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Defence reflexes

Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

Dogs have various reflexes, involuntary responses to a stimulus. Defence reflexes are reactions that are stimulated in response to a threat. They can be active (see Active Defence Reflex) or passive (see Passive Defence Reflex), and they can be learned or unlearned. Learned reflexes are called “conditioned” reflexes, and unlearned ones are called “unconditioned” reflexes.

Active defence reflex (ADR)

A defence reflex is the dog’s instinctive or automatic response to a threat. The defensive reaction may be active or passive. An active defence reflex (ADR) takes the form of biting or fighting to defeat or challenge the source of the threat.  A passive defence reflex (PDR) takes the form of flight – retreating from, deflecting or avoiding the threat.

Whether a dog’s response is active or passive defence may depend on the dog’s underlying temperament, confidence level, socialisation history and later learning. It could also be influenced by the dog’s developmental stage. Most dogs will have some active and some passive defence behaviours in their repertoire, with a tendency to prefer one style or the other.

A dog showing ADR tendencies is not necessarily a confident dog. Nervous or fear-based aggression is common, especially with dogs combining inherited nervous dispositions with poor socialisation. The active defence reflex type of dog will tend to attack when exposed to stressful or threatening social situations. This is one of the most dangerous forms of aggression to deal with. This type of dog will often be highly excitable, thin and with hard, tense muscles.

The tendency to ADR behaviour could be summed up by the expression “attack is the best form of defence”.

Passive defence reflex (PDR)

The defence reflexes are activated when a dog feels threatened.  A passive defence reflex is one in which the dog reacts to a threat by retreating, avoiding the source of the threat, showing inhibition or submissive, placatory behaviour, such as rolling over. The function of this behaviour amongst dogs is appeasement, in other words it is the equivalent of saying “don’t hurt me, I give in”. Ethologists, who study the behaviour of animals in the wild, call this an appeasement or cut-off signal. More recently, Turid Rugaas has documented the body language of dogs in social situations and has identified various calming signals they use to deflect conflict. Some of these seem to be passive defence reflexes, although a defence reflex is a reaction, whereas a Calming Signal is thought to be a deliberate communication.

It is important that dog owners recognise that if a dog cringes, lowers its head or rolls over when scolded, this is a passive defence reflex, a reaction to the fact of being scolded. It is definitely not a sign that because the dog “looks guilty” he “knows he’s done wrong”. Some owners have interpreted this “guilty look” as justification for further punishment. From the dog’s point of view, it makes absolutely no sense for the owner to continue with an attack (punishment) after the dog has already capitulated to the initial scolding. The result is likely to be that if passive defence does not work to deflect the threat, the dog will turn to active defence, for example biting the owner who does not desist.


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