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Dog Safe Distances - Do You Know Yours?

Sally Gutteridge
Distance control empowers our dogs and it empowers us if we understand it and use it properly.

The ability to increase the space between your dog and a potentially scary thing will help your dogs to trust you. This teaches your friend that you are not only there with them but that you have their back. Keeping things at a distance where our dog feels safe, and increasing the distance if we need to, shows our dog that we will do everything we can to keep her safe.

Dogs use distance control as part of their natural communication with each other and with us. They have three definite distances within which they can feel safe. The social distance, flight distance, and finally the critical distance.

Social distance means how close she feels comfortable to others in her peer group. There are certain cut-off signals a dog will offer to another dog or person if they don’t want to interact. A common one is looking away, her ears might shift position slightly, moving only a tiny bit to each side of her head. She might lick her lips or look into the distance. If you are ever approaching your dog and she does these things, she’s asking for space and to adhere to her requests will build her trust in you.

The next distance is more serious and known as flight distance. Try to imagine an invisible bubble around your dog. When she’s in the bubble and all other things are outside it, she’s safe but if the walls to the bubble are breached – particularly by something she finds scary – her stress reaction will begin. Despite it being called flight distance, the dog will always default to their natural flight, freeze, or fight response when their safe space within the bubble is breached.

This is where we are empowered to help our scared dog because we can learn the size of their safety bubble and ensure, as much as possible, that nothing scary penetrates it. This will help her to relax and builds the confidence she so desperately needs. Look out for changes in her outer appearance and body language, work out what could have triggered the change, then get her out of there. If you increase the distance between your dog and the trigger her safety bubble will return to being intact.

If a dog is not able to get away or is forced into the presence of a trigger, she will soon reach her critical distance. For a dog without learned helplessness, this might be shown by a terrified freeze. For a dog with the confidence to use aggression, she is at risk of biting. The critical distance is the point where the dog feels that their life is truly in danger. If the critical distance is breached, the full-on stress reaction occurs, which takes up to 72 hours to dissipate. 

Ask yourself, can you tell when your dog's distances are intact or when something or someone is too close for comfort? 

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