but in one way or another it’s been extinguished. They have generally given up trying to fight, often due to oppression and abuse. When we rescue abused dogs, we can often do anything with them physically because they shrink inside themselves and wait it out. This is how they have learned to cope, sometimes over many years.
When we rescue abused dogs though, we give them the chance to unpack and this means to allow them to test out their choices. The aim is to build confidence enough that the dog knows that they have some control over their life and body. This is exactly why we celebrated when our little freeze dog tried to bite, click to read her tale.
The added risk is when a cute dog is scared and freezes to wait it out, people tend to try and touch them. They also go deaf when they are doing it, so you end up shouting at strangers, who often sheepishly shuffle away. There’s always the Hoffman Handshake (Martha Hoffman) for this, a perfect blog post that I’ll never forget the delight of reading for the first time.
The dog that freezes, needs positive responses to his little steps of progress to build his self-belief. Reward for little choices and gentle applause for tiny displays of strength and initiative. He’s not being stubborn or awkward, he’s being stressed and the more confidence he learns the better he will cope.