Part of observation is understanding that behaviour is simply a form of communication. While we can never absolutely KNOW what an animal is thinking or feeling, there are some behaviours we have commonly seen displayed as signs of stress, or as a way of handling stress.
As humans we all have different coping mechanisms in times of stress. Some of us eat, some of us sleep, some of us shut down, the list is long. No one is the same and no one has the same stress threshold and each one of us displays or copes with stress differently. Our animals are no different.
The Tellington TTouch Method has long identified 5 main coping strategies commonly used by horses and dogs, in times of stress or anxiety.
Flight, Fight, Fidget, Freeze, and Faint.
Flight is one that we are all familiar with, when faced with a stressful or fearful situation, the animal simply tries to exit the situation as quickly as possible.
Fight is another well documented instinct where the animal will respond to the situation in a confrontational manner.
Fidget is an extremely common response in domesticated animals and is probably one of the most misunderstood. This response can look like pawing, grabbing the lead line or leash, initiating play, scratching, head tossing, many behaviors that would typically be labeled as “pushy”, “bored” or “happy/playful” in dogs. More often than not these are signs of mild to high anxiety.
The best way to recognize this is to notice if the behavior stops as soon as you change the context. For instance, if your horse or dog all of the sudden starts displaying this type of behavior when you touch a certain part of the body but stop as soon as you stop touching them, you can almost guarantee that they were quietly displaying their concern.
Freeze also happens in dogs and horses and can be recognized too late. This will happen with dogs where kids are petting a dog that bites or snaps “with no warning”. In reality the dog was likely in freeze mode and essentially “checked out” trying to cope with whatever was being done or asked until they finally lost it.
The dog probably held their breath, had a change in respiration, may have tightened their eye or mouth, and “stood like a statue” until they hit their breaking point and could not take it any longer.
Faint is the least common of the 5 coping skills, thankfully, and not typically seen in dogs.. Faint can sometimes be seen at the race track when horses are saddled quickly and tightly and the horse simply lies down. A horse who is under extreme pressure to trailer load or go through an obstacle may simply lie down and “say uncle”.
Start noticing how your animal reacts in stressful situations and see how you can break down your request or exercise into smaller, easier pieces to reduce anxiety and listen to your animal’s smallest indications of concern.
This will allow your animal to whisper to you, rather than shout!