I’ll admit, I’ve had an issue with the word “fine” for longer than I’ve been involved in animal behavior. The reason for that is fairly perfectly summed up in this meme:
But I digress. Onto how this relates to animal behavior!
Something I hear frequently is:
“I don’t get it. He tries to bite people normally but is totally fine when they take him in the back at the vet clinic!”
When I hear this, I ask my client more questions about that scenario: what sort of body language do you see at the vet? Does your pet seem fearful or is he totally happy and excited to be there? It’s almost always the former. In that case, I have to break some bad news to my clients: their pet is not actually fine.
A bit about thresholds
We’ve talked about thresholds before in our “Does Your Pet Have Mountain Lion Brain?” post. Essentially, it’s that line in the sand where under threshold your pet is okay and above threshold they’re in fight-or-flight mode (this is an overly simplified version; I recommend Eileen Anderson’s blog post to learn the nuances). However, our pets have more options than just fight or flight when they’re over threshold. Freeze is a third option.
What does “Freeze” look like?
A quick note before we continue: there’s also a body language signal that we refer to as “freeze”. That type can be a bit different than the “freeze” option over threshold that we’re currently talking about.
Over threshold, “freeze” looks like when a rabbit spots you crossing their path. They get very still, as if they’re saying, “If I don’t move then you can’t see me and won’t eat me!” This is true for our pets, too. Freeze looks like a stiff stillness. One of my favorite resources to help my clients understand this important distinction between “fine” and “freeze” is this video from Eileen Anderson (note: while shut down and freeze are technically different, the concepts are similar enough for our purposes at the pet parent level):
As you can see, there are very subtle differences between “fine” and “freeze”. It’s easy to see why many people don’t spot what’s happening!
Why is “Freeze” Not Fine?
At this point when I’m talking to my clients, they often ask me if this is really a big deal. Their pet is not actively aggressing, nor running away, and the clinic staff is able to do what they need to do for the health of their pet. Why is that not okay? The answer is dependent on who you ask.
From the human point of view, everything is okay. We’re able to perform the tasks we needed to to keep the pet physically healthy and we were able to do so safely. It’s a win-win for the humans! From the pet point of view, however, it’s definitely not a win-win. They’re still scared and over threshold, which can feed into other aspects of life. For instance, a client recently told me that her dog had major regressions in all of her anxiety-related behaviors, including light/shadow chasing, reactivity, and aggression, after she came back from a tooth extraction, even though there were no negative reports from the clinic. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum; many seemingly unrelated things do impact one another.
Experiencing these traumatic (again, from the point of view of the pet and not the human) and unavoidable events can lead to learned helplessness. This is a state where an individual has learned that nothing they do affects their outcome so they choose not to do anything when put into stressful situations. I mentioned the vet clinic, but I also see this happening at groomers and even at dog parks and doggy daycares.
There’s a whole host of negative mental and physical side effects from learned helplessness, from disrupted sleeping patterns to increased anxiety-related behaviors. We talk a ton about this in our book in the Agency chapter if you’re interested in this topic. In short, “freeze” is definitely not okay from the point of view of the pet’s mental and behavioral health.
What can I do?
The good news is that your pet will tell you when they’re uncomfortable and, in most situations, we can advocate for them! The above video excellently showcases different dogs in this shut down state but it’s up to us to learn our own pet’s body language to know what it looks like for them.
When you see your pet entering that zone, take a moment to assess the environment and situation. What is your pet responding to? I’ve been using a vet visit as an example but this can happen in other situations, too. For instance, when I first adopted Oso he would choose “freeze” during thunderstorms. How can you manage the environment in that moment to alleviate your pet’s stress?
And, of course this wouldn’t be a training and behavior blog without recommending training! When you know what is making your pet uncomfortable you can work on helping your pet feel more comfortable in those situations. Above I stated that when I first adopted Oso he would freeze during thunderstorms; that’s because we worked through that fear using counterconditioning and he is no longer as frightened of them. There’s no reason for him to freeze because it’s not that scary. That is the true win-win.
- Continue learning your dog’s body language and stress signals. Here are a couple books to help you with that (these are Amazon affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!)
- When you see your pet choosing “freeze”, assess the environment and situation to determine what the triggers are. Make a note of those.
- Work with your behavior consultant to determine the best course of action for working through your pet’s fears. While it’s possible to do this on your own, your behavior consultant should help you do this in the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive way so that you don’t have unintended consequences down the road.
- Work through your pet’s behavior modification plan and see those true win-wins roll in!