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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Case study of a dog with a spinal condition (Part 4 of 4)

In the previous 3 posts I’ve shared what happened at a recent zoopharmacognosy (self selection) session with a canine client of mine, Willow.  The session was offered via Skype by Rachel Windsor-Knott of My Animal Matters.  Having asked Willow’s owner to fill out a detailed consultation form Rachel then sent a box of samples and, during the call, described how to offer these to Willow.  Rachel’s selection of herbs and oils was spot on, and Willow worked with everything in the box.

Rachel also recommended that Willow’s owner offer her Coconut oil in addition to the remedies to make sure that she was choosing the macerates for their herb content, rather than for fats (see further information in Part 3).  Willow proved to be very keen on this and her owner realised that it has also been helping her skin.  (Willow had had a tendency to lick at her paws causing redness and broken skin but this has now cleared up.)

Rachel added Spirulina to Willow’s selection of remedies.  This is helpful in cases of anxious behaviours and joint problems.  It is detoxifying and helps to stimulate the immune system.  It’s also a great supplement for senior dogs or those who are a little run-down as it is rich in protein and nutrients.  Willow proved to be very fond of this too!

Following the initial session, Willow’s owner continued to offer the remedies, particularly the Peppermint, Marjoram Sweet and Violet Leaf oils, the Comfrey and Arnica macerates and the Rose water.  To these she then added the Coconut Oil and Spirulina.  She shared this message with us when her box of remedies arrived:

Willow was so excited when your parcel arrived and was ripping off the bubble wrap with me! She’s loving the arnica, comfrey, violet leaf (rubs on side of head with it and mouthing/chewing the cloth) and marjoram on her back, more than the others… She is much more relaxed and softer… 

Rachel had included small sachets of Devil’s Claw and Barley Grass which Willow took for a few days. (Devils Claw is good for arthritis, inflammatory pain and musculoskeletal issues.  Barley Grass supports animals with anxious and hyperactive behaviours and those with skin conditions.  It is rich in nutrients, particularly magnesium). Her owner then sent us this message:

Not keen on devils claw today so offered barley wheat grass … then offered spirulina… Lucky I put a towel down, specks of green everywhere! … Still wanting marjoram on her back and generally sleeps with either violet leaf/peppermint. 

Willow is twitching now, she hasn’t done that for a while.

Throughout this whole process I was also offering Reiki to Willow to help her body enter into it’s Rest and Repair mode.  She can tend to be an anxious dog who is always on the alert so the Reiki helped her to relax so that her body could heal and so that the oils and other remedies could work effectively.  Several of the remedies she chose were also supporting her on this emotional level.  This is a picture of Willow after one of our Reiki sessions:

In our fifth session, Willow’s owner said that had she not seen it for herself she would not have believed the change in her dog over the last month.! From having been very wobbly on her back legs and walking with a rather odd, wide-legged gait, scuffing her toes, Willow now almost looks normal when she walks.  She had lost some muscle tone but is slowly building this up again as she regains strength and feeling.  She now knows when she needs to go outside for toileting and so there have been no further accidents in the house.  Her owner is overjoyed!  When she’d first been given the diagnosis from the vet she had thought she might soon have to say goodbye to her beloved dog whereas now it seems that Willow has been given a new lease of life!

If you’d like to know more about how these therapies could be used to support an animal in your life please get in touch:

robyn@equenergy.com

07980 669303

For Reiki and META-Health information you can see my website:

www.equenergy.com

For information on Zoopharmacognosy (self selection) see:

www.myanimalmatters.co.uk

 

(You can read the whole article here)

Case study of a dog with a spinal condition (Part 3 of 4)

In the last 2 posts in this series I’ve described a zoopharmacognosy (self selection) session offered by Rachel Windsor-Knott of My Animal Matters to one of my canine clients, Willow.

Having offered all of the remedies that Rachel had sent – of which Willow accepted every single one – we then put each remedy on the floor and watched to see what she would do.  She lay down with her jaw parallel to the Peppermint oil.  Throughout she had kept returning to this cloth and Rachel suspected that, as she was inhaling rather than licking, she was using it for it’s clearing properties, more than as a pain killer.

As Willow was lying there she began to twitch gently, as if she was dreaming, and she did appear to be asleep. (During the session she had also shown blinks, yawns, licking, chewing and stretches as she worked with the oils, processing and releasing).

Rachel recommended continuing to offer this selection to Willow, particularly the Peppermint, Marjoram Sweet and Violet Leaf oils, the Comfrey and Arnica macerates and the Rose water.  She also suggested adding rice bran oil and / or coconut oil* to Willow’s diet to ensure that when she chooses the macerates this is done solely for the herb content rather than the fat.  (Fat is essential for nerves so she might be choosing these remedies for this as well, particularly as she’s on a dry food diet which can result in low levels of healthy fats.  Coconut oil is also antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral so helps with infections.  The vet had said that this is a possible cause for the lesion in Willow’s spine so this oil might be beneficial in this way too.  It is also good for the skin and coat, and supports the thyroid.)

The day after the session Willow’s owner posted this message:

Hey! Just wanted to say – Wow!! Willow’s legs have improved dramatically! After only one session! So I’m very hopeful and can’t wait to continue on with it. 

Less collapsing … she also seems more relaxed and affectionate and her muscles are softer. She is always tense and alert being the alpha dog and protects the house… this morning seems a bit tense/back to normal but no collapsing yet, plus she told us she needed to go outside for a poo (she has been having a lot of accidents so we have to make sure she goes out regularly) so she is definitely feeling her back end and legs again. 

Thanks again! 

Rachel replied: 

That’s amazing. Which makes total sense with the peppermint in particular as it’s able to stimulate new nerve pathways.

Next week I’ll share further information on how things have been progressing for Willow since this session.

 

*Please note that fats should not be offered to dogs who suffer from pancreatitis

 

(You can read the whole article here)