Mowing the lawns today reminded me how powerful the gift of autonomy is to our animals and how it can influence their behaviour. My Border Collie, Fergus, used to react appallingly to the lawnmower (and still would) were he restricted on a leash or behind the yard fence. He would salivate, bark and lunge uncontrollably. This type of excessive arousal is obviously detrimental to a dog’s emotional state and can lead to other behavioural problems such as redirected aggression.
However, Fergus is an entirely different dog when given free access to the driveway as I mow. This allows him to dictate his own distance from the lawnmower in response to his emotional state. He still doesn’t LIKE the mower but his reactive behaviour has disappeared. Why?
The noise and jerky movements of a lawnmower are stress inducing.
The reactivity they trigger is fear based – a dog reacts because they want the scary mower to be further away from them. This sets in motion the physiological FLIGHT Vs FIGHT response seen in many of our dogs. They either remove themselves (flight) or try to repel the stressor (fight) in order to gain an increase in distance between them and the object that is frightening them.
By restricting our dogs ability to move away (either because they are in a small yard or because they are on the end of a leash) we force them to switch modus operandi and turn to overt aggression. If the lawnmower is on the other side of the fence – barrier frustration can also come into play, making arousal greater and reactivity more likely.
Removing physical restraints for a dog lets them choose their own distance to a stressor (in Fergus’ case the lawnmower). It allows them to advance and retreat as they need and in turn removes the stress associated with the restraint. The dog is calmer because it ‘knows’ it can choose to move away and increase the distance between it and the thing that is worrying them whenever they want to – they have a degree of control over their environment.
Unfortunately we often underestimate the distance the dog actually needs to be from a stressor (be it lawnmower, other dog or stranger) before they feel more settled. This is sometimes seen when we attempt desensitization and counter conditioning training and one of the main reasons why it can go wrong. We make the mistake of not allowing a large enough distance between the dog and its stressor. For some dogs this may be the length of a football pitch (or more); for others it could be less than ten metres.
As the video shows, Fergus isn’t completely relaxed but he is coping with the situation because he is in control of the distance between him and the mower. In fact a short time later he took himself off into the shade to watch me finish the job!!
N.B: Allowing choice in this way does not work with dogs that are so terrified of a stressor that they tip over their threshold (for reactivity) at any distance. Or for those dogs whose default response (to stress) is overt aggression, regardless of whether or not they have ‘choice’.
This is where knowing and understanding your dogs underlying emotional state, its triggers and thresholds and being able to read their body language effectively is vital.
Dogs like this need professional help and advice on an individual case basis so that they are not a danger to themselves or others.
I am certainly not advocating that everyone with a mower reactive dog let them loose next time the grass needs cutting! This could be very dangerous if your dog reaches its threshold quickly and easily. As a GP vet I came across several dogs that had come off second best when they tried to ‘attack’ a mower.
However, for many dogs such as Fergus, that have some control over their emotional state and arousal levels, simply allowing them to make decisions for themselves and to chose their proximity to a stressor can be enough to prevent reactive (unwanted) behaviour.
Dogs are no different to us in the fact that they want (and need) to exert choice and control in their life. As caregivers and guardians it is up to us to let them do so, whilst at the same time making sure they are not put in situations where they make dangerous choices for themselves or others.
It is a good example as to why modern dog training is starting to incorporate giving dogs the freedom to choose into training regimes. Autonomy lowers stress levels. It reduces the risk that we will push an animal into learnt helplessness (which has NO place in today’s scientifically proven and humane training methodology). When done correctly, allowing your dog some degree of autonomy results in an improvement to both their outward behaviour and their internal emotional state.
Providing an animal with choice effects not only our pet’s behaviour but it can also strengthen their trust in us and the human-animal bond in the process.
Dr Emma Hughes BSc (Hons); BVSc (Hons); MSc (Animal Behaviour and Welfare); MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour)