When we wrote Canine Enrichment for the Real World, there were some topics that we knew people would ask us about. We expected the questions about agency and contrafreeloading. The question that we didn’t expect was:
So tell me more about this “flight training”.
And, sure enough, each time we present or post or write about flight training- even if it’s just a passing comment- we get a lot of questions about it. So, let’s dive into the most frequently asked questions we get about this topic.
What is flight training?
First and foremost, folks ask, “what is it?” It’s really just what it sounds like: we’re teaching an animal to move away from something they find uncomfortable. Many people already know about the fight or flight response (we talk about fight, flight, freeze with our clients), and so we started calling this protocol “flight training” because it borrowed a term that many people were already familiar with. For the longest time, I actually called it, “flight training for lack of a better phrase.”
As I tell my clients- most of whom are seeing me for anxiety that manifests as aggressive or reactive-type behaviors- flight is way better than the alternative! It’s unrealistic to assume that we can teach an individual to be comfortable in every single situation that they will encounter for the rest of their lives. It’s much more reasonable to assume that we can teach them how to be comfortable in certain situations and then teach coping skills that can be used in others. When taught in a particular fashion, flight training becomes a coping skill that pets can use without human prompting. It takes a while to get to that stage, but it’s always amazing to see it when it happens!
Why should I teach my pet flight?
You know that we specialize in maladaptive behaviors, behavior issues, problems, whatever you’d like to call them. That means that many of my top reasons for teaching a pet flight are centered around that. However, I do think that it’s a skill that all individuals- of all species- should know how to do. Some animals already do this on their own and we simply need to allow them to do so when it happens. The animals that I work with tend to need to be taught how to move away from stress.
Here are my top 5 reasons that I teach flight to my clients’ pets:
1. The best individual to monitor stress is that individual
Anxiety, stress, and fear are funny things and they’re highly individualized. Some people can’t even look at a picture of a spider and others keep them as pets. Some people go bungee jumping; my mom struggles to look over a second-story balcony for fear of heights. Humans think fireworks are fun. Birds die trying to flee from them.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more: you don’t get to choose what an individual is afraid of and not afraid of. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you or not. It only matters how they feel. And that means that the best individual to monitor stress is that individual.
Sometimes when we teach an animal flight, we learn that they’re actually uncomfortable about more things than we realized. I worked at a sanctuary where the staff used golf carts to move from one area to another. We had been working on an early variation of our flight training with a dog, Lee. One day his caregiver told me that a golf cart was passing them while out on a walk and Lee moved to the other side of her, which was his version of avoiding the scary thing. Once it had passed he resumed his normal walking pattern. We had no idea he was uncomfortable with golf carts passing until we gave him the ability to tell us.
2. It’s way better than the alternative
I mentioned above that there are different stress responses: fight, flight, freeze (there are technically others that we’re going to ignore for now). The vast majority of clients who come to me do so after their pet starts “choosing” fight-type behaviors (choosing is in quotation marks because it’s not necessarily a conscious choice.) In those cases, the top priority is to reduce the fight-type behaviors. It’s a safety concern.
When I’m working with those clients, I explain the stress responses and discuss why their pet is behaving the way they do. Both fight and flight have the same goal: to increase distance from the scary thing. So how about we teach them how to move away instead of aggress? Almost everyone enthusiastically agrees that flight is a much better alternative in those situations.
3. Agency is good for, well, everything
Flight training allows for the choice to move away from a person, animal, object, or situation. Agency– the ability to make choices that result in desirable outcomes- is good for, well, just about everything. In particular, though, it’s really valuable when it comes to anxiety-based behaviors. If you are in an uncomfortable situation and can’t see a way out, your fear intensifies. If you are in an uncomfortable situation and know that you can leave it at any time, you’re likely to feel more comfortable and stick around longer. Flight training can help to alleviate some stress.
4. Having an out increases efficiency
My anecdotal experience is that teaching flight helps to make the behavior modification process more efficient. As I mentioned above, that increase in agency in stressful situations tends to decrease stress and help animals be able to learn better in stressful situations. I find that the clients who are dedicated to flight training tend to make quicker progress than those who are not as dedicated to teaching and implementing that skill.
5. Knowing what to do when something goes wrong
The first part of a behavior modification plan is management: how do we set up the environment and interactions to prevent the unwanted behavior from happening in the first place? The problem is that management fails and sometimes it’s not possible to get a management plan that is 100% perfect in the first place. And that means that while we do need to be diligent about adhering to a management plan to decrease stress and unwanted behaviors, we also need to know what to do when management fails. We need a “get out of Dodge” behavior that has been practiced to the point where it can be used in a stressful situation. That’s the reason I usually teach my clients flight training before teaching them how to work in difficult situations. They need to be able to get out of a sticky situation first.
How do I teach my pet flight?
There are a lot of similar protocols out there, so you’re welcome to choose whichever you like! Things like emergency u-turns, Treat ‘N’ Retreat, and the like are versions of this or incorporate elements of it. I prefer our protocol because it’s designed to be used as a life skill instead of only as a training skill but that preference doesn’t mean that other similar protocols are not effective!
The broad strokes of teaching flight include:
- Teach a flight cue in non-stressful situations
- Start using your flight cue to encourage your pet to move away from stressors
- When you see your pet asking or trying to move away on their own, let them do so and reward the heck out of it!
If you would like help with teaching your pet flight, our consultants are here for you and offer remote services worldwide. Behavior professionals: we have a Flight Training Course designed to teach you how to teach your clients how to do flight training. This course is incredibly focused on teaching clients; trust me when I say that only professionals will want to take this.
- Watch your pet to see if they already move away in uncomfortable situations. If they do, fantastic! Make sure that you let them do so when they want to. One of the ways that flight behaviors turn to fight behaviors is to remove flight as an option. Again, flight is a way better alternative and something that I personally celebrate.
- If your pet does not move away in uncomfortable situations, start working on teaching flight. Again, our consultants are here to help (the devil’s in the details, after all!)
- Behavior professionals: if you’re looking for how to teach your clients how to do flight training, you’re in luck! Our Flight Training Course is now available for sale. Check it out here.