Changing the Picture of My Barking, Lunging Dog

It’s embarrassing to be a pet parent, much less a behavior professional, and have your dog lose it in public. Your dog’s behavior can have a big impact on the human (see Acknowledging the Impact).

It helps to recognize that their behavior is a natural “fight-flight-freeze” response which can be a near-instantaneous sequence of physiological responses to help fight the threat off or flee to safety. It’s a response that evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling dogs, other mammals, and yes, people too, to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Your dog sees the nemesis neighbor dog (or strange person in a hoodie, garbage truck, you fill in the blank for the trigger) and suddenly your mild mannered Golden sounds like Kujo. Embarrassing.

There are a variety of techniques to deal with situations when your dog sees something stressful; for example, a simple u-turn or tossing some treats in the grass, to name just a couple. I like to teach a flight cue as a foundation skill and then once a dog knows that they have the skill and agency to get out of dodge, I like to add skills like look at that (LAT).  

Our dog Boon came to us with a natural flight response. I wish I could get inside her head or have a conversation to figure out how she decided that flight was her preferred go-to vs. fight or freeze, considering she has significant limitations in her natural mobility. Go figure?! We will be walking/wheeling along and Boon will suddenly exit right and start heading down a different sidewalk leaving me wondering why we needed to urgently change direction. Then I hear the rumble and crashes of a garbage truck doing its thing with the automatic arm emptying trash bins and realize she just self-implemented a flight maneuver to avoid a run in with the scary nemesis garbage truck. Good job Boon!

SeeKao, our other dog, didn’t come to us pre-installed with that maneuver, she came with, “I can sound like Kujo so you, scary thing, don’t mess with me,” or, “let me freeze and you won’t see me.” The former strategy can cause a lot of human embarrassment and the latter causes me much anguish to see her clearly in such distress. In either case, it was time to help SeeKao learn that, just like Boon, she had the ability to head out of dodge when a scary thing appeared.

There are a couple of reasons why I like teaching a flight cue. First, I like helping change the emotional response to the trigger. It’s not just moving away from the trigger but having a fun party to move away from it. Parties can be different: Boon likes a gleeful tiny “yaaaaaah” while we swiftly move away, while another dog I work with likes a big rager event. He kind of looks like a life-sized Tigger from Winnie the Pooh: like Tigger, his “tops are made out of rubber/ his bottoms are made out of springs/ he’s bouncy, trouncy, pouncy, flouncy”, and our party consists of 70lbs of boing, boing, boing…BIG movement away as we head out of dodge. He’s absolutely adorable doing this and I wish I had a video to share! Having this party helps change the dog’s feelings about seeing the trigger which hopefully in turn can help switch from going into that almost instantaneous fight response and instead activate muscle memory to move away and choose flight.  

The other reason why I like teaching flight is to increase SeeKao’s sense of agency – to reinforce that she has the ability to control her environment and can move herself away like Boon. I don’t know SeeKao’s back story, but when I met her she too had limited mobility and was housed in a run with another dog who was her nemesis. Poor girl literally had no place to get out of dodge when the other dog started to come after her in the run. That’s when we hatched the plan that she literally needed to get out of dodge and she migrated to the US with me. Many dogs in shelters come in with a history of either being tethered or from other situations where they have had little choice or control. Teaching them a flight cue can help build their sense of agency. SeeKao now gives an alert woof when a delivery truck comes up our driveway and then heads over on her own volition to her safe spot; she’s learned that she doesn’t need to incessantly bark at the truck to make the scary vehicle/person leave, but rather she tells me it’s here then parties over to her bed where she hangs out. 

As I wrote earlier, Boon came ‘pre-installed’ with flight, so we worked on another skill called ‘look at that’. Now when we are walking about, she is usually the one to make the decision if she’d prefer to flight and move away from something; she also has the ability to see the thing and look at me as if to communicate, “Hey mom, do you see that strange thing that I see?,” and then continue on our way. I feel like dogs who know they have the ability to get out of dodge grow in their ability to be able to see ‘the thing’ and feel less strongly about it. I know as a human if I have an exit strategy available to me, I have a greater ability to tolerate things that I might not otherwise. All the more reason for me to start with a flight cue as a foundation skill.  


Now What?

  • Learn your dog’s body signals so you can intervene while they are still in a learning zone.
  • Teach your dog to choose flight when they see a stressor.
  • If you’d like to get help with your dog who has big feelings about stressors, you can schedule a consultation with someone on our team here, we’re happy to help!


Happy Training!