My animal is showing anxious and defensive behaviours – what can I do?

How to recognise the escalation steps and know the appropriate response at each level

In another role, I recently attended a 1-day refresher course in MAPA® (Management of Actual and Perceived Aggression) run by CPI (the Crisis Prevention Institute).  This course looks at what happens when an individual’s tension starts to rise, and how we can respond – rather than react – in order to hopefully diffuse the tension before it escalates further and possibly turns into aggression.

MAPA® teaches that there are 4 stages in this process:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Risky behaviour
  4. Tension reduction

When we can respond appropriately at each stage, it allows us to address the level of tension in the ‘least restrictive’ manner.

The suggested responses are:

  1. Be supportive
  2. Be directive
  3. Use (minimal) physical intervention
  4. Engage in therapeutic rapport

Listening to the trainer, I began to realise that this makes a lot of sense for our interactions with our animal friends too! 

I like simplicity (as you might have seen in my recent post) and so MAPA®’s 4-step process resonated with me and I thought I would share, in case it might prove helpful for others too.

The first step we need to take is to observe, and become familiar with, our animal’s baseline behaviours:

  • How do they appear in a variety of situations and settings?
  • What does their ‘happy’ look like?
  • What does their ‘slightly uneasy’ look like?
  • What does their ‘worried’ or ‘anxious’ look like?
  • If they have a disagreement with another horse, what behaviours do they show and how do they behave afterwards? (ie during the tension reduction phase)
  • What do they enjoy? What are they good at?

When we know the answers to these questions, then we can start to gauge where our animal is on their scale of tension, and how we might begin to support them at each level.

Sometimes however, we don’t notice / recognise the subtle signals an animal displays to say that they’re beginning to feel anxious.  These might be a tension around the eyes, mouth and ears, or behavioural clues such as yawning or looking away.

Most – if not all – animals would prefer to keep their tension levels as low as possible, therefore their early signals are an invitation to us to offer support in some way.  If we aren’t able to at least attempt to offer this – and animals are generally very forgiving, tolerant and accepting of our sometimes stumbling and clumsy attempts – then their anxiety will probably move up to defensive behaviour.

At this level we could see things like threats to kick or bite in horses, or bared teeth and growling in dogs.  Unfortunately, particularly with animals who have been punished for giving these signals, we might perceive that they ‘suddenly jump’ into the risky behaviour of charging or biting.  However, if we are able to spot defensive signals, then the MAPA® suggested response is to be directive.  With animals, since we don’t have a shared verbal language, this will need to be in the form of body language or movement on our part.

You could, of course, use a verbal command such as ‘No!’, but I believe that if this was successful it could have the same outcome as punishment, in that it might restrict the animal’s choices in communicating their feelings.  Over time they might stop showing the lower level signals all together, meaning that we no longer have the opportunity to step in and respond to help them release / channel their tension.

Our animals can’t learn to speak, however with a bit of effort and practice we can learn to read their body language and facial expression (see more about this in my blog series) and work together to create a set of signals that have meaning for both participants.

At this level we can use ‘re-direction’, that is shifting the focus to something else.  The ‘something’ would depend on the individual, but you could use things like movement, play, touch or breath.  Obviously, this should be something that you know the animal likes, or already knows how to do, and so can feel the reassurance of doing something that is ‘easy’ for them and at which they can be ‘successful’.

At this point, the individual is beginning to lose the ability to think rationally which is why the response is to make the decisions and direct the activity at this point.

However, if we miss this opportunity for the animal to release their tension, the next step is risky behaviour.  This is when their behaviour becomes much more dangerous, that is, the animal attacks in some way.  At this point they have completely lost the power of rational thought and their entire focus is self-preservation. They have lost the ability to be conscious of our vulnerability!  The training from CPI – which I highly recommend – covers a range of disengagements from various holds, but with animals, unless you’re trained and have the necessary protective gear, the best response at this point is to get out!  Move away and get to a place of safety.

No animal, including ourselves, can hold this level of tension for a sustained period.  It takes a lot of energy and is exhausting.  When they run out of steam, they need to be allowed a period of tension reduction.  For some this will mean being allowed to have some quiet time by themselves, whereas others might want contact and reassurance. This allows the individual to recover their sense of balance and can give us a chance to re-establish bonds of friendship and trust that might be feeling a little frayed.

We too might need support after being the target of an animal’s risky behaviour, to help us recover and not lose our confidence

It’s important to point out here that these steps don’t necessarily progress only in a linear fashion. An individual who has started to ‘de-escalate’ in tension, could be re-triggered back up the scale at any point, if they haven’t yet reached full tension reduction, so be aware of possible triggers and of any signs that their arousal level is increasing again.

I hope this simple set of steps helps to provide a useful way of approaching tension in your animals, but please remember that your safety must come first at all times.  If you feel that you need support, I recommend calling on the services of a good behaviourist to help you build a deeper – and safer – connection.

(Images courtesy of Google Images and Canva)

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