Flight Distance!

In this Blog piece i will be stepping away from my usual food/nutritional topics of blogs and more into the behaviour side of things, however i must stress i hold no qualification or experience in a professional manner in respect of being a canine behaviourist / trainer.

Some of you may of come across “Flight Distance” while some of you may not, however i’ll brake it down into simple terms but by doing so i may not be 100% factual but the concept is all the same, Flight Distance is a term used when assessing how an animal reacts when near an imminent threat and in this example i will use the Modern Dogs distant cousin, the Wolf and their Imminent threat which is us humans!.

Wolves naturally keep their distance from humans, they will not come closer (intentionally) than a distance they can run away from (Flight) to safety.

If you had the unfortunate circumstance of bumping into a Wolf in the wild, their amygdala would respond 1 of 3 ways, Flight, Freeze or Fight and from how I’ve seen Wolves portrayed on the TV, i would be more inclined to say you’ll get the “Fight” response and you will have hackles up, Head slightly bowed, stern stares, teeth bared, drooling barks etc.. (Ironically this is when your Amygdala kicks in and you’ll also make a subconscious decision to Freeze, Fight or Flight) In this situation it would be ideal for all involved that you don’t make eye contact and you walk backwards, very slowly increasing that flight distance, that way the Wolf will see you less of a threat!

However don’t worry, in reality and away from the entertainment of the TV the Wolf would only “Fight” as a last resort, Flight would be their evolutionary default, according to the Yellowstone insider there has been 20-30 reported Wolf Attacks on humans In a 100 year period, I like those odds! Not that I’ll be running for a selfie with a wild wolf any time soon or any other wild canid!

Photo Credit: Waldemar Brandt

Now this flight distance, has been the key to domesticating the wolf and creating the modern dog!

As wolves are also subjected conditional training/ chaining behaviours they soon realised that we humans could be a benefit to their survival, as we left carcasses lying around etc which a great food source for a Wolf and their pups and being close also provided a source of warmth in the colder climates through camp fires.

Over natural evolution, those wolves that lived side by side with humans in a territorial aspect soon developed a shorter “Flight Distance” and they started to venture closure to human activity which then lead to humans feeding them, which was the first form of Canine to Human companionship, This to then evolved into a shorter “Flight Distance” until they were taking food from the humans hands, No doubt this would of been when “Pet Names” would of been established as a term of endearment/bonding again over time as the packs were breeding and each set of puppies developed a shorter “Flight Distance” it wasn’t long until humans were able to Pet and Domesticate the Wolf , We then started to breed them, Initially through selecting the “most tame” to create offspring with better temperament and ability to train by working with their natural traits! Then through careful selection of their skills they were able to for-fill a working purpose such as Guarding, Hunting, Sled Pulling etc… Sled pulling in its self was a hierarchy role, as they were “Leaders” of the pack and it was the “Leaders” of these packs which bred with the “Alpha female” and their puppies were sold/swapped to other Sledmen to improve /compliment each of their packs, now these Sledmen would of been from other parts of the continent and even the globe, this is what has developed different aesthetic appearances depending on their lineage as Wolves and Dogs adapt to their surroundings, including acclimatisation! Just think of the world renowned story of Togo and the Serum Run of 1925! (Disney made a film about it, check it out, its a great watch staring Willem Dafoe)

Over centuries this style of selected breeding and even cross breeding with other domesticated species of the Canids such a Coyotes, Dingoes and Jackals have created the modern dog breeds we know today!

Anyway that’s enough of the basic and potentially slightly inaccurate evolutionary story of Wolf to the Modern Dog, The reason i brought this topic of “Flight Distance” up is because we see it within the Modern Dog, most dog owners just don’t know what it us to understand! I’ve seen extended flight distance between humans and dogs that have been through trauma, although the flight distance has been bred /trained out over centuries, it’s still hardwired as a defence mechanism!

How many times do you see videos on social media, of dogs in shelters shaking and cowering in corners of a kennel when a human enters the room, or simply the sounds/smells of the other dogsin the shelter are enough to trigger this response, If this dog was in the open you can bet your life on it that they would run away to a place of safety but as they’re confined in a kennel they cannot do that so they locate themselves in a position furthest away from the door and get as low to the ground as possible.

These dogs mindsets need to be understood on a psychological level, You cannot just simply wade in there and take that dog for a walk, you will be asking for the dogs only line of defence , a Bite! This typically happens when dogs get assessed and those who are taking care of them, don’t understand canine behaviour and they cannot read their body language! So in these situations, i’d like to think that you would go back to basics, think about how humans domesticated dogs and work on those foundations again. You know what they say about trust? It took us centuries to build and then 1 moment can undo all that for the individual dog, we have to get that trust back and that takes time and dedication.

This is what i’d do and again I’m not a trainer or behaviourist however i have had hands on experience with taking in dogs (Over 10 so far) with various issues including an increased flight distance after I’ve removed them from “unfriendly environments”.

This is just something I’ve done previously that’s worked but this is just something I’ve picked/Interpreted from reading various books, i’ll address this in stages (note: these stages aren’t time specific, it takes however long it takes);

Stage 1: I’d work on how that dog in question associates my presence and i’d do that by associating myself with food initially, I’d enter the room with a bowl of species appropriate food and leave in the middle of the room then say “Dinner”(or another queue word) and then leave again. (I’d then monitor on CCTV) Over a couple of days if the dog is starting to show positive signs with my presence such as no shaking, but ear pricks, head tilts and maybe a tail wag and barking then i’d progress to stage 2

Stage 2: I’d the same as Stage 1 here, although, i wouldn’t leave this time, I’d sit in the opposite corner without making eye contact and i’d talk to them about my day to get them used to my voice too. Once they’ve eaten i’d use the queue word again and leave. If they start to eat in front of me, all is going well, it’s progress as it’s a sign the flight distance is shortening.

Stage 3: If stage 2 goes well, I’d reduce my distance to the bowl which shortens the flight distance and see if the dog ventures closer to eat, If they do, Excellent! Can move to stage 4. This has to be done before step 4 as this will also minimise the potential for the dog to resource guard their food!

Stage 4: Now this is where i’d sit with the bowl but i’d try and and offer food from out of my hand and see if they have the confidence to approach and eat from my hand, Once i’m at this stage it’s a good sign that the flight distance is nearly restored. Next stage!

Stage 5: Now at this point, i’d expect the dog wouldn’t be cowering in the corner but if they are, I’ll offer food from my hand but increase the distance to see if they will come even closer and eventually when i enter the room, i’m hoping they come to me straight away if they do, On to the next stage.

Stage 6: At this point there’s an element of trust established and when the door opens there’s a trained concept of food, this is the point where i’d get someone else to go in with me and praise them and offer treats and see if they come to the “Stranger” for food, using their trust with me as confirmation they are safe.

Stage 7: At this point, i believe the dog will be at a stage where you can then start to walk them, providing treats and praise of course and start to implement some training now the trust foundations have been restored (Flight distance removed)

Many behaviourists / trainers will read and have other methods that have been tried and tested however this is simply my take on it and like i say this is just what i’d do in these situations but i’m not behaviourist or trainer, just a bucket load of personal experience!

Now this scenario i rolled out to explain flight distance was just an example, dogs hit a natural flight distance due to many things but it would take me forever to list them all!

If you believe your dog is having issues and are showing signs of an “Increased Flight Distance” then please work with a behaviourist who will work with you and help you rectify this you can find one by speak to your Vet, they will have someone available to assist!

Remember Stay Alert, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.

Michael K A Bennett- BCCSDip.HthNut

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